[Note: Please read the previous post in order to understand the following analysis.]
By the time I arrived at the Glades Correctional entrance, the sullen drizzle had turned into a blinding downpour.
The beginning of this chapter (remember to make every chapter a mini-beginning) establishes the “who, what, when and where” of this particular segment of the novel. Obviously, if this were the first chapter of the book, author Sarah Daniels would have to explain much more. Most of the “information plants” are already growing because she seeded them at the beginning. Prior to this chapter, the protagonist, Keri Anders, has explained that she is teaching creative writing workshops at a major felony, maximum holding male correctional facility in Belle Glades, Florida.
In Florida it rains a great deal and these torrential downpours are fierce. To set the scene for this prison incident, a storm is brewing; the skies are gray and it’s gloomy outside, like the atmosphere inside a prison.
The term “correctional facility” is a misnomer… a prison is a prison. Neglect is blatantly evident. Buildings are ugly and crude, the grounds are unkempt and guards often treat the inmates like animals. One gets the message that U.S. prisons are considered wastelands or dumpsters for humans who are locked up in order to keep them from “contaminating” our “clean” society. They are far from correctional or rehabilitative.
The “curtain” opens with two lines of dialogue from one of the inmates:
“We didn't think you'd come tonight.” Bill Williamson, a former journalist, handed me a sheaf of notebook paper.
Daniels is delivering social commentary at the same time she advances the story line. Some of the inmates were educated professionals; “Bill Williamson” was a newspaper reporter who for some reason never disclosed to Keri, had landed in the clink. He was a conscientious student who always delivered his assignments on time. Most of the others did also, but Daniels chose to focus on Bill for the curtain-opening dialogue because she wanted to give the reader additional insight about Keri.
This particular inmate would be perceptive enough to know that a single woman driving alone to teach a creative writing course at a prison 40 miles away would have to be dedicated to her work. She would also have to be a caring individual. The prison was located in a third world area of Florida; on almost every corner was at least one bar and a whorehouse. The entire inner city was considered a red light district. Weather forecasters had predicted a severe thunderstorm.
These details set the stage for high risk and also give Daniels an opportunity to describe the protagonist indirectly, through the eyes of one of the minor characters. Bookmark this technique and use it yourself when describing your characters. “Bill” does all the work for Daniels and also delivers the questions a perceptive reader would be asking: Why would Keri put her life at risk? Why wouldn’t she have called the corrective facility to cancel the class?
Consider the title of the work, The Woman with Qualities. What does that mean? What are those “qualities”? We now have a few more to add to the list.
Also, a bond is created between two professional writers. They both understand what it means to “show up,” or have responsibilities—deadlines, appointments and people depending on them. Bill is a professional journalist. Like Keri, he understands social issues because before he landed in prison, he dealt with them daily. This type of bonding is another excellent way to strengthen the interaction among a novel’s characters at the same time it delivers more information about each of them.
Consider another point as well: the author is a writer and she is teaching creative writing. She is about to teach a creative writing lesson to the inmates (and to the readers). Added to that is the fact that I am using this example to demonstrate various fiction writing techniques to you, the reader of this writing handbook. How many levels of interaction do we now have? Have you lost count?!
“I've been working hard this week.” Joshua Franklin, a young fellow who was serving forty years, placed his work on top of Bill's. Joshua was a natural, but in school had only gone as far as seventh grade; then he was out on the streets picking up extra cash to support the alcoholic habits of his father, a sick mother and four other siblings.
“And you, Judson?” I nodded at the scrawny dark-haired boy standing apart from the rest.
The dialogue from Joshua Franklin conveys Daniels’ faith in humanity. Prisoners are not “bad” people, she tells us. In fact, there are no “bad” people. There are just people. Notice how subtly an opinion is slipped into this fiction work.
Joshua’s term is for forty years. Already we can interpret his story. Is there hope for him when he gets out? Forty years is a long time. How old will he be? What shape will he be in after living in a prison for forty years? He came from a dysfunctional family and is often referred to in our society as a “dead end kid.”
What was I, the author, saying about society? About The American Dream? Daniels uses one of the characters to drive home a point she wants to make, viz., that many children in this country are not given a fair chance. Often they end up on the streets trying to find a way to survive. At least a prison is a roof over their heads.
The story moves on to describe another inmate; this one provides friction or counterpoint for the unfolding story (and he will return surrealistically later on in the novel). Notice that this inmate (Judson) is standing apart from the rest. With that statement, Daniels is planting the fact that either Judson does not feel he is a part of this group or he is anti-social… or both:
“I doubt if it’s ‘creative,’” he sneered. “Furthermore, he added, glancing around at his fellow inmates, “it’s all about death, and some of it’s pretty gory.”
“I've been told I'm crazy.” Judson's eyes glittered, “and I've been told I have a death-wish.”
"So that's what you're writing about?" I inquired.
“I'd like to see some of your work. Poems? Stories?”
“Are you sure?” He eyed me incredulously. “It's terrible stuff.”
“Yes, I'm sure.”
Thus far he’d only handed in three innocuous poems about poisoned prison food and one about Jesus’ second coming which, he said, was an orgasm; and a ballad about a woman who had drowned her infant son. Then, during the third session suddenly he stood up, strode to the front of the room and delivered the story of his life. He had been an adopted child. At the age of seven he'd been lifted up by his angry stepfather and hurled through a plate glass window while his stepmother passively watched from the other room. In the middle of his story, tears started to roll down his face. By the time he finished, he was crying.
This segment is loaded. We have a life story told in a few sentences, with a full character description of a person who feels like an outcast because he was abused as a child. The dialogue describes the character; Daniels requires no other technique for conveying information or character description. This is one of the easiest and best ways to fold dialogue into a fiction work.
Judson feels he has no value, no reason to be alive. Why is he here? Notice again how Daniels’ use of the color gray is appropriate for every aspect of this scene. Hopelessness hangs like a dark cloud over these inmates. One of their only rays of sunlight is the bit of joy and encouragement they may receive from a writing teacher who shows up once a week to spend a couple of hours with them.
Notice how Daniels has also neatly slipped another ray of hope into this chapter. Creativity—creating something new and different that a person can be proud of—can provide a reason to live. Circumstances may be horrible right now, but the future could be different… (It’s up to us to make them different and to make a difference… that is exactly why Keri felt it was so important to teach these “creative writing” classes.)
Judson finds it hard to believe that someone would care to read something he’s written. He acts and feels like a stray cat. No one wants him and yet, more than anything else, he wants to be loved.
Judson slapped a sheaf of paper on the desk. “Here. This is for you, if you really want to read it and if you don't like it, I don't blame you. No one would ever publish it.”
“We'll see,” I answered.
Just as we'd begun to go over some of the papers, a bolt of lightning bounced on the table in front of me. The lights flickered and heavy rain pounded on the roof.
Keri gives Judson hope. The internal message is to inspire the reader to have hope. Regardless of the circumstances, don’t give up. Find that ray of sunshine inside, and live there. That light could be imagination or an imaginary friend, as it often is for a child who is lonely and afraid.
And now the weather intervenes. It was Daniels’ intention to make this thunderstorm as fierce and frightening as possible. In order to enter the building, Keri has to pass through clearance and she is then locked into the classroom. Only the guards can release her. Did it not cross her mind that the power might go out? If it hadn’t occurred to her before now, Daniels builds the tension by adding a few touches, e.g., the flickering of lights to indicate the possibility of a power outage.
Another bolt raced up and down my spine. I shivered as it spread through my shoulders and back. Instant thunder landed in my stomach. What if the lights went out and didn't come back on? Was the schoolroom building on the main generator, and was there an emergency backup one for power in case something happened?
Bravely I continued. “As I've stressed before, and I can't repeat it enough times, if you don't have strong characters, characters you believe in yourself--real individuals who are gutsy, interesting, exciting--wrestling with conflicts the reader can identify with--if you don't have believable, red-blooded characters, your readers are going to yawn and turn on the TV.”
More lightning and thunder. This time when the lights flickered they went off for a moment before coming back. “And then love,” I faltered, breathing deeply. “And a sense of humor,” feeling a release inside.
My voice soared. "If you don't love your characters for who and what they are, regardless of their shortcomings, how can you expect your readers to feel anything at all for them? Let's face it, we were put here on this planet in order to create challenges and then find solutions for them that will prove to us how powerful we are. If you can't laugh and cry and transfer your full range of feelings to your characters--if you can't transmit this--your work won’t—”
Here, the author uses one of Shakespeare’s favorite techniques: a play within a play. Daniels (Keri) delivers a lesson on creative writing at the same time she is experiencing a serious threat to her very existence (another version of the Scheherazade story). Every word you write is life or death. Words have value; everyone (you, the inmates, the author, the protagonist) has value.
Added to this is the larger picture of Keri Anders reaching into her psyche to find value for herself. Thus, from this “web page” of a story, she returns to the “landing page” or home page of her “website”—to her “self”–The Woman with Qualities.
Daniels portrays a window within a window within a window… ad infinitum. The story moves simultaneously in several dimensions.
The opening sentences of this paragraph are written in first person narrative, using a visceral description in order to transmit the same feeling to the reader: “Another bolt raced up and down my spine. I shivered as it spread through my shoulders and back. Instant thunder landed in my stomach.”
When you write it, feel it! As the author of this novel, I did indeed experience a bolt of lightning traveling up my spine when I wrote that passage. I was terrified! And since this incident actually happened, I was reaching into my emotional memory bank and pulling out that lightning bolt-feeling. Remember, the goal of the author is to transmit the full impact of their own raw “gut feelings” to the reader.
You will live through every character you write about and develop. They are all versions of you. Remember, a fiction work is just a concoction of words that you cooked up on the computer or on paper, emerging from your imagination. When you feel it at the deepest level, it will fly out from you and land in the solar plexus, heart, mind and soul of your reader.
At the same time Daniels delivers this visceral experience, she moves the story ahead in the mind of the protagonist, who is now very frightened and playing the “what if” game. Tension builds… and that is one of the techniques you will use frequently when developing fiction. Time compression or tension is one of the best ways to keep the reader riveted to the story line.
In the midst of fear and tension, Daniels is also delivering an important message about fiction writing: love your characters. Love your life. Love these inmates.
At the same time Keri is terrified out of her mind and imagining the worst: no power, prison riots, rape, murder, etc., etc., she says to the inmates: “Let's face it, we were put here on this planet in order to create challenges and then find solutions for them. All of this is a test or a way of toughening ourselves up so we will earn our certificate of self-empowerment.”
This is exactly what Keri is telling herself, and exactly what Daniels wants to convey to the reader.
If you can't laugh and cry and transfer your full range of feelings to your characters--if you can't transmit this--your work won’t—”
I jumped. The lightning was right here in the room. The lights flickered several times in succession but miraculously held.
No one seemed to notice. All eyes were glued on me. They were hanging on every word I said. “… grip the attention of your readers and hold them spellbound. Yes! You want to cast a spell over your readers,” I continued excitedly. "But you have to love yourself first, before you can begin to love others. You must really love the characters you’re developing. Let them live through you. Let them feel your loneliness, despair, desperation, depression… put all your energy into it. Then and only then, will you have the true satisfaction of being a writer.”
At the point when Keri starts to deliver her soliloquy: “If you can't laugh and cry and transfer your full range of feelings to your characters--if you can't transmit this--your work won’t--” the situation becomes a “Scheherazade” moment of life or death.
A terrible storm is brewing outside, but inside, within the prison walls, no one seems to notice. They no longer care if they are behind bars. “Inside” their minds and hearts, all is well. They are liberated by the words of the protagonist, who has transported them somewhere else, away from their misery, away from their grim day-to-day confinement. They now have something to look forward to: mental and emotional liberation and a chance to create something new, every moment; moment by moment.
In this classroom, in the next instant and forever, these inmates do have something to look forward to: the next word, the next sentence, the next page of writing.
And then that magic word floats above all other words: love.
Love conquers all.
To be a writer, to love to write, to love to develop characters you love and that you fall in love with—what could be more exhilarating?! (“What does it matter that we are in prison?” And what is “prison” anyway, but a mind state? What does anything matter in that moment? We know what love is!) Daniels’ message to the writer and reader of fiction is clear: love your characters!
To elaborate further on this message that “love conquers all”: No one can take away your freedom if you live deeply, intensely and passionately. External circumstances are only the backdrop or setting for the play that’s going on inside.
No one can take away your imagination; you are not a victim. In fact, you are luckier than most because you know how to love and you love the characters you have developed yourself, that belong to you and that live inside you. No one can take away those characters. “My thoughts and feelings and imagination are free!”
Daniels delivers this message through Keri’s speech. “You have to love first…”
No one stirred. “Do you think just because you ended up in prison that God and everyone else has given up on you?” I cried, my eyes circling the room. “It isn't true. Don't you dare even let those thoughts enter your mind anymore. Otherwise you will never be able to create anything. The creating goes on inside, where there's light and joy and freedom--and hope. This life inside has nothing to do with what's happening anywhere else.”
The thunder drowned out my words. As I repeated the last statement, they stood to give me a round of applause.
By the end of the session the storm had passed.
Keri is telling the inmates: Just because you ended up in prison doesn’t mean you have to see yourself as a victim, or become one. The inner life is always where the action is.
The inner life is what really matters. A good fiction writer knows that.
Instinctively I knew all was well because my fear had been replaced by love.
The narrator delivers the final line that summarizes or synthesizes the kernel of wisdom that Daniels illustrates in this chapter.
Then it is time for the curtain to close on this little vignette. “The storm passes” and “all’s well that ends well.”
Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. --D.H. Lawrence