Sunday, December 4, 2016

Taste the Sauce

The best cooks know that a recipe is only the start. Unless you check the final blend of flavors, how will you know if that “pinch” of salt is heavy-handed or lightweight? What if the vinegar is less tangy than bitter, or the flavor of the pepper flimsy or fiery? 

Great cooking is an art. So is great writing. Every novelist can acquire hundreds of recipes for plot, dialogue, characterization—all the way down to the structure of the sentence. But don’t stop there.  

Tip: Recipes are an indispensable starting point, but you still have to adjust the seasoning.


Even the finest, most tried-and-true recipes won’t achieve the following without your personal touch:

~ Plot that feels organic.

Hundreds of plot recipes exist, everything from the Aristotelian arc, to John Truby's 7 Key Steps, to Jack M. Bickham’s Scene and Sequel, to Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. You can structure plot using templates, sequences, caves, psychological baggage, and pressure or plot points. The terminology differs. But all of these trace the movement from terrible trouble to some sort of climax, usually involving a happy ending, usually produced by the protagonist’s own choices and actions. 

You can construct a solid foundation using any one or any combination of these plotting options. In the end, though, a completely credible plot can emerge only from a completely causal one, where every choice inevitably results in the next outcome, right up to the end. 

Without that? It all feels at least slightly contrived. It’s not entirely believable, and not at all organic. You’re not done until you apply the taste test.

~ Dialogue that propels.

Consider all those dialogue “rules.” Never go too long without some dialogue breaking up the narrative; gradually build every exchange to a climax; insert speaker attribution or stage business every ____ number of lines, and so on.

But doesn’t every single dialogue exchange differ from every other? You can’t plan in advance when or how long characters will speak. Adhere too closely to any recipe or formula, and your dialogue won’t reflect character struggle authentically.

The best dialogue advice is fairly general. Sol Stein reminds of the need to give each character “a different script.” That will always summon a genuine exchange, as will this advice from Robert McKee:
Learn to judge you dialogue by listening past the words and sensing the harmony or disharmony between cause and effect. Dialogue rings true when a character’s verbal actions resonate with his motivation, when his inner desires and outer tactics seem to complement each other.
~ Characters that breathe.

Whether Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, or Toni Morrison’s Sula, no single technique evokes emotion in every reader. The further you stray from prescriptive methods that tend to oversimplify, then the happier your readers will be. 

For example, Dara Marks is absolutely right that the past controls us. Her title, “The Fatal Flaw - The Most Essential Element for Bringing Characters to Life,” offers an excellent recipe. Yet it’s neither the ultimate one, nor the only route to creating character arc. The observation by Heraclitus that “Character is fate” is another recipe, but again, one among the many, many ways to develop complex character and plot. You’re not done until, like a great chef, you add the personal touch.

Want to cook up a great novel? Read a lot of writing recipes. Familiarize yourself with those suitable to you, and you’ll make the place where you create a comfortable and stimulating hangout. 


But not everyone enjoys the same dinner. Or novel. As you put the finishing touches on an offering that’s entirely your own, picture whom you’re serving. That’s the way to perfect the seasoning.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Giving Thanks for Readers

Without them, we’re just writing for ourselves. Would that be easier? You bet. Would that be preferable? Certainly not.

Tip: Whatever gets you to work harder gets you to work better.

If you don’t “show” when you ought to, make emotion genuine, plot causally, keep tension on every page, respect genre conventions, and word precisely, you can write as fast as you can type. But what kind of goal is that? Write for a reader, however, whether an individual (real or imaginary) or a congregation of them, and your standards rise to meet theirs. 

Here’s how:

~ “Showing” versus “Telling.”

Sadly, nothing about this is easy. If you never “tell,” readers can’t follow the story, even if it’s 250,000 words long, as will likely be the case. The trick is not to “tell” what you can “show.” Though there’s no formula, if a moment involves emotion, you probably want to reveal rather than describe. 

~ Genuine emotion.

Have you considered just how fake emotion can be? Watch commercials for greeting cards or pet food. Or a movie where one coincidence follows another until, thanks to a miracle save, the hero, through no resource of her own, lives happily ever after. Cheap. Fake, Shallow. Manipulative. In fiction, the only source of real emotion is real plot. 

~ Causal plot.

Don Maass has famously said that unless you construct a plot where no scene is expendable, you haven’t plotted the way you need to. Your not-so-secret weapon is causality. Every decision or action causes the next, nothing left to circumstance, nothing engineered from anything but character choices and assets. 

~ Tension on every page.

If the character (and thus reader) emotions stem from a causal plot that produces the outcome of every scene right up to the climax; and if events rather than abstractions like terror or agony deliver those emotions, then the tension will be right there. Let your characters and plot—rather than you the author—deliver the story. 

~ Genre Conventions.

This is where an image of a particular reader, representing a particular audience, really helps. For example, in fantasy or historical fiction, readers cheerfully tolerate so many characters that they’re offered—and willingly consult—lengthy lists of role and identity. But in genres like romantic suspense or women’s fiction, readers will balk at endless minor characters, no matter how melodic your voice or captivating your plot.

Read widely in your genre, and only current fiction counts. How people wrote mysteries when Agatha Christie reigned won’t necessarily tempt today’s mystery addicts. Do your homework. That’s neither cheating nor wasting time. After all, agents and publishers are, first and foremost, readers.

~ Precise wording.

This underlies everything readers seek. But it’s the last step—not the first.

Writers are a rebellious bunch. Many of us don’t instinctively appreciate constraints or critique. Of course you can ignore all that. Do your own thing. Just not if you want readers.

In this time when we need to count our blessings, if only to maintain our sanity, let’s count readers among those gifts. They keep us on our toes. They bring out our best. They remind us why we do this. And I, for one, couldn’t be more grateful. To our readers!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Verity versus Verisimilitude

Verity, from the Latin veritas, means “true” or “real.” In contrast, verisimilitude comes from the Latin likeness to truth. For fiction writers, the difference couldn’t be more dramatic—because drama originates in imitating rather than replicating reality. That’s the source of fiction’s big questions. As Richard Bradley put it in his review of Ward Just’s The Eastern Shore: “What makes a story true? What means of storytelling best capture reality? Are facts a path to truth or a finely constructed gate?”

“Verisimilitude,” Russell Smith notes, “is something I am constantly seeking in fiction. I am looking for surface detail that makes something seem real.” Because as Mark Twain and numerous others have observed, fiction, however fantastical, must seem more credible than reality itself.

But that’s only part of what fiction requires. In “Realism and Verisimilitude,” Taylor Stoehr suggests that “Fiction does not imitate life in the way that mirrors do, though we sometimes talk about its ‘mirroring of reality,’ nor does it pretend to be real in the way wax bananas do, or in the way that plastic simulates cowhide.”

Every novel creates a new reality, one true within its own parameters. The argument against Plato that Aristotle mounts in The Poetics insists that the most valuable truths transcend the literal facts. The best fiction, whether drama, epic poem, or novel, shapes a reality more causal and credible than the actual one.

How might you construct such a reality?

~ Propel Momentum.
As Robert McKee asserts in Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen: “Dialogue concentrates meaning; conversation dilutes it. Therefore, even in the most realistic settings and genres, credible dialogue does not imitate actuality.”
~ Manage Pace. 
It literally takes hours to prepare a turkey, drive to grandma’s, build a cabinet, or wash and fold the laundry. But no one wants to read logistics in anything approximating real time.
~ Avoid Coincidence.
Of course you could miss every traffic light, leave your identification at home, and be late for the plane. The one that crashes. But the fact that this could, or even did, actually happen doesn’t make it believable. Use subtle foreshadowing and set up to make your plot credible—particularly at its climax.
~ Justify  Psychological Insight.
Here’s McKee again: “beware characters who know themselves better than you know yourself.” The best novelists have explored every aspect of character psyche. But that’s a task for the novelist, not the character. 
~ Earn the Ending.
From the very start, present a protagonist with enough internal assets, however undeveloped, to save the day, and without the aid of convenient external miracles.
Tip: At its best, fiction feels, but should not literally be, more “true” than reality.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Art and Adversity

For the writers I know personally and perhaps millions I don’t know, the aftermath of the US. election was a time of pain, disgust, shock, and perhaps terror isn’t an exaggeration. Right now, working on fiction might seem at best—self-indulgent and at worst—pointless.  In this situation, what’s the role of art? Any kind of art?

On one hand, last May, more than 450 American novelists, poets and literary critics signed an “Open Letter to the American People.” The subject was our newly elected president. If these artists had an effect, it clearly wasn’t enough of one. 

On the other hand , in the NY Time Book Review of February 17, 2015, Mohsin Hamid claims that “Fiction can say publicly what might otherwise appear unsayable, combating the coerced silence that is a favored weapon of those who have power.”

In Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Baxter terrorizes a family, changing his mind about rape and murder because the comely daughter convinces him that she’s the author of Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” The poem stuns Baxter more than the nudity he demanded of her. Credible? Maybe that depends on the reader. Yet, in any case, the semi-miraculous save starkly contrasts with the father’s earlier observation that "His crime was to stand in the safety of his bedroom, wrapped in a woollen dressing gown, without moving or making a sound, half dreaming as he watched people die.” Throughout McEwan’s work, watching without acting always constitutes a crime.

Where does this leave the novelist? Maybe you want to write because it improves your immediate environment: a bit of reality more credible than reality itself in a world besmirched with socio-political rather than literary fictions. 

Art isn’t only for its audience. As Pablo Picasso put it, “We artists are indestructible; even in a prison, or in a concentration camp, I would be almighty in my own world of art, even if I had to paint my pictures with my wet tongue on the dusty floor of my cell.” 

According to E.A. Bucchianeri, “While art thrives on the blazing colours of scandal, literature blossoms on the dark soil of tragedy.”  Personally, I would very much prefer a different source of inspiration than what I, among millions of others, view as tragedy. But it won’t keep me from revising my novel, although it’s not a political one.

Besides, many believe that art, particularly fiction, affects its audience most deeply with drama, metaphor, subtext, and understatement. This suggests that railing about injustice won’t necessarily produce art. Yet, by grappling toward truth whether with paint (consider Picasso’s “Guernica”) or words, isn’t all art “Protest Art”? Isn’t all art at least theoretically political? In my own way, I will continue protesting. 

This is why. Wednesday morning, November 9, I happened to read “In Exile with Don Quixote,” by Ariel Dorfman, who wrote 
Those of us reading Don Quixote in 1973, in an embassy we could not leave, surrounded by soldiers ready to transport us to stadiums and cellars and, ultimately, cemeteries, responded viscerally to the novel. That continuous exultation and practice of liberty, both personal and aesthetic, was inspiring. —NY Times, 10/9/‘16
Dorfman alluded to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s confession in the prologue of this brand-new genre(1605) that this novel was “begotten in a prison where every discomfort has its place and every sad sound makes its home.” If he could compose a form that barely existed from inside a dungeon, what can you do? What should you do? 

Here’s Harry Belafonte on art and politics:
As Paul Robeson said, ‘Artists are the radical voice of civilization.’ Each and every one of you in this room, with your gifts and your power and your skills, could perhaps change the way in which our global humanity mistrusts itself. Perhaps we as artists and as visionaries, for what’s better in the human heart and the human soul, could influence citizens everywhere in the world to see the better side of who and what we are as a species.


Tip: Now more than ever, make your voice heard.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Notes on NaNoWriMo

That’s the acronym for National Novel Writing Month. The goal? “a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30.” 


According to Chuck Wendig, this computes to “at least 1,666 words per day over the 30 day period.” And he notes that lots of those words won’t be good, and that a more realistic word count for a novel is 70,000. So what’s the value of this?

Tip: Most writers have bad habits. And most writers benefit from identifying and breaking them.

The majority of writers are serious enough and smart enough to know that novel writing is rarely easy or lucrative. Perhaps they’ve already heard the Ernest Hemingway quote: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

If someone clever and conscientious has critiqued a novelist, then he or she has bravely or miserably learned the truth that “Writing is easy to do, but hard to master.” —  Jeff Goins, “5 Hard Truths about Writing” 

And the solution to “Writing a good book, compared to a bad one, involves one thing. Work.” —Jeff Berkun, “How to Write a Book—the Short Honest Truth”

How does this relate to NaNoWriMo, which involves piling up the words, then revising those words you piled up? Depending on your schedule, writing process, and comfort level, this month offers an opportunity to diagnose habits and decide might change. Recognize any of these?
  • I’m planning. That’s writing.
  • I'm scheduling when I'll write. That’s writing.
  • I’m depressed; I can’t write.
  • I’m ecstatic; I can’t write.
  • I only have two and one-half hours, so there’s no point starting.
  • I can only write if nothing distracts me.
  • I promised I’d write for ninety minutes and I’m already five over. I get to stop.
  • I can only write when I’m inspired.
  • I can only write when I know exactly where the scene is going.
  • I can only write under ideal conditions.
Really? Really? In Marge Piercy’s superb poem, “For the Young Who Want to,” she reminds us that

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.


Why not use this month to identify the ways you postpone writing? So you can write more. It’s never relaxing, might even be costly. How many of us applaud our efforts, thinking, “I couldn’t possibly have done better”? Yet, as novelist Chitra Divakaruni put it, “The question is what you would give up for your writing.” Want to use this month to find out?

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Wait for it

“Timing is everything” applies as much to fiction as anything else.  It’s too late once the wave hits, the leaves fall, or the sun sets or rises, and too early isn’t much better. Timing is a powerful ally—or enemy.


Which factors affect a novel’s timing?

~ Starting too early.

No harm in writers warming up, setting the scene, submerging first toe, then ankle, then thigh into the dark cold of the empty page. If you must, write down what you’re thinking. Then cut. Mercilessly. Novels start with the inciting incident that propels the entire book forward and not with the backstory, context, or status quo leading to the inciting incident. The same applies to scenes. Begin in medias res, or in the middle of the action or tension.

~ Minimizing the best moment.

Like everyone else, writers frequently abhor conflict. Who wants to cause trouble, feel lousy, or send someone else there? But readers await that very tension. As Charles Baxter reminds, “Hell is story friendly.” Offer heated arguments, enflamed accusations, and burning lust or envy. Fire up your characters, then let readers watch the desperate attempts to stamp out the fire. Wait for the moment of most intense passion, then deliver it. Slowly and seductively.

~ Resolving too soon.

Few novelists enjoy torturing their beloved creations with misery, misfortune, or misanthropy. Rather than watch characters suffer, particularly the protagonist, writers often assume a gently maternal attitude. Let’s make things better. As soon as possible. Readers, though, want just the opposite. It’s not sadistic to find character struggle spellbinding. After all, how the protagonist changes and wins, who saves the day and how—isn’t that the entire basis for the novel? So, within each scene, wait for the moment of greatest conflict, and climax there.

~ Ending too early.

Just as the struggles the plot introduces need to play out till the end, the novel as a whole must let both the dilemmas and their solutions ripen. Harvest what’s immature, and nothing tastes good. When approaching the words “The End,” some novelists can’t wait to get it over with. But stop to consider the last novel you read that sagged at its conclusion. Wait until it’s time to let go, and then do.

~ Ending too late.

But don’t wait too long. Fruit satisfies when plucked at just the right moment, neither grabbed too soon, nor left to shrivel. Wait until you’ve nourished all the tension, and all the character change this provoked. Then stop.

Timing is tricky because so many factors urge us to wait too long or not long enough. Think about your audience. Imagine yourself as reader rather than writer. There’s no better way to discern when the moment’s right.

Tip: Time is a crucial, too frequently dismissed element of fiction.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Hush, or Understatement, Subtext, and Whispering

Let’s start with a picture. After all, aren’t novels one picture after another of characters—both inside and out?


What do you see? This Bernini sculpture, which you can view in Rome’s elaborately decorated Santa Maria della Vittoria Church, has a story behind it.

The title, “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” clarifies that it’s a male angel, and that his hand, yes, indeed, is exactly where we suspected but were reluctant to admit. Is the angel really doing that? Yes.

Here’s a closer look. 


What captures the ecstasy? The Saint’s flung-back head, the arched body, the open mouth, the foot bodiless enough to seem devoid of bones. The sculpture melds earth and heaven—keen awareness of body with the ultimate transcendence of it. The sculpture conveys all this with such subtlety that without the tantalizing suggestion, much of this might go unnoticed. What a terrific recipe for fiction.

Tip: The more readers discover emotion, rather than being bludgeoned with it, the happier they'll be.

How does that work?

~ Understatement.

Intense emotion, such as tragedy, disaster, euphoria, or ecstasy needs implication. Because readers already know how they feel about such events. The more you “tell” them then, particularly with judgments like “horrible,” “painful,” “terrifying,” or joyous,” then the less readers can feel what they already do without your help. Abstract words, especially over-used ones, separate readers from plot, much the way adding the word “rapturous” to Bernini’s title would only interfere. Just as he uses the subtle folds of the marble—and what that implies—to make his point, use the events—not the descriptions—in your novel to make yours.

~ Subtext.

Literally what’s “beneath the words,” subtext involves what characters say indirectly.  A wife reluctant to confront her husband overtly might observe, “You needed another fishing rod?” A father might freak at his daughter’s low-cut, skin-tight tank top, and mutter, “Is that all you’re wearing? “Meaning implied but never vocalized both mimics real-life interaction and leaves readers free to interpret. This resembles the way one can scrutinize Bernini’s sculpture and infer the feelings of the angel and the saint.

~ Whispering.

With rare exceptions, the more intense the emotion, then the more subtly and quietly you ought to describe it. Defy this rule of both craft and psychology, and the likely result is melodrama, or a portrayal that feels sensational rather than emotionally gripping. Neither reader nor writer wants a novel to read like a tabloid.

How do you whisper? 
  • Use concrete language that evokes one of the five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell.
  • Avoid judgmental conclusions like “anguished,” “devastated,” or “heart-stopping.”
  • Focus more on what happens than how scary or wonderful or terrific it is.

Here’s the ultimate understatement: trust your audience. Bernini did.