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Marginal Notes

Editor's Clinic: Catching the Train of Thought

The single piece of advice I repeat most often is to get into your characters’ heads — to write with a more intimate point of view. Let’s take a closer look at just what that means.

Most writers go wrong by losing track of how everything on the page needs to flow out of a single character’s head. As the scene progresses, the flow of information and emotion is tied to that one person’s experience. When you trying to squeeze in information that the character wouldn’t think about, or when you use a language and style that don’t fit the character’s personality or mood, then you’re going to confuse your readers about who your character is.

The problem in this morning’s passage is more subtle. The narrator, Raney, jumps from one emotional state, one idea, to another without a clear train of thought to relate them to one another. This makes it hard for readers to get to know the mind behind the disconnected thoughts. Granted, there are sometimes people who think this way, but usually you need to signal that kind of extreme state of mind to your readers. And even with someone who is not thinking clearly, the shifts from one mood to another are often triggered by the events they’re experiencing. In this case, it sometimes seems as if Raney’s a different person from paragraph to paragraph.

For instance, if the author wanted to keep Raney’s longing to be taken away with the shipping containers, we should have seen some hints earlier that she was unhappy with her life. And after the paragraph about the containers, we would need to see her snap back to the present, the way she does after ruminating about her attraction to the groom and Norman’s attraction to the bride. The thoughts need to flow from one to another with clear transitions.

An intimate point of view is a powerful character-building tool because it presents readers with a distinctly individual train of thought and flow of emotions. The events on the page bring the character to life because readers can sense what the character feels in response to them. When that shared emotional flow isn’t there, the events simply become a string of random thoughts and observations. And random thoughts do not a character make.

Chapter 1: Just A Moment


Move to the left.

[Paragraph added] The bride and groom standing My left. Ten o’clock.” Raney directs her husband Norman on the city’s railroad tracks that lie in front of the port shift a bit to the right in her viewfinder.[1]

“No, my left. Norman, ten o’clock.”

[Paragraph added] Raney adjusts the depth of focus so that the industrial cranes in the background are just a blurred suggestion, a hint of industrial vibe that gives contrast to the happy couple. Norman, her husband, [2] moves to his right to capture the scene on video. She makes kissy noises to her daughter, One, who holds adjusts a round silver reflector that bounces the pale, late-autumn December’s sunbeams onto the bride’s blushed cheekbones. interracial couple sculpting them to make them look like a wedding cake top.[3]

Raney’s fist rises. “What a team!” she says. In truth

[paragraph added] Actually, she believes good photography is a union between photographer and subject.; n Not this close-up collaborative compromise. [paragraph removed] Raney moves One’s hand tilting the reflector to redirect the light to make shadows chisel the bride’s face. They accentuate her pointed nose and her blushed cheekbones in this sweet dusk. If this wasn’t a wedding shoot she could produce something significant here. [4] [paragraph added] But it is a wedding shoot, and it pays the bills, so she gives the couple what they want. “Per-fect. Photographs don’t lie.” Nevertheless Raney purposefully She rasies the angle a bit to draws attention away from the bump at the bride’s stomach.

Raney swivels near the bride. “Imagine the camera as your lover.” Her tightly gloved index finger She beckons the groom. [5] “Come here, my man.”

Wouldn’t that be mMy man?” The bride’s lips are a wax seal and her shoulders round in the strapless wedding dress. Fawn-like hairs stand straight in the chilly air. [6]She can use that.

Raney winks at the bride. “Oh sweetheart, it’s you we want.” She and whispers into the bride’s long red streaks, “Promise him loving he’s never had.” That should spice up the shot.

Norman’s video camera moves in closer. a few inches from the bride’s upturned nose. [7] His nail-bitten finger sits ready on the trigger. “Y-e-s. Just like that. Try a finger to the chin.

The bride holds her slender finger to her chin, in the process squeezing her left breast up with her elbow.

“Squeeze in the other elbow. Cleavage at last.”

It’s not the video camera that wants to be the bride’s lover ’s attracted to this pregnant woman. [8] It’s Norman, actually. , but hHe’s always had a thing for pregnant woman. Norman loved her best when she was pregnant with One. That time of abounding possibilities was the happiest in her life.

Oh, well, that could make for a spicy shot, as well. [9]

The bride holds her slender finger to her chin – an Asian woman thinker. Her elbow squeezes her left breast up. “Squeeze in the other elbow. I reckon that’s better. Cleavage at last.” Norman scootches his body closer.

The beep beep warning of one of the port’s forklifts sounds. The terminal’s cranes are north east of the tracks, sometimes appear in their photos, mostly not. Raney registers a A cargo ship unloading intermodal containers provides a pop of color in the background. All those objects travel the ocean. What if she were to hide in a container and let it take her some place. Anywhere else. The shot could be magical.

She photographs and he videos, and it takes hopes Norman can see the magic as well. It usually takes him a couple of tries to find itunderstand the magic that she sees. Their documentation must awaken her sensibilities or be destroyed. Right now she needs Norman’s neurotransmitters to fire in order to capture the passion in this three-second kiss between the couple without slipping into . Please let it not be sentimental or predictable.

The groom moves closer to Norman. He’s six inches taller and isn’t afraid to show it. “You don’t speak Mandarin.”

Raney snickers at the groom’s protectiveness. [10] How could he possibly be jealous? His limpid directness, a gaze that knows how to respond to the suave seduction of the lens — she could see the attraction. , would most certainly satisfy her lust. Although her husband retains the sparkle, he’s lived twice as long and his eyes sit deep within lined tobacco-coloured smudges. And, to be fair, There’s no need to ask to know he’s gaga over this ripe young bride. This is a gentle joke of married life.

Raney needs to focus. When she catchessees the groom staring at his bride’s breasts she clicks two quick shots. He’s as attached to the bride’s body as one of Harlow’s rhesus infants. [11]

She shifts position and clicks another six shots. “Fab-u-lous. Now the kiss.




[1] You need to give your readers a clear picture of the situation from the very beginning.

[2] Note, when you introduce a new character, you can get away with a one or two word descriptor, just to orient your readers. True, Raney wouldn’t think of Norman as “her husband Norman.” But she would know he was her husband.

[3] Both the “December” and the fact that the couple are interracial feel expository. If Raney’s concentrating on the shot, she would notice the quality of the light, but I can’t see her focusing on the rest.

[4] Here the thoughts seem to flow too quickly to be connected. She’d rather be doing an art shoot. The camera doesn’t lie. She chooses to make it lie. These three thoughts in quick succession seem disconnected from each other and from an underlying sensibility.

[5] She’s focused on the shot. Would she notice how tight her gloves fit?

[6] These physical details of the subject of the shoot are the sort of thing she would concentrate on.

[7] A few inches? Not a very flattering angle.

[8] It seems to me that Raney would be more likely to think this after the cleavage comments rather than before.

[9] This ties back to her earlier concern about the composition of the photo.

[10] Note that the change in her train of thought is a response to a change in circumstances.

[11] Would she be thinking about Harlow at this point?