Monday, June 27, 2011

Props for Emotion: The Objective Correlative Unveiled

C. M. McCarthy
In an episode of Family Guy, main character Peter responds to someone calling him a “degenerate” with the following line: “A degenerate, am I? Well, you are a festizio! See, I can make up words too, Sister.” I’m only somewhat embarrassed to admit that this quote popped into my head the first time I heard someone use the term “objective correlative” in a writing workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts. It didn’t help that the person said it too fast, leaving this abashed writer to ask, “What’s an object of Cruella de Vil?”

As it turns out, the objective correlative is neither a Disney antagonist’s prop nor a phrase created to make fledgling writers feel like fools. The objective correlative (O.C.) can be a writer’s best friend, particularly in this precarious world of “Show, But Don’t You Dare Tell!” So what the heck is an objective correlative? T.S. Eliot (author, poet and in this writer’s opinion, a brilliant, brilliant man) investigated the O.C. in his essay, “Hamlet and His Problems.” He wrote that it is “a set of objects […] which shall be the formula of [a] particular emotion.” He goes further to say that the O.C. is “the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art.” That seems a bit extreme, but the O.C. is a goldmine when it comes to illustrating sentiments without spelling them out. 

So what does an O.C. look like? My favorite example is taken from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, wherein the reader cannot escape the main character, Holden’s, red hunting hat. Holden’s focus on the hat makes it an endowed object, but Salinger goes further, using the hat to subtly evoke the pain of Holden’s brother, Allie’s, death. In the beginning, Holden tells the reader, “I’ll tell you the kind of red hair [Allie] had. […] I remember once, […] having a hunch that if I turned around all of a sudden, I’d see Allie. So I did, and sure enough, he was sitting on his bike outside the fence – there was this white fence that went all around the course and he was sitting there, about a hundred and fifty yards behind me, watching me tee off. That’s the kind of red hair he had.” Holden is not over his brother’s death, but instead of dragging down the plot with sad memories, Salinger uses the red hunting hat to keep Allie’s distinguishing feature, and therefore Allie, in the reader’s mind. In essence, the object, a.k.a. the hat, is correlating Holden’s unspoken grief. Hence the objective correlative. 

More than likely, you are already using the O.C. without realizing it. Whenever your character turns from a fight between family members to focus on a crack down the middle of a windowpane, you’re using an O.C. You’re showing that he’s divided without telling: an act which defines that great difference between creating an emotional reaction in the reader and relaying one.

C. M. McCarthy writes fiction for all ages as well as poetry and screenplays. She earned a BA in Creative Writing from Ohio University, a grad certificate in screenwriting from UCLA and a MFA in Writing For Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts (Class of Jan. 2011). If you have any questions or comments about her post or VCFA, you can contact Cori at

Friday, June 24, 2011

Writing in the Negative Space

We are honored to present the first in a series of guest blogs from the prestigious Vermont College of Fine Arts as part of a Blog Initiative “raising awareness for the exciting and innovative MFA writing programs offered at VCFA.” 

Today’s guest blogger is Sherry Shahan.
Sherry Shahan
One day while cleaning out my office I found an old shoebox filled with letters from a friend who was in Vietnam during the mid-1960s. I spent hours rereading the gut-wrenching accounts of his physical and emotional nightmare. I was in my third semester in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program at the time.

Later, I wrote character sketches about other high school friends. I tapped into the conflicting emotions triggered by memories, from happiness (our crazy antics) to rage (over the Vietnam War) and sorrow (teen angst). 

This nontraditional story form was extremely challenging. Fortunately, my advisor was Louise Hawes, an amazing poet. She encouraged me to push the creative envelope. Until then, my novels had all been written in traditional narrative prose.

What began as a stream of consciousness had to be shaped into a story with a compelling beginning, middle, and end. Each character demanded his or her own story arc. Yet each storyline had to be woven seamlessly into the whole. 

I concentrated on simile, metaphor, irony, startling imagery, rhythm and cadence. Sure, all good writing should contain these elements. But I became more aware of them when my writing looked like poetry. 

Fat tits + quick wit
does not = stupidity 
If that’s what you think. 

Pages of the new testament fill my pillow, 
Gospels on a recon in search of a soul. 

These two poems are short; yet say volumes about the emotional state of the characters. Perhaps more than if I’d written them in margin-to-margin prose. 

Theme and subtext. Negative space plays an important role in other art forms as well. The more negative space, the more the object stands out. 

My motel sign: 

To me, this nontraditional form was the most effective way to give readers access to the innermost thoughts of all six characters. Verse mirrors the pulse of adolescent life. Condensed metaphoric language on a single page is a good reflection of their tightly-packed world. Emotions are where teens live.

Purple Daze is set in Los Angeles in 1965. It's a story about war, feminism, riots, love, racism, rock 'n' roll, and friendship. Six high school students share their personal experiences through journal entries, notes, letters, interconnected free verse and traditional poetry.

Sherry Shahan has over 30 books to her credit, fiction and nonfiction. Research has put her inside a dog sled for the 1,049 mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska (Dashing Through the Snow: The Story of the Jr. Iditarod, Mondo), paddling a kayak down a remote fjord (Frozen Stiff, Random House), and on a exposed ridge during a deadly electrical storm (Death Mountain, Peachtree). Shahan, class of 2007, teaches a writing course for UCLA Extension. When not traveling she takes jazz and ballet classes at a local studio. If you have any questions about her post or the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, contact her directly at or you can visit

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Dreaded First Paragraph


by Susan Berger

I know someone, perhaps at Writer’s Day, mentioned that they often completely rewrite the first chapter after they have read their manuscript in its entirety. The comment stuck in my head because I was still not satisfied with the first paragraph of Tasha, the Magnificent which is the mid grade novel I am working on. 

I rewrote Chapter One again last month and took the first five pages to the West Side Schmooze for middle grade critique night. I got some very helpful input but I still didn’t think I had the right place to start the story. 

I decided to format Tasha as an ePub and put it on my iPad. I thought this would force me to read the book as a reader. It worked. (I kept a pad next to me for short notes.)

My conclusion? Under the aegis of Pen and Ink, the book had become good, EXCEPT for the first chapter. However reading it as a reader made me see what I needed to do to fix it. I like my first paragraph much better now.

Here's what I have now. I think it give a better sense of who Tasha is.

“I don’t know. Karate’s not really my thing.” Tasha aimed the paper plane she’d made out of her math homework toward the lunch counter. It soared over three tables and dived bombed the meatloaf. “How bout you come to my house and I’ll show you my magic collection? I got Half Magic for my birthday.”

How do you like your current first paragraph?

For your entertainment and edification, here are ten first paragraphs.  Some from books that have won awards.

1. The statue has got to go. That's my first thought as I prep the living room for Dustin's visit later
tonight. I know I'm the only one who would notice the discriminating eyes of Mom's four-inch Jesus staring down from the mantle. Dustin probably wouldn't look away from my breasts if the room were two feet deep in holy water. Still, I reach for it.

 2. Benny Imura couldn’t hold a job so he took to killing.
It was the family business.  He barely liked his family-and by family he meant his older brother Tom-and he definitely didn’t like the idea of “business.” Or work.  The only part of the deal that sounded like it might be fun was the actual killing.
3.  Now I have to start lying.
While I stare through the windshield at the building my brother lives in. I try to think up a good lie, but nothing comes to mind.  “I was in the neighborhood”? Yeah.  Right.  It’s nineteen hours from Chicago to Albuquerque.  If you drive all night.  If you only stop for Mountain dews and KFC extra crispy.  By the way, KFC closes way too early in Oklahoma.

Sometimes I just know things.
Like when Lou asked me to go on that walk
Down by the reservoir last year
on the last day of eighth grade.
I knew he was going to say
He wanted to break up with me.

5.  There were only two kinds of people in our town.  “The stupid and the stuck,” my father had affectionately classified our neighbors.  “The ones who are bound to stay or too dumb to go.  Everyone else finds a way out.”  There was no question which one he was, but I’d never had the courage to ask why.  My father was a writer and we lived in Gaitlin, South Carolina because the Wates always had, since my great-great-great-great-grand-dad, Ellis Wate, fought and died on the other side of the Santee River during the Civil War. 

 6.  If Sarah hadn’t put the monkey in the bathtub, we might never have to help the monsters get big.  But she did, so we did, which given the way things worked out was probably just as well for everyone on the planet – especially the dead people.

 7.  My dad used to be Abraham Lincoln.  When I was six and learning to read, I saw his initials were A.B.E.  Albert Baruch Edelman.  ABE.  That’s when I knew.
8.  May 1, 1910 Seventeen days till the End of the World.
Earth Will Pass Through Comet’s 24-Million-Mile-Long Tail on May 18

9.  A light breeze blew plumes of sand across the empty schoolyard.  On the other side of a low wall the flat desert stretched out against the horizon.  Over the course of the morning, the dark rectangle this side of the wall would shrink, and by recess would provide just enough shade for children like Akash who didn’t care to play cricket or run after a ball. From his seat by the open window Akash scanned the sky for signs of a rainstorm, for the swollen monsoon clouds that usually built up this time of year before they exploded with thunder and lightning to unleash sheets of rain.  But the breeze only dies and Akash resigned himself to another day of relentless heat.

10. Dusk creeps in and day is done.
      The last few rays of stubborn sun
      Cling to the hilltop, tree and town.
      We wish that we could push it down.

Do You Speak Query

Monday, June 13, 2011

The One That Didn't Win

This short piece was my entry for the 2011 SCBWI Conference Tuition Content. The word prompt was "cinnamon."

Read what people are saying about it:
"Perverse piece."
- Morality Monthly
"Burn Witch! Burn!"
- General Witch-Finder Daily
"Smut, smut, smut. Clearly the author is a danger to teens everywhere."
- National PTA Quarterly
"May the author burn in the Everlasting Fires of Hell for using the Lord's name in vain."
- The Apostate Review

Room 104 at the Reno Deluxe Inn 
by Lupe Fernandez

My t-shirt smells of tangy sweat. I walk bare foot and recheck the bolted hotel door; adjust the curtains, and turn her Bible face down. The air conditioner drones. Behind the bathroom door, she brushes her hair, rubs lotion on herself and sings “Oh happy day/when Jesus walked.” I slip under the bed covers and take my pants off. What if she notices my giant nose pimple and changes her mind? What should I touch on her first? I never learned that in AP Biology. Pulling my pants over my bony legs, I roll out of bed and smooth the sheets. My belly grumbles. I had no appetite when the jazz band went to McDonalds for dinner. The bathroom door opens. Before she clicks off the light, I see her slim, naked body through her dressing gown. 

“Pray with me,” she says. 

We kneel in front of the bed and hold hands. She smells of cinnamon.

“Ms. Castle,” I confess to her, “I don’t how.”

“Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”

“Yes,” I say.

She thanks Him for “delivering the angel of conception” – me. We climb into bed and Ms. Castle hikes up her gown.

Afterward: I'd like to say that no cinnamon was abused during the writing of this short piece.

I attended last month's SCBWI Tri-Regions of Southern California Schmooze: Westside Writers' Schmooze takes on Misfits, Mutts & Bastards 

I was inspired to sketch Room 104 at the Reno Deluxe Inn as a graphic novel.
Ext. Hotel Hallway

Int. Hotel Room - Castle sets mood.
Int. Hotel Room - Teen looks in refrigerator.

Int. Bathroom - Castle gets ready. 

Int. Hotel Room - Teen sits on bed.

Int. Hotel Room - Teen taps feet and turns over Bible.

Int. Hotel Room - Teen and Castle pray.

Int. Hotel Room - Teen and Castle get into bed.

I hate to brag, but I'm no Frank Miller. I'm not even a Miller Lite.

After Afterward: The pen that drew these sketches has been retired.
Edited by K. Kahrs

Monday, June 6, 2011

Buzz and Me

By: Kris Kahrs
(Notice: no adjectives or adverbs were injured during the writing of this post.)

I dropped off my son at school and drove to the supermarket to begin the day’s errands.

“To infinity and beyond,” said a voice in the backseat. It turns out my mother-in-law was right when she said an AED defibrillator would come in handy in the car. My son had left his Buzz Lightyear toy in a predisposing position. Every bump in the road pushed the talk button.

I tried to ignore Buzz, but he was determined to start a conversation. “Be alert. Adventure can come from any direction.”

When I talked to my husband on the phone, he asked, “who’s with you?”

“No one, I’m alone.”

“Whose voice do I hear in the background?”

“Buzz Lightyear. He’s turning out to be a regular ‘Chatty Cathy’.”

“All right Ranger,” chirped Buzz from the backseat, “which direction should we go.”

“O.k. then,” said my hubby hanging up.

At every stop, I would forget to reach into the backseat to turn Buzz over and give us both some peace.

I threw the library books on the back seat and checked my list of things to do. “Mmmm, interesting,” he said, “We’d better take a closer look at this.”

It was inevitable that I began to answer him. “We don’t have time to look at the books now, Buzz. I’ve only got a half hour to get the errands done. Then I have to get home, finish edits for this week’s rewrites, write a blog post, tweet, do a couple Facebook entries and send out at least one publisher query.”

“To infinity and beyond!”

“Yes, it feels like that, but I admire your spunk.”

I wrapped up the errands and returned home, carrying groceries, books, jackets and Buzz into the general destruction that is known on my tax forms as my place of residence. At this point, Buzz got a little judgmental announcing, “Looks like Zurg was here.”

“Oh yeah and your space-ranger-dude bachelor pad is a temple,” I snorted doubtfully.

I sat down at my dining room-table-cum-desk, laid Buzz next to my laptop and set to work. After a quarter hour’s worth of the brain-wave patterns of a cat watching Oprah and no ideas forthcoming, I gave in and decided to ask Buzz for help. I figured he couldn’t be that much different from the I-Ching, or a Magic 8-Ball for that matter, the vocabulary was just as limited.

“Buzz,” I said, “I’m not sure where I’m going with this character. What do you think?”

“Be alert. Adventure can come from any direction.”

I took this to mean that I needed to stay open to the universe. But I needed more detail so I gave it one last effort. “Buzz, where exactly should I go with my main character?”

“To infinity and beyond.” Close enough. I got on with it.

Editor: L. Fernandez