Sunday, January 22, 2017

Fiction versus Nonfiction?

The pronounced divide between these has diminished. At its best, nonfiction sparkles because it incorporates characterization and drama, while writers like Jonathan Franzen, Margaret George, Daisy Godwin, David Liss, and Donna Tartt wow readers with facts they never knew they were dying to know. How do they do it?

Tip: At its best, fiction so cleverly disguises a little nonfiction that readers barely notice.

So what is this nonfiction that needs to be there, but needs to be disguised?

~ Background and backstory.

Every character lives somewhere and has a certain education, political slant, and life before the Inciting Incident. Readers might not need to know all that but certainly need to know some. 

~ World-building.

Much contemporary fiction derives its power by recreating Tudor England, the Italian Renaissance, or the Vietnam War; or by inventing new planets, species, or social systems.

~ General information.

Contemporary readers often enjoy leaving a novel knowing more about chromosomes, knitting, the transgender experience, hockey, or life on the tundra.

The good news is that you can “teach” a bit of what you’d like to—perhaps the original motive underlying the novel—by thinking about how, and when, you do that. No part of your novel should resemble a lengthy nonfiction lapse readers never signed on for. So try these:

*** Watch your sentence structure.

Basically, the more complex the information, then the greater the necessity of shortening and varying sentences. Work to divide concepts into accessible mouthfuls, so your readers don’t have to. Alternate sentence length. Your goal isn’t showing off what you know, but condensing and simplifying.

*** Be concrete.

Whether with literal details or symbolic comparisons, frequently introduce one or more of the five senses.What does an RNA strand resemble? How does a touchdown sound?

*** Check your organization.

That’s the beauty of computers. You can swiftly try a sentence in six different locations.

*** Provide something to hang on to.

Hang the abstract or strange on a rack that’s both familiar and substantial.

*** Balance edification with suspense and emotion. 

A moment of high tension or heartbreaking loss is a great time for a fact or two. Just never let it feel like a “teachable moment.” 

Do it with a plot.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What Can Cats Teach Novelists?

Cat tales arrive as Puss in Boots or Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat, along with a presence in romance, mystery, fantasy, and mainstream. This collection purrs, speaks, intimidates, and remains aloof. But do the cats teach? As they themselves might say, this depends on how you look at it.

Cats either represent or illustrate attributes useful to every novelist:

~ Curiosity 

If there’s a box—they’ll test it; a drape—they’ll climb it; a noisy thing that moves—they’ll chase. While their owners prefer to have the drapes left alone, as a novelist, it’s a fine idea to contemplate everything. And then? Catlike, you decide it isn’t actually all that interesting and move on to the next possibility. What better way to uncover the ultimate entertainment? What better way to discover what’s worth pursuing?

~ Mystery

Part of feline wisdom is awareness that everything’s rich with possibility, potential hiding places, and relentless struggle between predator and prey. Have you left enough to your reader’s impressive imagination? Do your characters reveal what you never consciously imagined? Does your plot surprise? As the great mystery master confessed, “I wish I could write as mysterious as a cat.” - Edgar Allan Poe

~ Solitude

Critique groups and writing partners are great: they provide the objective feedback every novelist needs. In the end, though, it’s just you and a blank sheet or screen. Cats understand that many magical moments occur alone, in covert crannies where no distraction can touch you. It’s just you and your own world, whether that’s beside the fireplace, under a blanket, or inside the one your own mind created.

~ Patience

The scent of a mouse, however long-gone, can keep a crouched cat eyeing the tempting territory for hours, returning to check over and over. After all, anything there once could return!  Tenacity helps you continue revising until the page does what you intend—no matter how long this takes. Tenacity fortifies through the long process of completing a novel that meets very high standards. The kind cats would impose if they chose to read.

~ Sensuality

When fiction works, it’s as luxurious as a cat stretched full-length, purring softly because its this moment offers the perfection every cat expects as an inherent birthright. If novels aren’t sensual, what are they for?

Cats charm not only as companions, but as symbols. Inscrutable and self-contained, yet within reach. As Ray Bradbury observed, “That’s the great secret of creativity. You treat ideas like cats: you make them follow you.”

Tip: Not every novelist needs a cat. But every novelist needs the best qualities of cats.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Getting to Know What Readers Know—or Don’t

Unless you enjoy clairvoyance along with creativity, you’ll never be certain what readers find baffling or belaboring. But you can develop significant skill at approximating, and the better your guesswork becomes, then the likelier you are to avoid dispensing too much or little. 

If readers have chosen your novel, don’t they want to hear everything you have to say? Of course not. 
Here’s the sort of thing they want you to omit.

“x.” What they’ve already heard.

Never be less aware of repetition than your readers.When writers revise over and over, as we definitely need to do, we sometimes forget what’s been established. This is especially treacherous when informing other characters about preceding events. Assume your readers are smart and have good memories. This encourages you to replace repetition with swift summary.

“x” Abstract description of emotions.

You “tell” every time you say, “Esmerelda was angry,” or “Romanov was sad.” Novelists frequently adopt such wording when transitioning from a general overview to a specific example. But that solves one problem by introducing another. Engage readers with body language and literal or symbolic imagery.

“x” Tedious logistics.

It’s charming that you can pinpoint the distance between the village where Prudence lives and the park where she makes love with Oscar in the bushes. Still, the lovemaking intrigues readers, not the park being 7.4 miles northwest of town, how long it takes to bike there, or even the exact number of hills Oscar must surmount to reach his beloved.

“x” Painful didactics.

Just because you know all about shipbuilding in ancient Greece, Caillebotte’s palette, or every detail about America’s greatest quarterback, don’t assume that readers also want to know. Never bury the plot or lose your voice. Instead? Integrate facts into the story itself, or use them as a delaying tactic to escalate suspense. Keep the emphasis on the fiction—not the “non.” 

Of course you must also guess what readers do want. That’s qualities like these:

~ Clarity.

Readers want to feel grounded. Who is this guy? When did the revelers leave the house? Where are we, and how did we get there?

~ Causality.

What induced this moment? Reveal motive not only through scene goals, pressure points, and character arc, but at the level of the sentence with words like “while” and “but.”  

~ Mystery. 

Manipulate details so that readers can frequently infer without ever feeling confused. That’s the not-so-secret secret to what readers want to know.

Tip: Successful fiction masters the delicate balance between inference and explanation.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Rules and Resolutions: Brake or Break?

Something in us loves formulas and fresh starts, vows and pledges. After all, if you aspire to quality, you want to identify which mountains to disregard or hike, and how to discern when you approach the summit. For many, January 1 promises a chance to do better. More exercise and writing, healthier food, less to be guilty about, more opportunities for pride as opposed to arrogance.

Tip: You can’t decide which rules to break—and when—unless you know the rules in the first place.

For better self-diagnosis, read plenty of fiction and nonfiction about fiction (as opposed to fiction about how fiction is actually written and judged).

~ Understand the rules well enough to evaluate when to break them.

There’s oodles of info on this, on the web and elsewhere. For example, at the “Literary Hub,” Amitava Kumar offers “Ten Rules of Writing,” everything from length of sentence to daily practice.

Stephen King has twenty rules, culminating in “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. Writing is magic, as much as the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink.”

It continues. In The Guardian, Margaret Atwood suggests:
You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
Determined to maintain fiction as art rather than industry, again in The Guardian, Jonathan Franzen insists that “Fiction that isn’t an author’s personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn’t worth writing for anything but money.” 

~ Use your knowledge of the rules to consciously choose when to break them.

In “Brain Pickings,” Neil Gaiman assures that
The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
Scott Turow made this point at ThrillerFest (2014): “I think that you must be aware of the existing conventions. … That does not mean that you cannot reinvent them in your own way.”

The better you internalize rules or resolutions, then the more successfully you’ll reinvent them. A preference for “showing” over “telling” is helpful, as is awareness of when readers want a transitional bridge, even though the author writing the scene can follow perfectly. 

~ Sense when you’re being subjective, even self-indulgent. That’s when you want to apply the brakes.

These questions might help you analyze based exclusively on craft:
  • Do you merely seek what’s easiest?
  • Is your rationale for disregarding this rule or resolution legitimate?
  • Is the main motive anxiety that you’ll never devise a preferable solution?

Meticulous attention to rules can breed mediocrity. But complete disregard for rules can breed failure. Like everything else about writing, the goal is candid self-assessment coupled with rigorous follow-through. Resolve to make revision seem not like strenuous tedium, but euphoric fun.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Story: Sympathy and Significance

The integration of character with plot moves us as few things can. Here’s an example. Among three 4-D shorts at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium is “Sea Monsters: A prehistoric Adventure (National Geographic, 2007). 

That genre and topic might sound irrelevant to the contemporary novel. Actually, though, the story of a young marine dinosaur named Dolly provokes acute understanding of evolution,  fossil hunting, and one prehistoric creature’s existence. The movie exploits adventure and mystery to teach science and connect with distance that’s difficult to conceive. Whether animated film or fiction, story lets humans remember, relate, perhaps even rectify. That’s the common thread between dolls, dolomite, and Don Juan, along with billions of other possibilities. All of it starts with character.

~ Character

The star of this particular story is a Dolichorhynchops from the vast inland sea of Kansas 80 million years ago. That world feels close and vital less due to 4-D (including rumbling and a bit of splashing) than a protagonist with a plight culminating in more than one happy ending.

Empathy comes from identifying with another being—human or otherwise. Fortunately, face-to-face experience evokes kindness in most primates. But from afar, when beings vastly differ in appearance, lifestyle, habitat, or time span, empathy comes harder, too often disintegrating into a sense of “Other”: “You’re not like me, so I don’t have to care.” 

That where story comes in. Once readers connect, they feel compassion, even when the species has an unfamiliar, unpronounceable name. Happily, characterization often shatters distrust of “Otherness.”

~ Plot.

Dolly’s Super-Objective, or primary goal, is surviving long enough to reproduce. Around 80 million years later, paleontologists from Kansas to Australia, from 1918 to 2002, have their own Super-Objective. What can they learn about Dolly from the fossil she has become? Like all good stories, theirs has elements of mystery, of change.

The journey of a character, whether from another world, timeframe, or continent, always involves external pressure. The interaction between environment and Super-Objective instigates plot. The secret behind all those childhood favorites (“Curious George,” “The Velveteen Rabbit,” “The Little Engine that Could”) is the same secret that drives novelists from Jane Austen to Zora Neale Hurston: Will this character I’ve come to care about get the job done? By the deadline?

Strong plots follow the classical pattern: The protagonist is in trouble. As Charles Baxter put it, “Hell is story friendly.” Then the protagonist must have enough perseverance, chutzpah, and skill to continue struggling even when it seems hopeless. Dolly has quite a battle with that shark. And the entire audience breathes a huge sigh of relief when she escapes with only the small wound that will solve the mystery of her life story (a fragment of shark tooth embedded in her skeleton). 
Plot and protagonist must be inseparable. Unless we care about the character, no amount of plot will matter. Unless something’s relentlessly progressing, even the best-drawn  character can’t sustain the story.

~ Theme.

It’s the reward for integrated character and plot. Depending on how you interpret theme, every story has it, even if it’s mainly that detectives must look beneath the surface to compute whodunit, or love’s better the second time around, or look before you leap.

The themes in this short film are immense. The rocks are full of stories. Fossils are stories. The stories of the dead live well beyond their material existence. And those who hunt those stories become stories themselves. 

Tip: Whatever you want to say, let your story—and only your story—say it.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

How Not to Break a Bough


If you pile on too much weight, whether it’s a tree limb or a story’s spine, the structure won’t withstand the burden.

Story spine? This term from the screenplay world is equally useful to both screenwriters and novelists, explaining how story builds from the fusion between longing and action. The article “Classical Screenplay Structure,” from the Screenplayology site, defines the protagonist’s driving desire as a Super-Objective, a passion that motivates the journey from inciting incident to climax:
the Spine is the unified thread of actions taken on the part of the character in pursuit of his or her Super-Objective. Together, the Super-Objective and Spine offer the screenwriter a path of adherence to Aristotle’s prescription of plot unity.
Of course Aristotle’s three unities (time, place, and action) translate only indirectly to film and fiction. Many novels span planets, across centuries. And although a play without subplots might seem exquisitely coherent, contemporary audiences both expect and enjoy subplots. The Poetics best assists contemporary writers when applied to the spirit, rather than the letter, of its laws.

Tip: Strong story structure originates in an inextricable meshing of plot and character.

In Kate Wright’s excellent blog on “The Five S’s of Screenwriting, she clarifies that
Spine begins with discovering what your story is about through character behavior. It is about creating a unifying depth within your story, character by character, action by action, sequence by sequence, layer upon layer. The surprise is that once you discover what your story is about on a profound level, there are an infinite number of insights and details you can infuse into the material through character behavior, actions, and images. The challenge is to discover this unifying idea or principle that synthesizes what the story is about in simple terms.
Have you identified the driving force of your novel? That’s the start of its spine, a backbone both sturdy and flexible enough to support all the images and examples most novelists long to include. Solidify the fundamental structure, and you get to indulge yourself a little (though just a little!) more.

Karina Wilson’s column on “Screenwriting: The Emotional Spine” analyzes the fusion of individual units into a powerful whole:
The spine has three main functions in a vertebrate: strength, flexibility and communication. The emotional spine of a screenplay serves those same purposes. It provides strength, joining the separate elements of plot and character, and connecting the three acts. It provides flexibility, especially within characterization, allowing people to twist, to be flawed, erratic, make bad decisions and U-turns–as long as they remain connected to the spinal cord. It permits the communication of messages, particularly within subtext and meta-narrative, running deeper than dialogue, or a single character’s arc.
Each portion of that backbone must fit and contribute.  Obvious as this sounds, most writers at least occasionally get lost in word choice at the expense of the deep structure.

How to remedy that? Susan Kougell suggests literally picturing a human spine and hanging plot points on that. Some may find this a bit metaphorical. The idea, though, is to fashion  a spine sturdy enough to support all the characters, details, and description. No vertebrae can be weak or absent. The story shouldn’t stoop over or suffer from osteoporosis, a pitiful core, or a flabby middle.

For many of us, weighing down the offshoots comes more easily and feels more fun. But that makes for a misshapen tree or novel. Build a mighty trunk, capable of supporting a blizzard of snow—or words. It’s all about the spine.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Seeing the Stories in the Stars

Some of the earliest storytellers looked up at those distant pinpoints of light and both identified and created patterns—which is the beginning of storytelling.  Using this pattern-finding ability, various societies detected not just three stars, but a shepherd, a messenger to the gods, a foreshadowing of winter,  the three Wise Men, a symbol of yahweh’s power, a swordsman, a hunter.


That’s an awful lot of stories, gleaned from all over our planet, evoked by random stars that barely represent any pattern at all. But this isn’t surprising because, according to  Michael Shermer, “Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.” 

We invent stories to entertain, explain the inexplicable, cement social cohesiveness, cope with adversity, and even defy death. “The patterns we perceive,” John Verndon says, “are determined by the stories we want to believe.”  So as a novelist, you want to reveal a pattern that illustrates whatever you’d like readers to notice, consider, or even do.

~ Plot.

This, of course, is the fundamental use of a pattern to convey beliefs. In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the pattern takes the shape of a journey down the river, one beginning with total naivety on the boy’s part, ending with a glimmer of understanding that slaves are not property or “Other”—but fellow humans, and being “sivilized,” as Huck puts it, isn’t just confining. It’s down right dangerous. 

This sort of episodic story structure is out of favor these days. But the strategy of transforming random events into a  coherent pattern is certainly not. Most novels, contemporary or otherwise, use pattern to reveal a different way to see the world. 

~ Imagery.

Patterns shape Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The lighthouse itself is a distant beacon symbolizing different things to different characters, but to them all, it’s out of reach, even when you get there. How you think about the lighthouse controls what you’re able to do, as Lily discovers when she’s finally able to complete her painting. 

Novelists have always used imagery to compare and contrast characters in terms of moral or aesthetic values. Images not only cement theme but bind disjointed events and details into a coherent whole. Recurring patterns can unite an encyclopedia range of illustrations and tangents, as Jonathan Franzen does in The Corrections or Chad Harbach in The Art of Fielding

~ Causality and morality.

Perhaps it seems a little dated to have all the good guys win and the all the bad ones wind up behind bars. Yet The Memory Keeper’s Daughter (Kim Edwards) reminds us to be careful what—or whom—we discard. Writers like Shauna Singh Baldwin, Kiran Desai, Chitra Divakaruni, Chang-Rae Lee, and Colson Whitehead remind us, much like Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, that treating others intolerantly yields intolerable cruelty.

The novel remains a moral instrument because a passion for justice underlies the human storytelling drive. Always has. If fiction is as random as reality, or as cruel as the underdog losing and tyranny triumphing, how can the novel achieve its ultimate purpose? The novel remains a source of hope when the world outside the book’s pages seems mighty hopeless.

But that hope must be earned. If heroes win simply because they're lucky, fiction merely replicates the world readers seek to escape by reading about heroes?  Most novels trace just causality. Be brave, oppose immorality, capitalize on resources you never knew you had and you can right wrongs, acquire human or divine salvation. Repair the broken world. 

Fiction satisfies us most when looking back on the one we just finished, we detect a subtle pattern. The journey involved maturation from obvious mistakes to misfortune to finally achieving happiness and victory due to better, wiser, more generous choices. Novels serve the same purpose as constellations. It’s not just dark and distant out there. Orion looks down on us.

Tip: Stories do their work by revealing hidden patterns.