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.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Physics of Emotion

Physics explores the essence and behavior of matter and energy.  In terms of fiction, this parallels the distinction between how characters feel and what they do or say. The difference is crucial, because when you say that Nancy is “angry,” or worse, “incredibly angry,” you’re not saying much. You’re simply “telling.” To “show,” readers need to participate in what you want to convey. For that, you need subtext or physicality, whether literal or symbolic. 

Instead of abstractions like “rage” or “frustration,” let readers hear how a character via what she doesn’t say. For example, “I see. That’s all you have to say about it.” The two sentences subtly capture an entire history.

Alternatively, reveal Nancy’s fisted hands, fiery scowl, squinted eyes, or her tone—that whisper thinly veils the urge to shriek. 

Tip: Make emotion tangible.

In “Showing–and Telling—Emotion in Fiction,” Dave King observes that “All good writing starts with good watching,” and, yes, that’s a terrific place to begin. 

Waiting in line, passing time in the airport, or nibbling in a restaurant, subtly, of course, check out body language. Can you guess how people are feeling even if you can’t hear what they’re saying? And if you can, why? What did you observe?

For further revelation, consider the work of Auguste Rodin. According to Nicole Myers, associate curator of European Painting and Sculpture, 

Rodin’s capacity to capture the human spirit in all its nuances was unrivaled. He was one of the first artists to consider fragments and partial figures to be complete works of art capable of expressing even the most complex thoughts and emotions. 




Even without knowing the titles of these two works from the current Rodin exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago, we can guess which emotions the artist wanted to convey. 

But how does that work in fiction? Actually, with remarkable similarity. Discard the notion that anything intangible, straightforward, and intellectual can capture feeling. In Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides describes this phenomenon:

Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness,’ ‘joy, or ‘regret.’ Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I'd like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.’

When we’re feeling emotions rather than writing about them, the event happens in a body. It needn’t even be a human one. There’s no question about whether cats are bored or irritated or dogs grateful. No words needed.


Words, of course, are the writer’s only tool. But some words don’t do what they’re supposed to. A lot of fiction is summary, often quite abstract. Emotions, though, are born in the realm of sensation. So if you want readers to feel them, you can’t describe. You must make feelings live.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Compress it! Pace It!

For the fiction writer, repetition is a trap, and a tough one to avoid. Later events must be set up, new characters need to know what readers already do; and sometimes it takes a few mishaps—possibly in the same setting—to get the protagonist properly cornered. Writers often hope that so long as something’s slightly different, such as the same anger for the same reason but more intently, readers will find it new. Sadly, that’s rarely the case.

Nor will scene versus what’s known as summary/sequel/narrative entirely solve the redundancy problem. Summary can magnificently foreshadow or dispense information. But the high stakes that fiction needs frequently originate in scene rather than summary. Or between them.

Tip: Exploit the underused territory between scene and summary.

The mixture of narrative and scene creates the illusion of “live” fictional time, just at a faster pace. 

Because she hadn’t contacted him since returning to New York, Ed reared back when Anna tried to hug him.

That’s a really brief, somewhat oversimplified example of the landscape between a full-blown scene and an entirely collapsed summary. Yet the sentence illustrates a swift summary (the dependent opening clause) preceding the start of a scene (the independent final clause).

Combine scene with summary, and you can accelerate the pace, or speed at which events pass readers. Instead of revisiting what readers have already seen (she hasn’t contacted him since returning to New York), modify something. Did Anna start to call Ed? Did Anna run into her former fiancé? Did Ed’s voice mail quit functioning? Change helps pursue not only the original source of tension and perhaps something else entirely.

That’s because novelty is not only what readers want but what novelists need. Bypass the parallel or similar by shaking things up.  That’s a boundless source of tension, emotion, and originality, not to mention the potential for symbolism, suspense, and complex characterization.

What kinds of questions shake things up so that nothing ever feels exactly the same?

  • If the location feels identical, how has the place changed?
  • Could an email or phone call let you summarize part of a scene?
  • If the character’s emotion is similar, how can you add a contrary nuance or dimension?
  • Depending on your novel’s point of view, can you revisit a moment from another perspective?
  • Can the scene end very differently this time? 
  • Can you add a “ticking clock”?
  • Can you develop rather than merely repeat any symbolism?
  • What’s the effect of a similar place at a very different time?


These questions suggest ways to manage momentum. And in “5 Ways to Pace Your Story,” K.M. Weiland observes that

Pacing is like a dam. It allows the writer to control just how fast or how slow his plot flows through the riverbed of his story. 


Pace originates not just from syntax and rhythm, but also scene and summary. Explore the fertile territory between those last two.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Scene: The Big Picture

In a way, every scene resembles a bouquet. Individual elements compose both. The end result must offer a coherent whole with a clear yet unobtrusive focal point. When the elements complement each other, the totality becomes far more effective than a single contribution. It’s the difference between this:


and this:


















No one would mistake a couple of flowers for a bouquet. With scenes, though, it’s less clear. Precisely what constitutes a scene?
A scene is a sequence of events that happens at a particular place and time and that moves the story forward. — Randy Ingermanson, “The Art and science of Writing Scenes”
Another slant on the scene comes from Jane Friedman:
A scene is a stylized, sharper simulacrum of reality.
Ideally, the scene integrates everything from both definitions. So a scene needs:

~ Tension.

Unless there’s substantial suspense, summarize instead.

~ Momentum.

The scene must contribute to character arc, or, again, wouldn’t summary be better?

~ Setting.

Although locale mustn’t dominate, characters need grounding. Always.

~ Artistry.

Along with drama, scenes need causality, propulsion, originality, and grace.

~ Credibility.

Only plausible characters and events evoke reader emotion. 

~ Focus.

Regardless of style or voice, tension is the crux of every scene.

Yet novelists conceptualize scenes differently. Drawn to setting or symbolism? You might disregard tension. Maybe you’re an action sort of gal. Will your characters be disembodied? Will you emphasize what they do and ignore why they do it?

Scenes work when novelists disregard personal predilection to provide the whole picture. Who wants a lopsided bouquet? 


Tip: Readers enjoy scenes that balance their elements—that complete the picture.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Your Voice, Please

The issue most novelists face isn’t a career like tinker, tailor, sailor, or spy, but, more likely, the residual from being or having been doctor, lawyer, or teacher. What might those last three share in common? A style slanted toward instruction coupled with “the curse of knowledge.”


First about that style. At least somewhat academic and professorial, there’s a plethora of multi-syllabic verbiage, as opposed to “lots of big words.”  The lofty tone is often characterized by passive voice, rather than “passive voice occurs frequently.” Contractions, unfortunately, are usually avoided. Sentences are long and complex but not necessarily rhythmic.

Determined to foster the meticulous understanding that previous professions demanded, novelists sometimes “tell” and then “show,” or “show” and then “tell”—just to make sure. Finally, educators and professionals often applaud this structure: Here’s what I’ll say, now I’ll speak my piece in detail, and, oh, since you perhaps missed it (possibly because you spaced out due to the endless repetition), I’ll just go over it one last time. 

First of all, novels need storytelling, suspense, and secrets. Edifying isn’t part of the recipe. In fact, what E.B. White said about poetry applies equally well to the novel: 

A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer... He unzips the veil from beauty, but does not remove it. A poet utterly clear is a trifle glaring.

And yet, ironically, the novelist obsessed with being clear at any cost might misstep anyway. Sadly, “the curse of knowledge” often interferes. As Steven Pinker explains,

I think the curse of knowledge is the chief contributor to opaque writing…It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that readers haven’t learned their jargon, don’t seem to know the intermediate steps that seem to them to be too obvious to mention, and can’t visualize a scene currently in the writer’s mind’s eye. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the concrete details—even when writing for professional peers.

Although Pinker’s emphasis here is nonfiction, the task of guiding readers through a fictional world can present an even greater challenge. After all, to compose a scene, novelists must know tons about setting, background, arc, motive, stage business, and conflict. No scene will be successful unless writers collect far more than will ever make it into the book. 

But here’s the problem. The prepping that helps a novelist create a better page increases the difficulty of assessing what readers don’t know or can’t follow.

So what’s the solution? You can’t undo the fact that you used to win cases or still consult or occasionally volunteer to teach here and there. You can remember that a novel isn’t a brief, a lecture, a lesson plan, or a diagnosis. So.

~ Walk in your reader’s shoes as often as you can.

~ Informalize your voice. 

~ Build bridges.

~ Provide grounding.


Tip: Great storytellers neither teach nor preach.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Arithmetic of Fiction

Few novelists ponder the addition and subtraction of storytelling. But writers can gain a lot from doing so.

Tip: A novelist’s single best editing tool is a metaphorical scissors.

As Louise Brooks puts it, "Writing is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent elimination."

Anton Chekhov agrees: "Brevity is the sister of talent."

Dozens of writers have commented on economy, so this blog could offer endless examples. Since that seems painfully ironic, on to the next topic.

Tip: A novelist’s second best editing tool is adding metaphorical bridges when needed.

Those bridges are called transitions.

Transitions are words or phrases that carry the reader from one idea to the next. They help a reader see the connection or relationship between ideas and, just as important, transitions also prevent sudden, jarring mental leaps between sentences and paragraphs.  — Leah McClellan, “Why transitions are important in writing”
Novelists want readers to savor the story without the unpleasant reminder that they’re reading one. So not just any transition will do.
transitions move the story forward cleanly and seamlessly. Done skillfully, your reader will hardly notice the breaks. — “All Write Fiction Advice”
Few of us build those bridges instinctively. How to accomplish that? First, identify the connection that never got onto the paper. Second, integrate that transition into the narrative.

Tip: Excess disguises what matters, not only for the reader, but also for the novelist.

In an odd psychological quirk, novelists often assume that the fictional journey needs whatever they wrote. Why else would they record it? This takes a lot for granted. Details might repeat, wander off topic, waste words, or explain the obvious. In a cluttered passage, how would you know? Inefficiency masks significance.

If clutter buries, you won’t notice the leap you require readers to take between one scene or moment or paragraph or sentence and the next. Cut superfluous dialogue or description, and the landscape of your fictional world becomes visible. Now you’re ready to build bridges.


Subtract enough, and it all adds up.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Pattern and Surprise in Fiction

The relationship between convention and deviation, expectation and revelation drives fiction. That’s exhibited in the pattern of story that’s remained stable for centuries: conflict…development…resolution. Obviously, though, tweak the specifics and that pattern feels different every time. 

Dozens of other patterns also underlie fiction: the structure of the paragraph, the alternation between scene and narrative, the major character arcs, and the moods, moments, or memories that echo each other. 

All those components of fiction involve reader expectations, whether fulfilling them or adding tension and suspense by credibly failing to fulfill them. 

Lisa Cron’s superb blog—“A Reader’s Manifesto: 12 Hardwired Expectations Every Reader Has” (October 9, 2014)—identifies the most crucial reader expectations. What could be more important than how writers handle focus, empathy, pace, and plot? 

Yet, in every instance, the presentation of setting or symbol affects reader response to those critical aspects of fiction that Cron lists.

Tip: Revisit without merely repeating. This satisfies the desire for recurrence plus change.

So if you return readers to a completely parallel or symmetrical exchange, issue, or location, you’ll defeat reader expectations every time. If Taffy again confers with her mom about her husband’s unemployment, something must differ. Maybe Mom thinks it’s time to leave him, or hire him in dad’s factory, or have Taffy work there herself. 

Otherwise, the story feels static. And Jessica Page Morrell is exactly right that every scene captures a progression toward fulfillment of arc. How can that happen if the characters simply repeat what they said before with the same objects in the same place?

Nor can even a conversation with higher stakes occur in an unaltered location. Maybe Ernesto proposes to Tamilla--his gorgeous, ambivalent girlfriend—in a rowboat drifting on moonlit Lake Emerald. However magnificent Lake Emerald, readers will balk at returning there if everything looks identical. Instead, maybe thick storm clouds now hide the moon. Is this boat too old and creaky to be safe? Disgusted with Tamilla’s affairs, perhaps Ernesto’s ready to drown her? Or maybe she’s the one who wants to send a body somewhere the police won’t easily find it.

The need for modification also applies to symbolism. If Gram gave Ernestine an exquisite hand-woven shawl, don’t simply over and over mention the shawl—or the chandelier or the tennis racket. Instead, use symbolic objects to represent how the plot thickens. Does the wood stove scorch the shawl? Must the impoverished family sell their chandelier? Despite the racket that belonged to Albert's renown uncle, does the boy still lose the state championship? 

Things don’t stay the same, though in life, it might feel as if they do. Fiction readers seek the credibility and pleasure of experiencing both the pressure of time and the possibility of growth and catharsis. Meeting those apparently conflicting expectations of familiarity and evolution may not be as difficult as it seems. As Susan Dennard reminds, 

You’re a reader too, so when you go back and read your story from start to finish, you’ll be able to sense if you’re meeting expectations or not.


And variation is a terrific tool for accomplishing that.