Sunday, July 23, 2017

Writer “R” and “R” and “R”

Pushing yourself to meet deadlines, achieve goals, and revise deeply—all great. Rejuvenating every so often is not only equally great, but crucial. So here are some “r’s” to balance not only writing, but the writing life.

~ Replenishment.

How can you create if you’ve exhausted the supply of words, ideas, story questions, metaphors, and revision techniques? Maybe you need a vacation. Or a staycation.  Or a rigorous workout, a hilarious movie, a fancy dinner.  No two novelists will need exactly the same thing or amount of it. But when you genuinely need a break, take one. Minus the guilt.



~ Remembrance. 

As Dean Koontz reminds,
Have fun, entertain yourself with your work, make yourself laugh and cry with your own stories, make yourself shiver in suspense along with your characters. If you can do that, then you will most likely find a large audience; but even if a large audience is never found, you'll have a happy life.
When did you last remind yourself what drives you to write your novel?

~Rhythm.

Obviously, you want rhythm between dialogue and narrative, scene and summary, snappy and leisurely sentences. Don’t you also need a rhythm in your writing time? Sometimes a super-short session on one day might produce a far magnificently productive one the next. In contrast with flexible goals, rationalization, of course, is the writer’s enemy.

~ Reality.

As A. Lee Martinez put it, “Those who write are writers. Those who wait are waiters.” External and internal circumstances will never cease rollercoasting, so protect momentum when it hits. For the rest of time, if necessary, create a schedule. Then respect it.

~Resolution.

Neil Gaiman admits that “All writers have this vague hope that the elves will come in the night and finish any stories.” If that hasn't worked for him, it’s unlikely to work for the rest of us. This doesn’t mean that a litany of “should’s” “should” immobilize you. Or you “should” descend to guilt equivalent to consuming an entire carton of gelato. Resolve not to squander the exquisite energy fired by your scenario, or characters, or the stimulation of crafting words. Remind yourself why you’re writing.


Tip: The act of completing a novel requires as much balance as the art of writing one.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Harsh Numbness Descended to My Entrails, Writhing There

Whoops! A harsh numbness as opposed to a cheerful one? The numbness actually descended, writhed later? Is it strategic to discuss emotion (or lack of it) in terms of entrails?

Here’s why not. Ever start watching an old movie only to become dismayed by the music? The melodramatic facial expressions? A plot so obvious it seems a sixth grader contrived it? Although you’re dying to know who Tony Curtis was or how the young Tommy Lee Jones looked (blond and great!), you give up. No novelist wants readers doing that.

Tip: Tastes change.

Obvious as that seems, what you learned to read in what my folks called “their youth” (see how language changes?), that’s unlikely to be what you want to write right now.

So what’s different?

~ Concept.

It may have been true since Ecclesiastes that “there is no new thing under the sun,” but as Donald Maass puts it in Writing the Breakout Novel:
What about your premise? Is it truly a fresh look at your subject, a perspective that no one else but you can bring to it? Is it the opposite of what we expect or a mix of elements such as we’ve never seen before? If not, you have some work to do.
It’s a bittersweet irony that readers enjoy familiarity—but never too much of it.

~ Characterization.

Readers loved Dickens not despite the unctuousness of a creep like Uriah Heep or unmitigated greed of Ebenezer Scrooge, but precisely because the good and bad guys were unquestionably identified. Now, though, every bad guy is in some way good, and every good gal overcome by fatal flaw. In pretty much every book, today’s characters are full-bodied, passionate and resilient, but usually wrong-headed in at least one way.

~ Plot.

A great divide exists between those arguing that literary fiction is never about plot, while genre fiction is never about anything else. But writing coaches like Lisa Cron or Jessica Page Morrell, not to mention agents, publishers, and readers themselves, like to see high stakes. Unlike the meandering beauty of the 19th century novel, what sells—and gets read—is a causal chain of events that are neither improbable nor overly predictable.

~ Language.

Today’s fiction has its own share of overwrought agony. It also has examples like these, retaining the rhythmic intensity of yesterday’s sentences with the acute diction and metaphor that contemporary readers hope to encounter:
When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had travelled across a desert of living sand.—Kevin Brockmeier, A Brief History of the Dead
Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.—Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
 I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.—Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Of course you want to read on. They sound like right now—at its very best.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Think like a Bird?

Once a young marsh hawk apparently considered an open garage part of the skyline and flew inside, perching on the metal rafters controlling the sliding door. Fine. Until it couldn’t escape. The woman, nature lover that she was, told the neighbors she’d free it right away. No problem.

First at the front door, then just inside, then closer to the rear, she offered the bird raw hamburger, cooked hamburger, a chicken leg, canned and dry cat food. No dice.

Still undaunted, she got a broom and gently chased the confused stranger toward the front. Over and over it flew maniacally forward, only to reclaim its original post. She became increasingly afraid—she and the hawk both. It clung, fluttering frantically, piteously opening its golden beak to emit silent cries more taxing than a howl ever could be.

The bird had done her in. Or had it? “Think like a bird,” she chided. “Think like a bird,” she barked and began searching the yard for a something natural enough to represent escape. The woman took her time arranging the branch, altering its position, attaching more sticks, setting it up to imitate exactly what it was supposed to be. And, lo, this time when the broom urged the prisoner forward, the raptor found the tree, hesitated, circling for relentless moments until its back leg briefly touched the tip of the facsimile tree and it zoomed away.

For novelists, it doesn’t matter that this woman sank to the driveway gravel and wept for some time. It matters that she thought like a bird.

Tip: Enter the mind of every living being in your novel, whether child, wizard, cat, or grandpa.

After all, if you want every character to feel real for readers, first every character must feel completely real to you. In a short story titled “The Remobilization of Jacob Horner,” John Barth wrote: “In life there are no essentially major or minor characters. To that extent, all fiction and biography, and most historiography, is a lie. Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.”

Your story or novel should have neither characters too minor for dimension, nor snapshots that reduce some players to heroes, others to reprobates or scoundrels. 

How do you think like each of your characters?

~ Explore desire.

Nothing reveals a person (or a bird) as well as a burning obsession to change the
external or internal territory.

~ Brainstorm.

Let your subconscious roam free. How are you like a goat? A chancellor? A seer?

~Cheat a bit. 

For a while, choose a hat to wear each time you switch to a different head.

~Empathize deeply.

Use your own emotions, uncomfortable or embarrassing as that perhaps seems.

“Take Your Characters to Dinner.”

Mentally interact with them outside the format of your story.


You needn’t rescue a hawk, or, before the last page, anyone else. But your readers expect that if you include one in your book, at least epiphany occurs, you penetrated that avian mind.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

“Anguish” or “pain”? “Yearning” or “Desire”?

The difference? Less is more. For novelists, that notion never gets old, because most of us want more words, more syllables in those words, and more melodrama everywhere. And why not?

Because, Brendan Kenny puts it, 
Hyperbole and overstatement do more harm than good. Hyperbole is exaggeration. Overstatement is an attempt to convince your audience by bludgeoning them with facts, arguments, and pleas to get them to accept your assertion.
And this is as true for fiction as for law. In an interview with Roxane Gay, Joshua Henkin agrees:
I tend to gravitate toward understatement. My novels and stories are animated as much by what’s not said as by what’s said. It’s the silences in fiction (and in life) that, if rendered well, can be most illuminating.
Tip: The source of emotional engagement is putting readers in the moment instead of pushing them there.

Inflated or cliched language and description never involve readers the way these passages do:
My mother always says that fear and pain are immediate and that, when they’re gone, we’re left with the concept, but not the true memory—why else, she reasons, would anyone give birth more than once? I think I understand what she means when I look back on the night of the fire. Part of me knows that there was tremendous pain, that the heat of the blaze as it came down though the old village on the hill and Slavko’s farmland and our orange grove and ripped through the fig and almond trees, the pinecones sizzling like embers for what seemed like forever before they exploded, was unbearable; that to say that it was difficult to breathe is an impossible understatement; that the hair on my bare arms was already singed when the fire dropped down through the pines and rushed the brick wall. —Tea Obreht The Tiger’s Wife
You’re right there with the girl trying to beat back the fire. This connection happens because of the opening metaphor, the particularity of the details, the reflection after the fact, and the acute physical sensations. An understated portrayal of tragedy.

Understatement works equally well for joy. In Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria, the Queen Victoria’s new status terminates what could’ve been a budding romance, and she tells her prime minister:
“I was so happy … before.’”     “I find that happiness can always be recollected in tranquillity, Ma’am,” said Melbourne.      Victoria put her hands down and looked up at him, her pale blue eyes searching his face. “You were happy too?”     When Melbourne spoke, it was in the voice not of the urbane Prime Minister, but of a man of advancing years who is facing the loss of the only thing that is still capable of bringing him joy. “You know I was, Ma’am.” 
The Lord’s unadorned admission conveys everything Victoria needs to know, and through her, to those experiencing the scene vicariously. 

Shout, and you might get ignored. Whisper, and everyone will lean in to overhear. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Novelist and “Hardwired for Story”

Exactly what does that catchy little phrase actually mean?
Your reader is biologically wired to respond to your protagonist’s inner struggle. When we’re lost in a story, our brains sync with the protagonist’s and her struggle becomes our struggle. This isn’t a metaphor—functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) reveals that when a story engages us, we experience what the protagonist is going through as if it were happening to us—because it is. We feel what she feels because her emotions travel down our neutral pathways. —Lisa Cron, “Story First, Plot Second,” from Author in Progress, Therese Walsh, ed.
That neural pathway connection depends on the characters of a story or novel. Almost magically, readers respond to vital ones as if they were vitally alive, but without any of the danger, disappointment, mayhem or messiness that real-world interactions bring. Cron goes on to add
To hell with those clunky virtual reality visors—humans already come equipped with the most effective VR of all: the ability to neurologically slip into someone else’s life, especially when she’s struggling with an unavoidable problem trying to figure out what the heck to do. The unspoken question we’re wired to bring to every story is: What would it cost, emotionally, to have to go through that? What will I learn about what makes people tick that will help me navigate my own life?
So as the storyteller every novelist is, your initial challenge is to let readers make an emotional connection that sparks something meaningful to the personal lives of your readers. This could be curiosity, betrayal, paranoia, forgiveness, spirituality—any human issue.

You don’t need anything complex to accomplish this connection, observes Orion Jones in “How the Human Brain Became Hardwired to Tell Stories”:
A standard story-telling formula may go something like this: character(s) + predicament(s) + attempted extrication(s). In short, the very stuff of life. Like our language instinct, a story drive—an inborn hunger for story hearing and story making—emerges untutored universally in healthy children. Every culture bathes their children in stories to explain how the world works and to engage and educate their emotions.
All stories, from cave paintings to meta-novels, share those basic elements. In “Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains,” Leo Widrich reminds that “A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect.” 

Tip: Build plot and characterization keeping the hardwired impact of story in mind. 

Most novelists already know that characters mustn’t seem flat, that many readers dislike too much “telling,” that episodic or coincidental plots rarely convince, and that story resides in plot instead of theme, rather than the other way around.

So it’s less that writers should revise their approach to plot and characterization than remember what underlies those. Spoon-fed readers can’t experience anything vicariously. Stereotypes don’t evoke human behavior, and thematic statements move us far less than the journeys that reveal those. Consider why internal arcs satisfy more than external ones, why you need to “show” the behavior of your multi-dimensional characters. 

The “why” might just be the path to the “how.” Although it may not feel like it when seeking an agent or publisher, every novelist has a built-in audience. You’ll find those readers through characters who are universal and thus empathetic plus a plot that is causal and thus credible.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Novelist as Character Beats Character as Novelist

Even writers tire of fictional protagonists enduring blocks, deadlines, and the humiliation of the one-shot-wonder syndrome. Writers can become almost as disenchanted with someone else’s pages reflecting a mirror image—whether witty, maudlin, or ironic—as other readers became long ago.

But using your non-novelist self as template, inspiration, or guru for a protagonist? That’s another story, quite possibly one which exquisitely blends truth with embroidery of it, genuine feeling with “recollection of it in tranquility,” as William Wordsworth put it.

Certainly that involves risk. Skimp on the tranquility component, and you might transform anyone who irks you into a melodramatic villain. Perhaps you’ll splash your politics all over your chapters, or compile scenes so syrupy with self-pity that pages stick together in interactions that seem endless.

For the lucky writer, though (and the lucky readers who get their hands on that novel), the synthesis of raw emotion with the objectivity of narration approaches closest to universal feelings and themes. After all, as Joseph Campbell put it, “You are the Hero of your own Story.” What a great foundation for the hero your imagination and craft create. Why not take that concept further? Shanon Grey believes that “Your life is a book; make it a bestseller.”

How might you infuse your fiction with personal emotions and experiences?

~ Articulate your reactions to events, whether trivial or monumental.

Using either a mental or written journal, consider how anger smells, what your stomach muscles do when you’re happy, or your personal metaphor for fear or passion or spirituality. Note these, again, either on paper or in your head, so they’re available when you need them.

~ Assess “ticking clock” anxiety in your daily world.

According to Sidney Sheldon, “Life is like a novel. It’s filled with suspense. You have no idea what is going to happen until you turn the page.” How does it feel to await the doctor calling you back, the results of the job interview, the tally of an election? That’s how your protagonist feels. Of course you can’t just “tell” readers that, or they’ll never turn the page to get the results. Instead? Translate your responses into imagery, body language, or metaphor.

~ Probe. Shamelessly.

“I think one of the appeals of suspense is to safely explore our innermost fears,” Lisa Gardner observes. Readers can’t do that unless the novelist does it first. Do you shout in rage whenever you’re actually hurt? Does sour grapes ever convince you that the unwanted outcome feels okay? What role does rationalization play in your interaction with others? With yourself?

~ Appraise the stakes.

Whatever worries or bothers one can escalate, even when insignificant as a thoughtless thing you said or heard. Concentrate on how hard you can grit your teeth over what to do. Now make your character feel that, so your readers can.

Tip: Be your own “artist’s model.” And it doesn’t cost a penny,

Many writers enjoy research, correctly believing that it can cement geography, history, and forays into sports or art, quilting or banking. But one area of emotions often goes unexplored: what the writer knows about suspense, emotion, and life. Why neglect that opportunity?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sense of Pace

Its familiar namesake—sense of place—is easier to imagine, if not manage. At least you know that readers expect setting to support and vitalize character action and reaction. Yes, the details might prove cliched or skimpy. But what if those details overwhelm? That’s when momentum comes in, and it’s as crucial to assess as tough to judge.

Tip: Readers expect pace to seem invisible.

If readers become conscious of pace, that’s trouble, and not of the fun, exciting kind you inflict on your characters. 

Wikipedia defines pace as “the length of the scenes, how fast the action moves, and how quickly the reader is provided with information.” Carol Benedict notes the effect of these variables:
Every story has a rhythm. If it’s a monotonous one, readers may lose interest. Pacing the rhythm can build tension, emphasize important events, stir the reader’s emotions, and move the action forward.

Pace is about illusion. Unlike time in the real world, nothing ever moves too swiftly or tediously. It’s always optimal. And therefore it stays invisible unless it doesn’t work.
Readers who notice any of these problems can become uncomfortably aware of pace:
  • “Telling.”
  • Confusion (rather than ambiguity or subtlety).
  • Lack of variation.
  • Laborious sentences.
  • Lethargic dialogue.
  • Low or repetitious stakes.
  • All the time in the world.
  • Reliance on stereotypical language, plot, or characterization.
  • Excessive description or spelling out.
  • Scenes lacking in momentum that need to be summaries.
Fortunately, many solutions exist. Here are some possibilities:

~Every time an issue seems almost resolved, introduce a new obstacle.

~ Keep high action/drama scenes moving.

~ Avoid unnecessary adjectives and especially adverbs.

~ Contrast short and simple sentences with long, embedded ones.

~ Structure sentences and paragraphs to emphasize climax.

~ Delete the “thinking aloud” that characterized your first draft.

~ Read like a reader.


You won’t nail this last one every time, or even every other time. But the more you practice, the better you’ll get at conveying the illusion that nothing’s ever too speedy or slow.