Sunday, February 19, 2017

What Can Dogs Teach Novelists?

Most of us love dogs for attributes equally delightful in fiction writers. It’s easy to love someone who only wants to please, who would do most anything for most anyone. Novelist Nora Roberts claims that “Everything I know, I learned from dogs.” Perhaps not, but here are some canine secrets, anyway:

~ Tenderness

Charles Baxter was 100 % correct when he observed that “Hell is story friendly.” Kindness to readers involves unkindness to characters—often and viciously. This doesn’t mean that writers are cruel-hearted. If you want readers to bleed emotionally over these beings you’ve sent into their lives, the creator of those characters must bleed emotionally as well. 

This discomfort comes in two flavors. It’s painful to watch your good guys in trouble, yet also painful to sorrow over the pain your villains bring on themselves. Whenever this seems unendurable, contemplate the stoicism of dogs.
~ Loyalty

Even if punished, banished, struck repeatedly with a rolled up newspaper, they never give up on those they love. Don’t give up on your characters, however confusing, exhausting, or mortifying Don’t give up on making your novel everything it could be, either—no matter how many years that takes.

~ Passion

Consider how canines greet other canines, not to mention live or dead anything-in-motion, and definitely not food. Food!!! Everything, then, is delicious, captivating, magnetizing, and always new. What a terrific way to move through the world. What an even more terrific way to write about the world. Invite passion, whether about storms, ice hockey, or the bulging contours of a ripe tomato. There’s no better antidote for dismissing boredom, in your readers or yourself.
~ Shamelessness

Yes, naughty dogs droop their necks so they can look abjectly at you through half-raised eyes. It’s mostly show, however. Reach your hand down for a forgiving pat, and all’s forgotten. The next hamburger at the edge of the table will meet the same fate as those preceding it. You left it there. Do you truly expect the dog to ignore it?

“Dogs act exactly the way we would act if we had no shame,” Cynthia Heimel believes, and shame has no place in the novelist’s toolkit. Dogs teach us that having sex with strangers in broad daylight is no cause for chagrin. Neither is sniffing the foulest leavings that came from the foulest places. Don’t disrobe in public or play in the cat box. Please. Do probe humanity’s darkest places. That includes your own history, your own heart.

Tip: Dogs can be role models for the treatment of characters—and readers. 

Here’s Charles M. Schulz about being too hard on yourself: “All his life he tried to be a good person. Many times, however, he failed. For after all, he was only human. He wasn't a dog.”

Sunday, February 12, 2017

“The Decisive Moment”

In the preface to the book of that title, Henri Cartier-Bresson accompanied his photographs with commentary, including “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” Unintentionally, of course, this idea applies not only to camera work, but to the engine that drives fiction. 

Tip: “Decisive Moments” structure your novel and the scenes (or summaries) composing its plot.


It starts with noticing. Whether with camera, computer, or pen, you need first to identify significance, then be certain that you capture it. After all, as he observed, “Once you miss it, it is gone forever.” 
Ready yourself to seize flashes of inspiration, whether they wake you at dawn, strike when you get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, or disrupt concentration on rush hour traffic. 

Don’t, needless to say, endanger yourself with sleep deprivation, eyes on your iPhone, or both. 

~ Do make sure you have a means to record even the most slender wisp of idea. Otherwise, how will you ever know how big it might have become?

Cartier-Bresson felt strongly about the impact of a single moment, saying, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” 

~Don’t view this premise as unrelated to fiction.

~ Do harness the construct of the “decisive moment” to structure your novel and choose what you present in “live time” and what you summarize.

In fiction, those “decisive moments” are the pressure points that create character arc. The protagonist’s customary response, whether waiting, rationalizing, or denying, is now impossible. However painfully or foolishly, the character must act—and immediately. Just as photographers portray the external world, the novelist must accept that readers want to view the most intense moments through action and imagery. The best pressure points are photographable. This prevents the clutter of excessive rumination, review, or reconstruction. 

Once you recognize your novel’s events in terms of “decisive” or “significant,” you’re on track to decide what should unfold, detail by detail. The rest? Collapse it into a swift abbreviation of what readers need to know but have no need to watch.

The Cartier-Bresson phrase “proper expression” is already ambiguous, and more so when applied to prose. Yet in either fiction or photography, “proper expression” means that the portrayal says it all—no caption needed. If you’ve found the “decisive moments” of your protagonist’s journey, never deflate them by explaining what they mean. 

Haven’t found the “decisive moments” yet? How matter how many words, drafts, or themes you’ve amassed, it’s back to the storyboard. The best novels, no matter how historical or literary, always build from the moments when there’s no turning back. And it’s most fun for readers when these pivots, or turning points, are barely visible until the plot ends and readers grasp the how and why. 


Here’s to “decisive moments.”

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Next Page—and the One After


What keeps readers turning pages, and why do you care? The first answer is complicated, the second simple. Without enthusiastic momentum, your reader—whether agent, publisher, or audience—is gone.

Happily, there’s more than one way to keep those fingers moving, because each reader turns pages for slightly different reasons. Here are some possibilities:

~ Suspense

This asset occurs frequently, because many readers and writers associate the novel with impassioned curiosity about what’s next. The supremacy of plot is somewhat genre dependent. Still, whatever your style or subject, don’t skimp on this expectation. Every genre needs some sort of tension on every page.

~ Characterization

Re-examine To Kill  Mockingbird, and its rather antiquated style might dismay you.  Why, then, do so many people list it as their most favorite ever? Few kids rival Scout’s gloriously naive sense of right and wrong. The same might be said of her extremely mature dad. Create characters one can’t forget, and readers will sigh when there are no more pages to turn.

~ Scenario

What do the Da Vinci Code and the Harry Potter series share in common? A wide range of people respond to mystery, underdogs, resourcefulness, and archetypes. Of course it rarely makes sense to replace the scenario that calls to you with a more marketable one. But it makes terrific sense to add heft, originality, danger. Can you make the Concept bigger? More enticing?

~ Emotions

Unless your characters experience them deeply, your readers won’t experience them at all. Yet belabor or “tell” about feelings, and readers still won’t respond. Emotions are concrete, dynamic responses to reality. Present them that way.

~ Secrets

Who doesn’t love them? But if we know too much or little, those whispers can irritate more than intrigue. It never hurts to map out how and when you dispense your novel’s secrets.

~ Humor 

Whether or not your novel is a comic one, exploit every opportunity for laughter, including the bleak irony of tragedy.

~ Poetry

Some novelists write so beautifully that we want more and more and more. At least occasionally, join them.

~ Intellectual curiosity

Those interested in classical music, RNA, or history can’t wait to see what Richard Powers will teach them on the next page of The Gold Bug Variations. What’s your audience curious about?

Whether drama, originality, voice, insight, or point of view, there’s more than one way to keep readers losing sleep and missing calls because they can’t put your book down.

Tip:  Know, internalize, and use your best tricks to keep the pages turning.

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.