Things you can learn from a narrative

Original cover of Huckleberry FinnGreat lives can be lived anywhere.  Hogwarts School. Macomb, Alabama.  On the Orient Express.  On a raft on the Mississippi River.

Life usually works out.  Elizabeth Bennett marries Fitzwilliam Darcy.  Brian Robeson gets rescued from the wilds of Canada.  Phileas Fogg wins his bet.

If not, wait for a sequel.  ScarlettLittle House on the PrairieDouble Fudge.

Odd names won’t hold you back.  Farley Drexel Hatcher.  Hercule Poirot.  Huckleberry Finn.  Jeeves.

It’s good to be odd, to be complex, to be eccentric.  Sherlock Holmes.  Junie B. Jones.  Huck Finn.  Anna Karenina.

Secondary characters can be fascinating.  Mercutio.  Mrs. Malaprop. Severus Snape.  Grover.

original cover of Sherlock HolmesThe best characters are not perfect.  Jay Gatsby.  Tom Jones.  Ebenezer Scrooge.  Lady Brett Ashley.  Scout.

When things go wrong, hang in there.  After all, tomorrow is just another day.

Unlocking the mystery of writing a good novel

I am not a fan of murder mysteries, but the books of a few murder mystery writers do attract me because their books are great literature.  One of those mystery writers is Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), the creator of Philip Marlow, the Los Angeles detective of the 1930’s and 1940’s, played by Humphrey Bogart in films.

Chandler’s first book, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939.  It was followed by others including Farewell My Lovely in 1940, The Little Sister in 1949, and The Long Goodbye in 1953.  These books are noted as much for their style as for their mystery novel qualities.

Why are these books so good?  What can we, as writers, learn from them?

The protagonist, Philip Marlow, talks to the reader. A first person point of view gives us insight into the thoughts of the detective, why he acts the way he does.  Many great novels are in first person—Huck Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, for example.  A first person POV can allow us into the mind of a character naturally without a need for dialog.  “You could know Bay City a long time without knowing Idaho Street.  And you could know a lot of Idaho Street without knowing Number 449,” Marlow thinks.

Marlow, though highly intelligent, is an ordinary person whom readers can identify with. He needs to make money, so he needs to work, sometimes taking jobs which he later regrets.  He is not a stuffy patrician.  He lacks a college education, but he is street-wise.  He is a person from a middle class social strata.  “I put Orfamay Quest’s twenty hard-earned dollars in an envelope and wrote her name on it and dropped it in the desk drawer.  I didn’t like the idea of running around loose with that much currency on me.”

Marlow thinks in figures of speech, using metaphors and similes as easily as Shakespeare’s Mercutio uses puns. Some are outlandish and humorous but others are discreet and insightful.  “To say goodbye is to die a little.”

Marlow’s dialog is witty.  “And now, Mr. Marlowe?”  “You do remember me?”  “I believe so.”  “Do we take up where we left off–or have a new deal with a clean deck?”

Chandler’s prose is like Hemingway’s. “I laid [the pencil] down in the tray on the desk and dusted off my hands.  I had all the time in the world.  I looked out of the window.  I didn’t see anything.  I didn’t hear anything.”  Subject, verb, direct object.  Few adjectives.  Fewer adverbs.  Plain prose.

Marlow has a sense of humor, sometimes ironic, sometimes droll, and he makes us aware of it. Few paragraphs pass without drawing a smile to our faces.  “There was a sad fellow over on a bar stool talking to the bar tender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream.”

Marlow is single and attracted to beautiful women. Today his thoughts and comments sound misogynistic, but he is typical of male characters from the 30’s and 40’s.  That mindset that women exist primarily to tempt men leads him to underestimate some female characters and to miss some clues, which he acknowledges.  “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class.  From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

Chandler assumes readers are sophisticated, so he might  not explain every point. This can bring pleasure to a reader who can infer the causes for plot twists.

Marlow’s imperfect; he doesn’t always capture the murderer.  He eventually figures out the culprit, but sometimes he allows a justice outside of the law to triumph.  This kind of not-so-neat ending–a murky morality–gives readers something to think about long after the reading is done—and a reason to reread.

Chandler instills a sense of place in the Philip Marlow novels. Marlow knows LA as well as Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw knows New York.  LA with its environs almost serves as a character.  “I drove east on Sunset but I didn’t go home.  At LaBrea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down on to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino.”  Chandler’s attention to detail leads us to trust him about other things.

Chandler also instills a sense of time.  Marlow’s sexist thoughts, his chain smoking, his suits and ties, the kind of car he drives—all of these portray the 30s and 40’s.

Marlow is honorable, returning money if he hasn’t earned it and walking away from drunk women. “If you’re not tough it’s hard to survive in this world; and if you’re not kind then you don’t deserve to survive.”

Treat yourself to a master writer sometime and read Raymond Chandler.  Read for the pleasure of a great novel, and then go back and see how he does it.

Add details

Students write in generalities rather than with precise detail.  Yet it is detail that enhances writing.

Take, for example, this general sentence:  The dog barked at the cat.  See how it changes when we add details.

Adding numbers:  The dog barked at the single cat.

Adding dates, days, seasons:  Just as the sun was setting, the dog barked at the single cat.

Adding proper nouns, names:  Just as the sun was setting, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding places:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding stories:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at  Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the garbage truck this morning.

Sensory information, figures of speech:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang barked at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the careening garbage truck this morning.

Specific verbs:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang growled at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost crushed by the careening garbage truck this morning.

What are details?

  • numbers, %, time
  • dates, days, seasons, eras
  • proper nouns
  • names
  • places
  • stories
  • direct quotes
  • thoughts
  • facts
  • for examples
  • sensory information
  • description
  • specific verbs
  • figures of speech

What states require cursive to be taught in schools?

In 2010 the Common Core State Standards dropped cursive handwriting as a subject to be taught in US schools.  Despite that, several states have either passed laws requiring cursive instruction, or have included cursive instruction and mastery in state standards.  Those states* are

Alabama—Lexi’s Law requires students to be able to write legibly in cursive by the end of third grade.

Arizona—Students begin to learn cursive in kindergarten and are expected to be proficient by the end of sixth grade.

Arkansas—Cursive must be taught in public schools by the end of third grade.

California—Cursive is taught in third grade.

Florida—Cursive is taught in third, fourth and fifth grades.

Georgia—Cursive is taught in third and fourth grade.

Louisiana—Public and charter schools must begin teaching cursive by third grade and must incorporate it in the curriculum through 12th grade.  The law was introduced when a surveyor told a Republican state legislator that he could not find young people who could read notes on old land documents.

Maryland—Cursive is taught in third, fourth and fifth grades.

Mississippi—cursive is taught in third through eighth grades.

Ohio—Kindergarteners must begin to write in cursive and be able to write legibly by the end of fifth grade.

North Carolina—Students must be able to write legibly in cursive by the end of fifth grade.

Oklahoma—Cursive is taught in third and fourth grades.

South Carolina—State law requires students write legibly in cursive by the end of fifth grade.

Tennessee—By state law, students are required to be able to write legibly in cursive.  The State Department of Education decides when students are instructed in cursive.

Texas—Second graders will learn how to write cursive letters; third graders will learn to write cursive words; and fourth graders will complete their assignments in cursive, beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.

Virginia—Cursive is taught in third, fourth and fifth grades.

West Virginia—Cursive is taught in second, third and fourth grades.

*according to the Southern Regional Education Board, October 2016, and other sources

How to better use prewriting organizers

Organizing writing before the first sentence is written is a sure way for students to improve their writing.  Yet many students (most students?) don’t do it.  Why?  Some kids are in a hurry and don’t want to take the time to create an organizer.  Some kids don’t know how to create useful organizers.  Some kids think skipping an organizer won’t harm their writing.

What can teachers do to encourage students to create organizers and to use them?

Teachers could insist students use a prewriting organizer before writing a single sentence, and grade it or include it as part of the writing assignment grade.  For a given assignment, the teacher could reproduce several student prewriting organizers (and the teacher’s own prewriting organizer) for the class to analyze.  What ones are effective?  Why?  The teacher could ask students to compare those to their own organizers.  Then the teacher could ask students to improve their organizers before they write their essays.

Teachers could insist that students follow their organizers, and grade the essay, in part, on whether the organizer was followed.  Teachers could ask students to exchange organizers and essays before they are turned in for grades.  Classmates could alert students who have not followed the organizer.  Teachers could give those students more time to align their essays with their organizers.

Teachers could limit the kinds of organizers students use to

  • Either mindwebs or semiformal organizers for most informational and persuasive essays,
  • Either Venn diagrams or charts for comparison or contrasting information, or
  • Modified time lines for narratives.

Teachers could spend more time teaching how to use organizers without requiring the resulting essays.  Not every organizer needs to lead to an essay.

Teachers could provide exercises using poor organizers for students to analyze.  Students would need to identify why those organizers are poor and how they could be improved.

Ten ways to know if a “thesis” is really a thesis?

A thesis is a declarative sentence, never a question.  “Who was the best US President?” is not a thesis because it is a question.  “Washington was the best US President” is a thesis providing the word “best” is precisely defined.  If “best” is not precisely defined, then this is not a thesis because “best” is vague.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.A thesis states an opinion which can be defended or countered. “Laws should prevent children younger than 18 from marrying.”  This is a thesis.  It is an opinion which can be supported by evidence.  It can be objected to with other evidence.

A thesis is not a statement of facts which can be verified.  “Washington is the only President to be elected unanimously” is not a thesis because research shows this is a factual statement.

A thesis is not an opinion of personal taste.  “I need to attend college” is not a thesis.  It cannot be researched scientifically.

A thesis is stated positively, not negatively.  “Washington was not the best US President” is not a thesis.

A thesis does not use biased or untruthful language.  “Dangerous hand guns should not be sold” is not a thesis.  “Dangerous” is a biased word.

A thesis uses precise language.  “Some amphibians should be put on the endangered species list” is not a thesis.  “Some” is not precise.

A thesis is about one idea, but that one idea can be subdivided.  “The US Civil War had two causes:  slavery and states’ rights” is a thesis.  This thesis is about the causes of the Civil War (one idea).  “Roses are easier to grow than irises but harder to grow than day lilies” is not a thesis.  It contains two separate ideas.

A thesis is researchable using scientific evidence or the scientific method. “Nothing escapes black holes” is not a thesis.  Scientific research has proven this statement to be false.  “More two-year-olds today are fat than in Boston in 1776” is not a thesis because it is impossible to research how many two-year-olds were fat in Boston in 1776.

A thesis deals with real, not conditional or hypothetical information. “If Elvis were alive today he would be a billionaire” is not a thesis because Elvis is not alive today.

Where should a student start an essay?

If you are teaching children essay writing, at which point do you tell students to begin their writing?  With the hook?  With the introduction?  With the thesis?  Somewhere else?

Lately when my students start to write essays, I tell them to skip over the introduction completely for now except for its last sentence, the thesis.  That is where I tell them to begin.

Then I tell them to write the topic sentences of the body paragraphs.  After that, I tell them to fill in the body paragraphs with detailed sentences.  Then, after the student knows the contents of the body, I tell students to write their introductions at the top of one page and their conclusions at the bottom of that page, so the students can see them both together.

The first draft of an essay is put together something like this (after the student writes an organizer):

  • The thesis is written at the top of the notebook paper or computer document.
  • Under it is written the first body paragraph topic sentence. About 2/3 of the way down the notebook paper is written the second body paragraph topic sentence.  On the back top is written the third body paragraph topic sentence.  Half way down is written the fourth, if there is a fourth.  If the student is using a computer, these sentences can be written one beneath the other since inserting more material is easy.
  • At this point, I ask the students to check to see if each topic sentence supports the thesis. If not, this is the time to make it work.
  • Next, the students fill in the body paragraphs with details from their prewriting organizer, making sure that each detail supports the paragraph topic sentence.
  • Finally, on a separate notebook paper (or at the top of the essay), students compose the introduction with or without a hook.  Below it, the student composes the conclusion, trying as much as possible, to pick up some thread mentioned in the introduction.  If the student is using a computer, the student can move the conclusion to the end once he or she has compared it to the introduction.

At this point students can type a rough draft if they have worked on notebook paper, assembling the paragraphs in the correct order.  Once the essay is on computer, they can revise.

Students tell me that at school they are told to start writing essays with the hook.  I tell my students to skip right over that.  Why?  What I am looking for is not creativity but logic, the logic of topic sentences which support a thesis and paragraph details which support the topic sentences.  That is the meat of an essay, and that is what I see missing in students’ essays these days.  When that logic is established, the student can work on a creative (or not) introduction and a conclusion which dovetails with that introduction.