Caroline Bock-BEFORE MY EYES
First some thoughts on
“Character is the very life of fiction. Setting exists so
that the character has someplace to stand, something that can help define him,
something he can pick up and throw, if necessary, or eat, or give to his
girlfriend. Plot exists so the character can discover himself (and in the
process reveal to the reader) what he, the character is really like: plot
forces the character to choice and action, transforms him from a static
construct to a lifelike human being making choices or reaping the rewards. And theme
exists only to make the character stand up and be somebody: theme is elevated critical language for what the
character’s main problem is.” (On
Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner, p. 54)
On the ‘”accuracy of
the writer’s eye”
“….whether you’re writing about people or dragons, your
personal observation of how things happen in the world – how character reveals
itself can turn a dead scene into a vital one…. Good advice might be: Write as
if you were a movie camera. Get exactly what is there. All human beings see
with astonishing accuracy, not that they can write it down…. Getting it down
precisely is all that is meant by ‘the accuracy of the writer’s eye.’ Getting
down what the writer really cares about – setting down what the writer himself
notices, as opposed to what any fool might notice – is all that is meant by the
originality of the writer’s eye. Every human being has original vision….” (p. 71, Gardner).
Pixar story artist
Emma Coats tweeted a series of “story basics” here are her highlights on
#1 You admire a character for trying more than for their
-- Simplify. Focus. Combine character. Hop over detours.
You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
-- What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw
the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
-- Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might
seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
-- Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great;
coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
--What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the
character. What happens if
they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
--If you were your character, in this situation, how would
you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
1) Take a simple act, say unbuttoning a shirt, pulling on a
sock, pouring a cup of coffee or milk, and write it in slow motion, that is,
give it two hundred words. Don’t automatically lapse into hyperbole (and thereby
the comic), but think of the effect: make it matter-of-fact, sinister, gross,
full of touch, feel, sight, and smell.
Discuss how the manner in which the character performs the
act shapes his character.
2) Write two hundred words on a character entering a space
(a car, a classroom, a kitchen, a backyard, etc). Inventory all the sense of
the space as she moves toward the one thing that she desperately wants in that
space. Take your time and describe in detail what the character sees, hears,
smells, senses and knows—and doesn’t know—about the surroundings.
Discuss how the character’s perceptions or point of view,
and motivation or want, shapes this character.
from Ron Carlson Writes A Story by
I've written two novels with multiple points of view... if you haven't read them yet, consider BEFORE MY EYES and LIE.
FLASH FICTION: "Read On" -- You'll ruin your eyes, she said, like your mother, and god knows you have her eyes. She had to wear glasses.Cat's eyeglasses.She'd never wear those glasses around the boys. And here my Nana offered up another one of her sayings—about boys and girls and glasses, which went up there with the lecture on your body is a temple. The book, a library book, cradled in my arms. You'll ruin your eyes, she continued. With books. With reading. And look at me, no man likes a girl smarter than him. Look at me. Put down that book.
------- Anybody who knows me, knows that I didn't book down that book or any other. Read on!
Wham! Write A Story!!
(a story about a story for adults as well as kids)
Wham! Will writes. Ka-zooom!! And our hero flies off. The end.
He adds a half dozen exclamation points to his ‘Wham’!!!!!! and three more to
“I’m done,” he
says in a very loud voice. “I’ve written the greatest story ever!”
But Lara, his best friend, doesn’t agree. His story isn’t
done. It hasn’t even begun.
“Yes, it is! See I wrote ‘the end.’"
“You don’t have a beginning,” says Lara. “Where’s the ‘Once
upon a time’ or ‘it was a dark and stormy night?’”
“I have “Wham!' With an exclamation point.”
“Okay, you can start with wham! But something has to happen next. You
have to introduce the setting or the characters. Then something has to happen to the characters. Also, you’re
using a lot of exclamation points!!!”
“Exclamation points look like soldiers, and I like them. But what’s
the setting? Why do I need that?”
“Where the story takes place. The setting is also about when it
takes place. For example, does it take place now? Or in the past? Or in the
“I want it to take place here, Lara. On the page.”
“You have to take it off the page. Bring it into reader’s
mind. My mind.”
“Then, how about at school?”
“What kind of school? You have to be specific. The more details in a story, the
better the story. An elementary school? A big school? The world’s biggest
“The world’s most gigantic elementary school. A billion and
twenty-nine kids go there.”
“I’m glad I don’t go there.”
“It’s my setting,” says Will.
Lara stretched across the white sheet of paper, her
character aching to go someplace. To do something or to want something—the
story needed a plot.
“Okay, so you have the setting. Who’s in the story? Who’s
this story about? Is there a main character—other than us— that does something?
That propels all the action and stuff forward.”
“What happens next? That’s the plot. You have to ask
yourself what happens to your characters?”
Will underlines with his newly sharpened yellow pencil a
line where he says that his superhero flies off to fight the evil alien mutants,
right before ‘the end.’
“Let’s back up. Is that your main character? A superhero? Not me?”
“I don’t write books about girls.”
“Today you will, or I’m leaving.”
“I guess I could add you but only as a secondary character.”
“Forget it then. This story ends now.”
“No, wait!!! Lara!!! You can be a main character too.”
“A superhero too?”
“Yes, a superhero, too.”
“What’s my name in the story?”
“Can’t you just be Lara?”
“What’s the other superhero’s name?”
“He has a name,” said Will, clutching his pencil even
“You didn’t include it.”
“But I know the name.”
“And I only know what you write on the page, Will, and what
I read. So what’s his name? What does he look like? What is he thinking? Seeing? Touching? Feeling? Use all of your senses to describe him—and me.”
Will put his pencil down on the lined notebook paper.
“That’s okay. You are going to have to edit and revise this
story—every writer does that. But hey, tell me, what does this other hero want?
What do I want?”
“I don’t know. I never know what you want, Lara!”
“I want to save the world, of course. Ka—zooom!! Don’t all
heroes want to save the world?”
Will snatches up his pencil and scribbles that down: save
the world. Ka—zooom!!.
“What obstacles do we face? What decisions do we make? All this
tumult is about something called: Plot. We have to have stuff happen to us.
Challenges. What helps us or stops us from doing our job or getting what we
want or, in this story, saving the world? Start at the beginning, again. You
can do this. You can write your own heroes, Will.”
“Can I use exclamation points?”
“Maybe just one or two,” said Lara laughing with Will, and
with that Lara ka-zoomed off the page.
“Wham!” dashed off Will, beginning his story, again....
My brother Mark creates art from heart
pine lumber in his studio in Ballston Spa, New York. The studio was once a barn
that once shoed horses and repaired buggies. There are nicks for blacksmith
tools and for the horseshoes in planks and rafters. He paints his art, some of
it furniture, some of it paintings, the colors of the earth— brushed browns,
and deep reds and yellows, allies of zinnias and
sunflowers. Mark is a gentle giant of a guy with a beard going grey and retro
glasses, reminiscent of the glasses our father wore all his life, and I wonder
if he wears them because they are cool and hip, or because they remind him of
our father, who was neither?
The wind stirs in through the open
windows, and the studio is a mixed scent of green wood and dog or horse and
wildflowers from his plantings out front— and bad eggs, the sulfur from the
springs that feed this upstate New York town. The art is substantial— a fish, three-and-a
-half feet long, a carved rooster, its tail flaring, weighing four or five
times the weight of a living rooster; the smooth flesh-like wood of a horse painting
over four or five hands high. I wait to hear the rooster crow or the horse rear
back or the fish, let’s call it salmon, splash out of its river toward to the
sun, returning to spawn in the riverbed were it was born. The light dapples in and
plays with the art.
brother and I are only together for a few days until we return to our own,
lonelier lives. On Sunday night, we flick on an old movie in his loft above the
studio. “How Green Was My Valley,” won the Oscar in 1941 famously beating out
“Citizen Kane,” is on Turner Classic Movies. As we watch, we both agree: our
father would have liked this John Ford movie about a Welsh family of coalminers,
a workingman’s tribute— and then there’s the ending. He would have hated the
ending. He liked movies in which the good guys win: the American beat the
Nazis; the average guy overcomes odds to find love and happiness. I don’t want
to ruin it, but the father in the move dies tragically in his son’s arms, close
enough to what happened with Mark and my father that we can’t talk when it’s
over that we sit there on his couch in the dark next to one another, the
silence running through us.
we spent long summer days at our games: kickball, ring-o-leavio, red light
green light one-two-three, one-two-three. We were four latchkey children without
keys, the house on Daisy Farms Drive left forever unlocked by our father since
it was easier not to dole out a key to each of the four of us kids.
were always racing inside and outside, shouting for one another—our father booming
at us: What the hell are you doing? Do
you think you live in a barn? Close the door— playing freeze tag or hide
and seek on languid summer nights until it was dark, and we could no longer
hide or seek —Get in the house! You want
to get killed by a car playing in the street at this time of night?
another threat or two, we’d come running, shouting too. He’d scuff our heads,
his form of love, which we will never forget. My father never understood how he
got a son, an artist, and a daughter, a writer, but he always had the same
advice for the four of us —the way you
make your bed, is the way you’ll sleep in it—which we didn’t understand until
Finding Inspiration… Writing
-Is there one locale (like my
brother’s studio) in which all your senses feel alive? Write about that place.
-Do you have a sibling that
inspires you? Write a short scene you and him or her as an adult… and then another
with you as a child.
IF You Want To Visit...
Born on this date, July 3rd 1883,into a
German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, Franz Kafka is arguably one of the greatest German writers of the modern era. The hero of his most famous short story "The Metamorphosis"— Gregor Samsa— wakes up and is a bug, a dung beetle, trapped in his shell and in his bedroom by circumstances beyond him.
If a situation is “Kafkaesque“—— it’s nightmarish—— there is a pervasive menace——sinister, impersonal forces at work,
the feeling of loss of identity, the evocation of guilt and fear, and the sense
of evil that permeates the twisted and often absurd logic of ruling power. In short, a sense of being trapped by
unknown, irrational powers...that’s Kafkaesque. Sound familiar?
Kafka wrote to Max Brod, his friend and editor, in an undated letter:"I
usually solve problems by letting them devour me."
I often feel that his writing devours its readers, drawing us into the mind of the grotesque, the twisted, and at the same time, offering us up the humanity of the characters.
Overall, Kafka had a dark view of the world. Acclaimed writer and literary critic Vladimir Nabokov, wrote and lectured extensively about Kafka. He notes on THE METAMORPHOSIS: "Its clarity, its precise
and formal intonation in such striking contrast to the nightmare matter of his
tale. No poetical metaphors ornament his stark black-and-white story. The
limpidity of his style stresses the dark richness of his fantasy. Contrast and
unity, style and matter, manner and plot are most perfectly integrated." There's an amazing youtube video of Nabokov lecturing on Kafka:
Until his death in 1924 at age 40 of TB, Kafka wrote largely in obscurity, and left behind instructions to Brod to destroy his works. Thankfully, Brod didn't follow directions.
So what are you reading for?
Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote?That was the question radio host and interview extraordinaire Diane Rehm asked today on her WAMU/NPR radio show. I was at my desk, working, writing, and my third grade poem from Mrs. Murano's class, at George M. Davis Elementary School in New Rochelle, NY, popped into my head. As far as I remember, it is my first poem, and I wrote it at age eight. Impulsively, I tweeted it to her-- and she read it on the air! It's right near the top of the show. (click here for link) And here it is too:
In the woods
where there are
rigid, rustling leaves,
I stand there
I've gone on to write and publish more,including my new young adult novel,BEFORE MY EYES,(St.Martin's Press, 2014)which has one of the main characters, Claire, age 17, writing poetry, which is featured in the novel.
Do you remember your first poem?
Warning! More thoughts on having a friend who’s an
-You will be asked to come to a reading. Wearing black is
always appropriate. Saying how whatever she reads is “moving” will work well
for most books.
-If you haven’t bought a copy of her novel, she will expect
you to buy one and she will sign it for you. Or, you can say you have read it
on your kindle or nook or Smartphone. You will not have to say that you only
read the free excerpt.
-You will find out that she’s often depressed and she will make
a bad joke about ending the way Sylvia Plath (head in gas oven) Hemingway did
(his own shotgun). You will not think this is funny and neither will she, even
though, she will say it is only a temporary condition, this darkness and
despair. It’s only until she starts writing again, and then, on occasion, when
she writes, and afterwards, a postpartum depression.
-You will ask if she has started her next novel, trying to
distract her, trying to encourage her—and she will say she is done writing
novels, nobody buys books, nobody reads—and you will be secretly relieved, you
will think that you will have your old friend back until the day you call and
she is excited once again, happy even. She has started a new work. She can’t
talk about it. It’s too early, too new, too fresh. She just has to write. You will
say you understand even you don’t because you are good friend and you know by
now that writers need good friends.
--Caroline Bock is the author of the new young adult novel: BEFORE MY EYES St. Martin's Press) available everywhere print and ebooks are sold.
If you have a friend who’s an author, be prepared:
She will expect you to read her new novel,even when you say
you the last novel you read was last summer—that one about billionaire sex or
vampires, though you don’t want to admit this to your friend, who has written a
serious literary novel.
She will say that you don’t have to read it and really mean—she
wants you to buy her novel.
She will confide that she prefers you buy it at an
independent bookstore,and you will not know what she means.You haven’t been to
a bookstore since you had to buy your mother a Mother’s Day present two years
ago. Whatever you read appears on the screen you also play games on and
sometimes answer a text or an email or as a last resort:a phone call.
And then when you do buy this novel,because you are a very
good friend, she will ask you,“Have you read it? And what you do think?” Since
the last time you had to report on a novel was in college or high school, you
will deflect her questions with, “how are the sales?” and she will shrug your
question off and persist on wanting to know what you think about her novel.
And then when you tell you love it,especially the opening
scene, she will ask you about the end.You will have to say you loved it too,
even if you skipped to the end and read only the last line, (hint: this English
major trick will save you much persistent questioning from the writer).
After being relieved for passing this test,your author
friend will ask if you will write an online review, even though you haven’t
written anything about a novel since high school or college, and barely write
anything longer than a text these days.
You’ll start thinking that having this friend is way too
much work, if you haven’t already.
But somehow, guiltily,since you were once an English or
liberal arts major too, you will compliment her on the complexity of the story
once again, thinking that this will get you out of actually writing anything.But she will nudge you: Amazon only requires twenty measly words for a review.Certainly, you can write twenty words about anything, including her novel, you will
So later, while staring at the screen, you will wonder how
anyone writes anything, how did your friend write an entire novel of words
strung together into sentences baked into paragraphs, resulting in a story with
living, breathing characters, which the parts you read were really pretty good,
especially that twist, so unexpected, a fictional dream, you remember that
phrase from somewhere, and maybe you’ll even finish her novel someday.
You will turn off your screen and sit there in the dark,
thinking that if you could only think of a story, and write it down, you could
be a writer too.
Caroline Bock is the author of the new young adult novel,
I own a cat.
However, I wrote a new novel, BEFORE MY EYES, with a
dog, a blind dog, named King, as a key character. He “sees” what others
can’t—particularly about his owner, 17-year-old Max Cooper, who is struggling
at the end of a long, hot summer.
Not only do I own a cat, but as an adult, I have only owned
a dog, a puppy, named Goldie, for three days, (and three very long nights),
until my husband and I realized that we weren’t ready for a puppy. We weren’t
ready for children either, but we were really not ready to take care of a
puppy. We were in our mid-20s and barely able to take care of ourselves.
We wouldn’t have children until sixteen years into our
marriage, and we would never have another dog. Over the years, we became
committed cat people, specializing in bruiser cats—big, bold, neutered male
cats—with old man names such as Marvin and Shelton.
Yet I wrote a second young adult novel in which the blind
dog metaphorically saves one character’s life, and is a key part in literally
saving others. I based his character on my brother’s dog, who is one of the
smartest and most empathetic of creatures, and who is also a black Labrador.
The reader reaction to King has been strong and
overwhelmingly positive. So I’ve
been thinking about the reasons. A dog belongs to family in a way that a cat does
not bother himself with being. In
a novel, a dog can be taken outside, can be the excuse for a walk (this happens
twice in my novel), can be critical to the play on a soccer field (also a key
scene), and can express warnings, fears, love—all of which King does in BEFORE
Cats, frankly, can’t be bothered with humans much of the
time; they aren’t anyone’s cipher but utterly unto themselves, at least the
cats, I’ve known. As Mark Twain noted, “If man could be crossed with the cat it
would improve the man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” On the other hand, Twain also looked
highly on dogs, “Heaven goes by favor; if it went by merit, you would stay out
and your dog would go in.” At the end of the day, I find favor in both cats and
dogs, sometimes too, over man.
This time around I wrote about a heroic dog, a blind dog,
named in King in BEFORE MY EYES—a novel about teens, mental illness and gun
violence—appropriate for teen ages 14 and above, and adults of all ages. Read
the book and find out why readers are rooting for this novel—and for King.
P.S. Are you a dog or cat person? What is your favorite dog or cat in literature?
This is devastating. I just read The New Yorker interview with Peter Lanza;it's the first
insight into the teen--and Newtown murderer--Adam Lanza from his surviving parent.
At the very end of the piece, his father reveals that he wished his son was never born,"...Peter declared
that he wished Adam had never been born, that there could be no remembering who he was outside of who he
became.'That didn’t come right away. That’s not a natural thing, when you’re
thinking about your kid. But, God, there’s no question. There can only be one
conclusion, when you finally get there. That’s fairly recent, too, but that’s
totally where I am.'”
But still, I have to ask the same question that drove me to write the character of Barkley and his parents in my young adult novel, BEFORE MY EYES
. Why didn't Peter Lanza
"see" what was going on with his son? The article does go into some gripping detail about what he--and his ex-wife,who was murdered by Adam, did try to do -- but it was not enough.None of it was enough for all those teachers and children who were murdered.
young adult novel
about gun violence, mental illness, and three fragile teens -- and their
parents-- because I couldn't get out of my head the question: Why? And I couldn't stop thinking what do the people--friends, co-workers, and parents around these troubled teens know -- and what do they choose not to know? My novel is just out a few weeks but already people are debating how I
depicted the characters-- did I go too far? not far enough?
reading this New Yorker
story, what I want to do today: hug my children, talk
with them, make sure they are okay.