Friday, April 28, 2017

An Outline of Outlining for the Novelist

Outlining was never meant to emphasize A, II, or b. When novelists ignore rigorous rules about potentially punctilious patterns or parallels, they can benefit from the focus, organization, and clarity that one’s personal, idiosyncratic version of a novel outline can provide.

As K.M. Weiland puts it in Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, “Examine your story. Where does it truly begin? Which event is the first domino in your row of dominoes? Which domino must be knocked over for the rest of the story to happen?”  Some form of outline is a useful strategy for checking such issues.

Tip: A relaxed version of an outline can aid the novelist during every stage of the process.

~ The preliminary overview.

You can save yourself time—not to mention stress—by sketching out the evolution of your protagonist’s journey. How much detail do you need? You’re the only judge. No one’s looking over your shoulder checking length or format. But do give yourself some goals.
  • What are the five of six pressure points that create your protagonist’s arc?
  • Where is the midpoint? In The Emotional Craft of Fiction, Don Maass calls this the moment when the protagonist can no longer turn back.
  • What’s the climax of your novel?
  • How does each scene advance the plot and keep the stakes high?
  • For each scene/chapter, what is the primary goal of the protagonist (or perhaps antagonist)?
  • Does each scene inevitably cause the subsequent one?
Though some writers consider outlining too confining, you needn’t obey your outline rigorously. The preliminary outline supports if you feel stuck and promotes a high-tension, causal movement from inciting incident to denouement. But are you on fire with new ideas? Follow them.

~ The post overview.

This is where you outline what you actually wrote, perhaps ignoring your initial outline entirely. 
  • If the novel has multiple points of view, who delivers each scene?
  • In what you actually composed, is there sufficient tension?
  • Does each scene both build from what precedes and escalate toward what follows?
~ The optional final overview.

Personally, I had great luck outlining my post outline to make it even more compressed. For me, this third step clearly revealed how to emphasize causality, escalate tension even higher, and omit scenes that didn’t earn their keep. 

However tedious, time-consuming or unnecessary outlining might seem, it’s one of the best ways (if not, in fact, the very best) to insure that each chapter/scene fulfills not just the author’s needs, but those of your story and thus your reader. Isn’t that worth the time?

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Buds in the Garden and the Novel

Usually associated with plants, of course, buds can be a great way to tease, inspire, and assist the fiction writer. What are the buds in your novel, and how can you use them?

~ Foreshadowing.

What does a bud represent? Broadly speaking, hope. This is a great emotion for an opening chapter. Certainly readers want to know that predators abound, that conditions are imperfect, and that in such a horror of competition, someone’s got to lose. Which bud will it be? Which character will triumph over environmental pressure or succumb to adversity? A great opening clashes promise with defeat, and fruition with futility. Otherwise, why keep watching?

~ Present and future.

Aside from a bud’s appearance after a long, possibly painful hiatus, its symbolism reflects both immediacy and maturity. Isn’t this a new angle on your novel’s early and middle scenes? Each detail, description, pause, and hint should involve current significance along with outcome. Do you capitalize on the preliminary stage, or save too much for later? Don’t hoard. Rather than focusing exclusively on potential, use language and imagery to make each moment count.

~ Setting as set up.

Like every bud, the environment surrounding the character hints at what’s ahead. Although most buds represent success, some suffer blemish at the side or tip, perhaps discoloration that goes all the way down to the core. Without being overly obvious, how can you use the character’s world to suggest the doom that will drive your story? 

Except for dandelions or burdock, people want most buds to mature. Fiction readers, though, follow story to learn how much will go wrong before it goes right. Your characterization, plot, and setting buds need enough imperfection for propulsion. Everything you first introduce should hint that there will be insufficient sun or rain, or the reverse. Each bud should arouse curiosity and the probability of mixed blessings.

~ Misdirection.

The most appealing buds often tantalize by teasing, by leaving the outcome a bit uncertain. Humor evaporates if readers predict the joke or surprise ending too far in advance. Trickster shoots start out white, only to redden, or green only to blanch, or gold only to blush bronze. You’ll need subtlety, perhaps even duplicity, to hint that certain possibilities will ultimately prove improbable. And the reverse. If not, where’s the tension?

~ Harvest.

In the garden, this is a bloom, a snack, or even a dinner. In a novel, the harvest is the earned ending. Its origin springs from that initial bud. According to Gloria Naylor, author of The Women of Brewster Place, 
One should be able to return to the first sentence of a novel and find the resonances of the entire work. It’s the DNA, spawning the second sentence, the second, the third.
Could the buds in your first sentence and chapter be more haunting? More significant?

Tip: The buds in your novel determine its outcome. Weed and fertilize accordingly.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Within reason, novel readers enjoy extravagance. After all, novels must be novel, meaning lavish but not excessive, offering abundance without melodrama. Without emptying your bank account with out-of-season fruit and always out-of-season jewelry, how might you accomplish this?

~ Scenario.

Does yours magnetize? Do you embody an idea into a concrete place like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad? Instead of just courtroom drama, do you reinforce spiritual questions with Biblical references as Jean Hand Korelize does in The Sabbathday River? Is there more you can do with your Concept, or your original, haunting, and compact design?

~ Larger than life Characters.

You don’t need a heroic, gorgeous, wealthy, or powerful protagonist. Great characters, like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman in The Death of a Salesman, remain memorable. Are yours?

~ Language.

Whether ironic, humorous, lyrical, or idiosyncratic, is something about your voice lush? Consider what that word symbolizes and rhymes with. Character clothing might be plush, and even slush can beckon when flavored rather than coating sidewalks. Experiment with poetic techniques until sighing all the way, you must cut, cut, cut. But you can’t cut what you never composed.

~ Setting.

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” (Star Wars), “a dark and stormy night” was vivid. Not anymore, and readers still expect a sense of place.  As John Gardner puts it The Art of Fiction, the writer 
must shape simultaneously (in an expanding creative moment) his characters, plot, and setting, each inextricably connected to the others; he must make his whole orld in a single, coherent gesture, as a potter makes a pot...” 
Setting isn’t backdrop; it’s part of the whole, and no cliche can create a landscape that feels palpable. There’s more than one path to that vividness. Here’s the terrain in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness:
All brightness was gone, leaving nothing. We stepped out of the tent onto nothing. Sledge and tent were there, Estraven stood beside me, but neither he nor I cast any shadow. There was dull light all around, everywhere. When we walked on the crisp snow no shadow showed the footprint. We left no track. Sledge, tent, himself, myself: nothing else at all. No sun, no sky, no horizon, no world.
~ Goodness/morality. 

From the start, fiction has been a vehicle for the best in human nature. Include in your characters’ yearning a passion to fix or at least improve the broken world.

Tip: Treat your readers to the extravagance that fiction can provide.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

“R’s” for Writers

One could easily generate an alphabet for writers, or an alternate list of words starting, for example, with “s.” Fair enough. Today, though, “r” is the star.

~ Recurrence.

Introduce a series of symbols, character traits, facial tics, faux pas, or whatever to build intensity. Just be careful to add and develop rather than merely repeat.

~ Reflection.

A lot of important writing happens minus paper or keyboard. Mull possibilities. Have a notebook or smart phone handy to record them.

~ Repetition.

For readers, this is a dirty word—a disgustingly dirty one. Clean up by varying syntax, word choice, scene openings and closings, and so on. Redundancy is NyQuil for words.

~ Resolution.

Earn it. This means that your protagonist, antagonist, and many members of the supporting cast, face situations and decisions that necessitate growthful change. An earned ending is one you set up, ideally, in the first chapter, perhaps even within its first paragraph.

~ Resonance.

In Literary Resonance in the Art of Writing, the author suggests that 
To “resonate” literally means to bounce back and forth between two states or places. Resonate comes from the Latin word for “resound.” In sound, resonance is a prolonged response to something that caused things to vibrate. When sound reverberates, it's resonating within a bounded space, like the body of a guitar. Thunder often resonates/reverberates across an uneven landscape….Resonance in writing is something that affects us the same way. It's an aura of significance, significance beyond the otherwise insignificant event taking place.      
The novel escalates the potential for emotional and thematic connection when first, characters and events resonate with universal experience, and second, when details and description offer both literal and symbolic meaning. This can be overdone. But without experimenting, how can you know whether layering would enrich?
~ Reverberation. 

Literally, “a remote or indirect consequence of some action,” or “the repetition of a sound resulting from reflection of the sound waves” ( How does this relate to fiction? Strong images and plot points affect characters—and readers—long after the initial moment fades away.

~ Revisitation.

The sestina, a 13th century French poetic form, enhances meaning by changing the context each time the author revisits a complex pattern involving six words. In fiction, the parallel is motif, which reexamines the word or concept under different circumstances. The original meaning evolves, becoming more nuanced. Instead of constantly changing the palette of details, let significance percolate within the space between one mention of a lighthouse, and the next and the next, as Virginia Woolf does in the novel of that title, or Harper Lee does with mockingbirds. 

Tip: Revise to provide resolution through the recurrence that contributes resonance.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Letting Your Words Go

When you write from an image or memory that’s truly striking to you personally, the likelihood of generating a rhythmic sentence increases. Rereading such passages you might think, this is—“lovely,” “cool,” “pretty”—whatever you’re inclined to use when your words please you. And, after all, you’d better be pleased with your words at least sometimes, because if you’re doing it for the money, odds are that you should quit. Yesterday.

But. Let’s consider that lovely/cool/pretty sentence in perspective. Is it relevant? Redundant? Is it slightly ridiculous due to self-consciousness, intensity, or exaggeration? Here’s the real question: Does it work for your reader, or only for you?

For many writers, deleting words, especially those that seem most beguiling, can feel so painful that you stare in amazement at your fingertips, wondering why there’s no blood when you slashed yourself.

Recognize any of these reasons why slashing words seems to resemble slashing flesh?
  • Writers write because they love words. Rejecting loved ones hurts.
  • Many writers still recall counting words to complete the paper a teacher demanded.
  • It’s faster to write verbosely than tautly.
  • Like everyone else, writers associate more with greater value. This includes words.
  • Big words remind many writers of the youthful happiness when complex constructions, passive voice, or convoluted metaphors made you “sound”—and feel—smart.
Since these are universal and totally normal responses, what’s the antidote?

~ Remember that, as Marie Kondo puts it in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, “The release of what’s not so good or not so necessary leaves space for the new.”

Cramming your novel with words no one wants or needs is like stuffing your closet with clothes you’ll never wear. Or your shelves with books you’ll never make time to read. Or possessions that gather dust yet are neither useful nor appealing. Let go of the second rate, so that, “In the end, all that will remain are the things you really treasure” (Marie Kondo).

~Louise Brooks is right. Proceed as if “Writing is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent elimination.” 

~ Aim for complexity of thought, not expression.”― Noah Lukeman, The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. 

Can you cut or simplify? Then do. Not sure you can cut or simplify? Try harder.

Tip: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” ― William Shakespeare, Hamlet

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.