Thursday, March 23, 2017

Post-Birthday Blog

When’s yours? Mine just was, instigating some musing on the years passing, with the writing happening or not, the publishing happening or not. Whenever your birthday is, perhaps you also contemplate the questions that plague or enthrall me.

~ Why do you write?

Most of us aren’t in it for the moolah, because there’s generally little enough of that except, as in most areas these days, at the tippy-top. Some of the most talented writers I know rarely type or write—it’s too scary, painful, frustrating, or something they can’t or won’t identify. I love to write—creating, tinkering, revising brings me joy. I don’t have a goal or message or plan as much as the pure jubilation of the process. I understand how fortunate this is.
If writing doesn’t provide happiness or income, perhaps it’s not for you.
~ How much does publishing matter?

As you know already perfectly well, it’s a tough industry out there. Word has it that publishers no longer bother responding even to agents. So the supposed magic bullet of acquiring one offers no guarantee. You might have an agent on your side, and still have along wait till securing a publisher. 
Where does this leave you? Try this. A writer—an extremely talented one—recently told me that if she landed an agent and then a publisher, she’d love it. If she didn’t, so what? She confessed that she never expected to complete a novel, much less have one ready to sell. For her, that was enough. 
What’s enough for you?  If you don’t know, what you haven’t admitted might circle around and bite you in the foot. And then in the other foot.
~ How long should this current project of your take?

Many writers have externally imposed deadlines, and they must stick to them. If the novel isn’t quite ready, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s now June 1 or November 15, or whatever. I have the luxury of working on what I write until I feel it’s done. That consistently takes hours rather than minutes, and, more often than not, years rather than months. Does that matter? Not to me. It takes as long as it takes to make my writing what I want it to be. 
What about you?  How much time are you willing to give? When is it too much?
Tip: Writing is so personal; it’s crucial to understand—and accept—your own process.

How can you get what you want if you have no idea what that is? Figure that out. Then give yourself this particular present. After all, whenever your birthday was, there’s another right around the corner. Take advantage.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

To Reach, Neither Preach Nor Teach

This applies to many people, about many things, but especially so for novelists. No matter how literary or curious the reader, pleasure remains the novel’s purpose. If readers want judgment, there’s plenty of philosophy or scripture to peruse. If readers seek information or education, there’s plenty of stellar nonfiction out there. Where does fiction fall on this continuum?

Tip: Share what’s on your mind, so long as it doesn’t feel like school or synagogue.

Don’t let anything upstage the entertainment. That’s easy to forget, because storytelling grew from painfully didactic roots: Greek drama threatened the dire results of hubristic arrogance, and Samuel Richardson (Pamela) and Henry Fielding (Tom Jones) respectively outlined how to be a virtuous woman or man. These plays and novels remain historically and aesthetically valuable, but today’s audience usually rejects an onslaught of oversimplified morality.

Because many see a broad of expanse of gray where exclusive good or evil once resided. And even on polarized issues, today’s readers prefer understatement. According to playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America):
I go into any movie that's historical fiction thinking, 'OK, I'm here to watch a work of art, something delivering a series of opinions, and if it's a good work of art, these opinions become so deeply embedded in complexity and richness that I won't even be bothered by the opinions. I'll make my own mind up.
Some would insist that to accomplish this, you must never “tell.” But what exactly does that  mean? Most writers occasionally “tell,” sometimes quite intentionally. All but the most inexperienced writers know this already, so this judgment against judgment often sounds patronizing. The reminder to give your audience the exquisite pleasure of inference seems far more useful.

The “teaching” aspect of fiction is a more ambiguous than the “showing” component. After all, superb novels like Life Mask (Emma Donoghue), Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel), A Conspiracy of Paper (David Liss), or Galatea 2.2 (Richard Powers) convey vast amounts of information.  Does it feel like being educated? Not at all. Does it feel like school? Never.

And this is why.

~ Put characters foremost. 

Guy Vanderhaeghe reminds that “History tells us what people do; historical fiction helps us imagine how they felt.”

~ Harness the power of plot. 

Integrate facts about the environment with the events occurring there. As Hilary Mantel puts it:
Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world.
~ Stay in voice.

The thousands of superb creative nonfiction books out there prove that facts needn’t bore. It entirely depends on tension, characterization, tone, word choice, humor, lyricism, even sentence structure.

How do writers reach you? That’s no different from how readers want you to reach them.

Sunday, March 12, 2017


Banishment has a spicy etymology, associated with outlawed, cursed, prohibited, or exiled. 
Here’s the start of a list of what you might usefully banish from your novel.

~ Fatigued and fatiguing scene and especially chapter openings. 

Start with a hook. Every time. John Green opens The Fault in Our Stars this way:
Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
Not “My mother’s appraisal was that I was depressed.”

~ Drooping middle.

Glen C. Strathy says that “The middle is just as important as the end.” You need subplots, varied settings, escalating tension, and foreshadowing of every character arc. Make the middle matter.

~ No deus ex machina.

Yes, agents and publishers prefer novels to come in under 100,000 words. You’re already past that, so you—just stop. Always convey at least some resolution, and without any cavalry.

~ Offstage action.

Tough as it might be to write sex, confrontation, explosion, or violence, let your readers experience the exciting parts in real time. Don’t collapse or summarize set scenes or drama.

~ An endless list of supporting characters.
How many is too many? That’s unanswerable. What is? Fewer characters are better.

~ Dead metaphors.

They offer all the imagery of stars on a summer night, and that truth is as good as gold.

~ Mixed metaphors.

They irritate like as an invisible memory glittering in your heart.

~ Passive voice.

There have not been found that many reasons for it to be used by you.

~ Double Negative.

It isn’t right not to use double negatives. See what happens?

Tip: Banish both listlessness and clutter. Exile them from the pages of your book.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

To Verb?

Not “verbalize,” but “verbify,” as only verbs can. Because they resuscitate, activate, renovate. Verbs definitely make love, definitely make great prose. As Constance Hale put it :
A sentence can offer a moment of quiet, it can crackle with energy or it can just lie there, listless and uninteresting. What makes the difference? The verb. 
Since verbs soar, burrow, compress, and energize, why would so many writers waste them? Lots of reasons, but mainly bad habits and worse word choices. Since verbs drive fiction’s engine, “So many problems are solved simply by knowing enough verbs.” (Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

Knowing them is almost enough. You must also choose which and when.

~ Verbs can electrify or lull.

Pedestrian verbs entice no better than the adjectives and adverbs generally employed to vivify those verbs. “Marshall turned,” “Penelope went,” “Byron responded,” “Andromeda moved,” “The quintuplets waited.” Yawn. 

However literary a story, action still pumps its heart. Harness verbs that tease, propel, and capture. Annie Dillard  believes that “Adverbs are a sign that you’ve used the wrong verb,” as in “She walked mincingly” (instead of “minced”); “He moved slowly” (instead of “trudged” or “sauntered”), or “They advanced stealthily” (instead of “tiptoed” or “crept”).

~ Verbs can act or just be.

As William Safire said, “If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.” William Safire  raises the stakes higher:
Root out all the “to be” verbs in your prose and bludgeon them until dead. No “It was” or “they are” or “I am.” Don’t let it be, make it happen. 
Characters must act and react rather merely “being scared” or “having doubts.” The best inciting incidents and climaxes still lag when the language conveying them describes rather than performs, analyzes rather than dramatizes.The writer’s task? Don’t block the reader’s view of the character, which, by definition, modifiers do.

~ Verbs can punctuate or falter.

Many writers learned (in contrast with “were taught”) to relish the grammatical accuracy of “I had been sobbing” in contrast with the current flood of tears. However correct, this distances the characters—and the scene they inhabit.  “I was sobbing,” produces the same effect, not to mention “I feared I would have been sobbing if my daughter had not been waiting downstairs for me.” Don’t emasculate what happens. 

~ Verbs can symbolize or confuse.

Verbs make miracles—highlighting themes, exposing subterfuge, feigning innocence, swelling tension. Often a barely visible metaphor cements this. If you strike an argumentative blow, it won’t override your adversary’s stamina. If mom illuminates an idea, her son can’t blot it out. If you dissolve a problem, its tentacles can’t rear up to haunt you. 

Tip: Select great verbs. Follow them to their logical conclusion. Then get out of their way.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Glorious Sentences Are Made—Not Born

Novelists compose scads of unsuccessful sentences, and many stay that way. Hardly surprising, given decades of bad habits like thinking aloud, writing the way you talk, trying to sound “fancy,” avoiding confrontation via vagueness, or inflicting academic jargon.

Without pointing the finger at particular best sellers or prize winners, I’ll admit that rip-roaring scenarios or political correctness let many weakly written novels do extremely well.  But. Would  you rather compensate for lame sentence structure, or fix them? This checklist might help.

~ How many sentences (particularly at paragraph beginnings) start with a noun or pronoun? 
Constant use of subject-verb-object (“Hortense bewitched him”) drags. Eyeball the page to check this. Does the left margin languish with repetition? Variety spices not only life, but prose. Seriously. Experiment with fragments. Combine sentences. Divide them. Possibilities abound, and perfecting sentences simultaneously thickens plot and deepens characters. Such a bonus..
~ What’s with the auxiliary verbs? 
Not much, Avoid clutter with weak verbs like “is” or “had.” Action verbs deliver best: “strike,” “kiss,” “shred,” “blink,” “jump.” Exploit the rich heritage of English: whale road meant “ocean”; fire-hammer meant “sword.”
Electrify with symbolic verbs: “illuminate,” “decimate,” “infiltrate.” But follow the metaphor you introduced. Casual or not, it’s still a metaphor. 
~ Do you write tight?
Why say “drew tighter” when you can simply “tighten”?
~ Are you descending into the many ways there are for passive voice to be used by you?
Characters can “buy” stuff or pass “by” train terminals, and “by” also describes time. Dangerously, though, “by” builds this structure: “The ball was hit by the cheerleader.” This is rarely a good way for “by” to be used by you! Why not perform a search for “by”? Innocuous as seems, passive voice enervates, while distancing readers from the characters they follow.
~ If it can be a verb, is it?  
You emasculate prose with “Heraldo experienced fear of seagulls—even the small  ones,” instead of  “Heraldo feared seagulls—even the small ones.”
~ Do you overload the sentence opening?
Avoid constructions like “The reason that Mary can never get enough of lilac fragrance is that these flowers evoke happy childhood summers with Grandma.”  Choose accessible openings, but without creating a new habit, like starting them all with a conjunction (“but,” “because,” etc.) or “ing” phrase.
Tip: While delighting readers, sleek sentences give writers what they never knew they lacked.

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.”