Sunday, June 10, 2018

Composition: Harmony ad Variety

In paintings or photos, balance creates attention and beauty. No single element should overwhelm any other, while those individual components echo, contrast, and complement. Finally, monotony of form, color, or anything else, muddies. Where’s the focal point?



These precepts also pertain to the novel, though, obviously, not in terms of color or shape. The fundamentals of fiction include:

* Action: Dramatization of cinematic scenes.

* Dialogue: Two or more characters conversing.

* Narrative: Transition and context grounding action and dialogue.

* Information: Backstory, exposition, facts, or intellectual stimulation.

Tip: Good fiction varies and harmoniously balances its components.

~ No one element should overwhelm the other
Unless sufficient narrative supports the action, you’ve dumped the reader in the stream without a life preserver.      Everything in fiction serves story. So even if this is an informative moment, it mustn’t overwhelm the characters’ journey. Still, too much action resembles a few crumbs of cake slathered with a quarter-can of frosting. In fiction and everything else, too much of a good thing remains—too much.
~ Individual components echo, contrast, and complement.
Fiction immerses readers when the whole’s more than the sum of its parts. The narrative adds irony or clarity to the dialogue. If the stage business simply repeats, such as “‘Get Out!’ Marge shrieked angrily,” you’ve neither contrasted nor complemented.     But, for example, if setting affects the action, or intensifies the dialogue, one element enhances another.      Contrast matters, too. When suspense is high, tease readers with an information break. Conversely, if you’ve just explained at length, appeal with humor, lyricism, or tension.
~ Monotony of form, color, or anything else, muddies.
Some writers treat dialogue like a faucet that stays off or on. Characters don’t say a thing for pages, but then talking floods everything else. A mess in either a novel or a painting.
Whether with fiction, photos, or paintings, audience satisfaction springs from balanced elements that each contribute without any one overpowering.

**** Laurel's new book, Beyond the First Draft, is now available from Amazon or Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing. ****

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Ambiguity versus Blur


The distinction  between them is largely in the mind of the reader. Still, one might call it teasing, pleasing uncertainty versus irritating, dispiriting confusion. Gregory Ciotti (“How to Write with Substance”) offers a useful way to view this: “Write to express, not to impress.”

He goes on to suggest that you 
Brainstorm horizontally, revise vertically.     What makes for a boring novel is the same as what makes for boring non-fiction: the story grows horizontally instead of vertically.      Writing that is “too wide” tries to explain everything but ends up saying nothing. 
In other words, it’s okay (though not necessarily optimal) to play with every possibility as you begin. But once you start to consider reader needs, which is what revision’s really about, then it’s time first to narrow and cut, then to develop not with glaring clarity, but enough of it so readers can feel intrigued rather than lost.

Lack of context loses readers faster than anything else. To the novelist, it’s always obvious how the story moved from one room to another, from one mind to another, or from one issue, connection, or symbol to another. But how obvious are those to anyone else? 

The potentially worst sources of blur include:

* Failing with setting.

  This is a fertile breeding ground for cliche and vagueness. Be swift and original.

* Introducing a new character.

  Pay special attention to characters who echo others in terms of roles, names, traits,
  or obstacles.

* Jolting readers by abruptly altering time, place, physicality, symbolism.

   Provide clear but subtle transitions.

Great novels are rarely immediately accessible. Establish essential guideposts. Then seek subtext.
~  Subtext is the unspoken but revealed feelings and history and dreams of your characters.
~  Subtext is strong because it reveals truth—true emotions and true thoughts and unfeigned motivations.
 Subtext that runs through a story brings depth and dimension. It ramps up tension and conflict. It’s much deeper, more fundamental to a character’s traits or personality than is surface revelation. Because what underlies the text is not explicitly stated, the reader might have to look harder, listen closer.  ~ Beth Hill,  “Subtext—Revelation of the Hidden”
Tip: The optimal level of clarity is less obvious than it seems. Pun intended.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Spring and the Novelist


Spring. Lots of possibilities there. The season of hope and rejuvenation. To grow leap, originate, open, force.  A renewal, an opening, a flexibility. And those are only the basics. Might a fiction writer put any of this to use?

~ Renewal.
I can shake off everything if I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn. But, and that is the greatest question, will I ever be able to write anything great… — Anne Frank
Why not use the awakening of the landscape to wake your passion for your own novel?


~ Serendipity
No tears in the writerNo tears in the reader.No surprise for the writer,No surprise for the reader. — Robert Frost
Why not use the startling nature of spring to discover something new about your scenario, protagonist, opening, ending, or even your own writing process?


~ Leap.

Characters only grow by sprinting out of lethargy and into the fray.

Why not try cornering them even more than usual?

~ Launch.

Without urgency, fiction falters. Readers seek propulsion, over and over: the start and end of each scene, the first chapter, the midpoint, and so on.
At your recent talk titled “Urgency and Momentum” you introduced a new theoretical framework you’ve been exploring, that you called “request moments.” You spoke about how much of the time, most if not all of us are doing not what we want to do but what other people ask of us either directly or indirectly. Your point was to arrive at a type of necessity, that creates, as you put it, “forces in narrative that make characters do what they do.” Many stories with real urgency and momentum grow out of a simple request; someone says to someone else, “There's something I want you to do.”  — Susan Tacent Interview with Charles Baxter 
Why not seek techniques that entice your readers?

Of course like other people, many novelists find spring addictive. Time to be outside—to row, or hike, or garden. But no matter how seductive that call, don’t let it overpower your muse.
Be ruthless about protecting writing days…  — J. K. Rowling
Tip: Spring isn’t just a season or a verb. It’s a process.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Plan to Keep the Plot Pot Boiling

If only you could add the right ingredients and without watching the flame, maintain a roiling, steam-producing rhythm without the flame rising too high or sinking too low. But more cooks can smoothly simmer spaghetti than writers can instinctively reach The End with optimal heat.

Fortunately, there’s a straightforward (though not necessarily painless) method every writer can use. And it’s easier than boiling an egg.

The answer is an outline, but a unique one. Novelists frequently associate outlining with the first draft, since a plans promotes credibility and causality from the start. Besides, if you get stuck, as often afflicts the novel’s middle, at least you know where you thought you were headed.

Useful as such can outline is, it won’t help you assess tension. Here’s something that will:

For each scene, complete first I then II. Because you want to focus on conflict,  it’s crucial to start with the obstacle, desire, force, or change driving the scene. Hint: verbs best express that.

I. Write one brief, non-detailed, super-short sentence that captures what the scene’s point of view character wants—or doesn’t. Here are a few examples:

     Abe covets Beth’s reassurance that their marriage remains sound.

     or

     Carol fears humiliation if Don dismisses her flirtation as ridiculous. 

     or

     Ed agonizes over Dr Fred sharing only part of the medical truth.

* Part I reflects tension and suspense. Passion, sexual or otherwise, is always involved. 

2. A brief contextual statement of where the characters are and what happens. Such as:


    Beth arrives late at the restaurant she reluctantly agreed to and leaves Abe there alone.

    or

    Don ignores Carol rubbing herself against him during a study session at the college library.

    or

    Dr Fred admits that Ed is ill but refuses details even when Ed insists.

* Part II is context. It’s where the characters are and what happens to them.

Like most things, this technique gets faster and easier with practice. Stick with it, though, and you’ll have a way to evaluate whether each scene possesses the oomph to be a scene. More important, you’ll not only know what happens, but what matters. Readers choose fiction for the emotion it evokes, and that comes from—high stakes.


Tip: Whichever method you choose, assess the tension in every scene of your novel.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Plot Pot

Writers and writing coaches can argue passionately about whether story springs from plot or characters. The divide has become particularly pronounced since the appearance of “literary” fiction, a genre which implies it might be okay to write a novel where a gorgeous voice and memorable characters compensate for lots of stasis. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some novels offer escalating danger, but it befalls characters whom readers can’t relate to and don’t care about. 

Isn’t it the mesh of character and plot that propels story? After all, adversity is the best way to meet characters—to test their mettle. 

As K.M. Weiland puts it in “Plot vs. Character: Which Is More Important?”:

Fiction is about balance—in so many ways—and certainly nowhere more so than in the matter of plot vs. character. Good writing should not be about pitting plot against character, but rather about finding the harmony between them. 

The indivisible integration of plot + character has always built narrative. And isn’t that still, despite numerous experiments, what the novel is for? After all,

In our modern age, there are writers who have heaped scorn on the very idea of the primacy of story. I'd rather warm my hands on a sunlit ice floe than try to coax fire from the books they carve from glaciers. ― Pat Conroy, My Reading Life

Tip: Story comes from what happens to characters readers are invested in.

You probably agree. But what if, like many novelists, you’re either fantastic at tension-rich events or fantastic at characters sufficiently full-fleshed to cast shadows. Perhaps you worry that you'’ll never be equally skilled at both. 

The remedy? Quit viewing character and plot as separate entities. Happily, this works whether you’re starting a first draft, halfway through it, or at any point in the revision process. 

Perhaps the best way to visualize characters in context is some version of a Scene Goal Outline. So what’s a Scene Goal, anyway? An “Intense, explicit character desire that impels choice and action” (Laurel Yourke, Beyond the First Draft).

For each scene, distill the goal down into as few words as possible. How else can you assess whether you’re revealing characters and propelling the story forward causally rather than causally?

Watch your verbs. Contrast “was worried about the next hour” versus “terrified about the phone ringing.” The latter verb reflects character emotion and thus causes action. Since scenes are about tension, a Scene Goal always involves forcing characters to act rather than think or react.

How many Scene Goals do you need? Ideally, one for each scene. Keep those goals super-short and harness verbs to reveal character feelings, since that’s what connects readers to story.


Use the Scene Goal Outline to make the plot and dramatic personae intertwine inseparably. Because, as Heraclitus put it, “Character is fate.”

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Writing: Solitude and Sociability

Thanks to Wyatt-Mackenzie publishing and Purcell Agency. Equally important, here’s a thank you note to every writer I’ve worked with, whether online, over a weekend, during a retreat, or in a university department or critique group. Maybe you and I barely remember each other, but still I thank you. Because however much I taught you, you taught me much more. Each of you contributed to realizing the dream of composing, then publishing Beyond the Fist Draft: Deep Novel Revision.

Around the time I published my first book—Take Your Characters to Dinner—my colleague, Marshall Cook joked that “It takes a village to publish a book.” He was kidding, as he often did. But at the time neither of us realized how many sources of wisdom and inspiration contribute to the completion of any book.


That may seem counter-intuitive, because writing is customarily associated with seclusion. And it’s certainly true that when you’re at the notebook or keyboard, there’s only you and the space you hope to fill. Numerous complaints about this syndrome exist. Here’s Ernest Hemingway:
Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
Isaac Asimov agrees
Writing is a lonely job. Even if a writer socializes regularly, when he gets down to the real business of his life, it is he and his type writer or word processor. No one else is or can be involved in the matter.
Rachel Carson concludes that solitude is a phenomenon writers must embrace:
A writer’s occupation is one of the loneliest in the world, even if the loneliness is only an inner solitude and isolation, for that he must have at times if he is to be truly creative. And so I believe only the person who knows and is not afraid of loneliness should aspire to be a writer.
So it’s not whether writing is lonely, but whether you can mitigate that. Of course you can. 

Everyone agrees that writers must market. At a recent conference, Laurie Buchanan said to me, “Getting people to know about your book is a way of honoring it.” So whether you’re published or hope to be, make connections. Meet not only authors, but also agents, publishers, booksellers, bloggers, readers, and fans. 

Networking isn’t just for marketing; it’s for inspiration. Get yourself a writing partner. Join a critique group. Attend conferences, weekenders, and retreats. The support you’ll find there helps you write the best book you can.

My own antidote to loneliness is the blessed experience of working with writers in numerous venues. What could do a writer greater good than nourishing an addiction to books on writing, pondering the questions writers pose, and providing on the spot illustrations of technique. What better way to study the craft? What better way to become a better novelist? So thank you!


Tip: Keep the good company of writers so your own writing dreams can come true.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Revision: Rigor and Riches

Hard. Boring. Exhilarating. Scary. Inspiring. Painful. Transformative. Mention the word “revision,”and each novelist will respond differently. With one exception: writers either love revision or loathe it.

There’s plenty of reasons, many legitimate, why you might dislike the process. Writers don’t always know where to start or how to fix what they find.  When novelists accept the questionable advice to just spew out first draft, the result can be pretty awful. And then the fun’s over. Now it’s time to concentrate, to work. 

Besides, cutting can be painful. The expression, “Murder your darlings,” which has a long, complex history via such greats as F. Scoot Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, sums up the way writers often feel. It takes energy and effort to get the words down. What do you mean I have to discard them?

And yet, you do. Here’s why:

In my experience, cutting back is the crucial act that allows the vitality, precision and emotional heart of a piece of writing to emerge. ― Pamela Erens

So, usually, the first act of revision is eliminating everything you can willingly discard, and then a bit more. After all, if the great moments and sentences are buried, how can you know what to keep?

How to start cutting:

  • Repetition of words, details, and information readers already know
  • “Telling” and then “showing” or “showing” and then “telling”
  • Excessive or familiar description
  • Long set-ups before you reach “the good part”


The great news? Once you pare down, you can see how to proceed. These questions might help you get started:

~ Is the scenario original and substantial?
~ Do the characters seem both consistent and alive?
~ Is enough at stake?
~ Do chapters and scenes begin and end with hooks?
~ Do you capitalize on your novel’s point of view?

After addressing the fundamentals, you can smooth sentences and perfect word choice.

Is this hard work? Absolutely. Is it worth it? As Stephen King put it in a Writer's Digest interview

The writer must have a good imagination to begin with, but the imagination has to be muscular, which means it must be exercised in a disciplined way, day in and day out, by writing, failing, succeeding and revising


There you go. First rigor, then riches—at least in terms of craft, if not royalties.