Sunday, October 23, 2016

Hush, or Understatement, Subtext, and Whispering

Let’s start with a picture. After all, aren’t novels one picture after another of characters—both inside and out?

What do you see? This Bernini sculpture, which you can view in Rome’s elaborately decorated Santa Maria della Vittoria Church, has a story behind it.

The title, “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” clarifies that it’s a male angel, and that his hand, yes, indeed, is exactly where we suspected but were reluctant to admit. Is the angel really doing that? Yes.

Here’s a closer look. 

What captures the ecstasy? The Saint’s flung-back head, the arched body, the open mouth, the foot bodiless enough to seem devoid of bones. The sculpture melds earth and heaven—keen awareness of body with the ultimate transcendence of it. The sculpture conveys all this with such subtlety that without the tantalizing suggestion, much of this might go unnoticed. What a terrific recipe for fiction.

Tip: The more readers discover emotion, rather than being bludgeoned with it, the happier they'll be.

How does that work?

~ Understatement.

Intense emotion, such as tragedy, disaster, euphoria, or ecstasy needs implication. Because readers already know how they feel about such events. The more you “tell” them then, particularly with judgments like “horrible,” “painful,” “terrifying,” or joyous,” then the less readers can feel what they already do without your help. Abstract words, especially over-used ones, separate readers from plot, much the way adding the word “rapturous” to Bernini’s title would only interfere. Just as he uses the subtle folds of the marble—and what that implies—to make his point, use the events—not the descriptions—in your novel to make yours.

~ Subtext.

Literally what’s “beneath the words,” subtext involves what characters say indirectly.  A wife reluctant to confront her husband overtly might observe, “You needed another fishing rod?” A father might freak at his daughter’s low-cut, skin-tight tank top, and mutter, “Is that all you’re wearing? “Meaning implied but never vocalized both mimics real-life interaction and leaves readers free to interpret. This resembles the way one can scrutinize Bernini’s sculpture and infer the feelings of the angel and the saint.

~ Whispering.

With rare exceptions, the more intense the emotion, then the more subtly and quietly you ought to describe it. Defy this rule of both craft and psychology, and the likely result is melodrama, or a portrayal that feels sensational rather than emotionally gripping. Neither reader nor writer wants a novel to read like a tabloid.

How do you whisper? 
  • Use concrete language that evokes one of the five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell.
  • Avoid judgmental conclusions like “anguished,” “devastated,” or “heart-stopping.”
  • Focus more on what happens than how scary or wonderful or terrific it is.

Here’s the ultimate understatement: trust your audience. Bernini did.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Wrong Turn, Right Result

Maybe you were booked for Capri and wound up on the Amalfi Coast instead. 

Or perhaps a visit to the Uffizi paintings became a tour of Renaissance Florence. You could fret, weep, or storm. But wouldn’t you rather appreciate what turned out, instead of what you planned?

You could be pleasantly surprised. This pertains to fiction, as well.

~ Wrong Turn with Your Characters

Don’t save every minor character you introduced just because they’re now “alive.”

Do seek ways to make three minor characters into one. 

Do add unexpected discoveries, which are nearly always the best ones. Did you accidentally discover that your Georgina enjoys Brussel Sprouts or Latin dancing? Who knew that Hector excels at chess, Judo, or solving the Rubric Cube?

~ Wrong Turn with Your Plot

Don’t keep broadening or, worse, repeating.

Do dig deeper. There’s no better antidote for nothing happening. Seek innovative solutions to stagnation. This might be another source of tension (as opposed to yet another character), or what Noah Lukeman calls “a ticking clock,” or an archetypal struggle, such as honor versus expediency.

Do think in terms of causality. How does this event or emotion yield? If your protagonist refuses to confront another character about betrayal, what is the result? And, as Don Maass instructs, avoid picking the first possibility that comes to mind. It comes first to everyone else’s mind, too.

~ Wrong Turn with Point of View

Don’t jump on the easiest solution.

Do use physical behavior or setting to convey the character thoughts that go beyond the scope of your chosen perspective. You might look up how Edith Wharton accomplishes this at the beginning of “The House of Mirth.”

Do pursue an alternative direction. What’s another way to communicate what your point of view can’t legitimately capture?

~ Wrong Turn with a Scene’s Opening

Don’t follow Alice into a nightmarish Wonderland just because you started that way.

Do start every scene with a hook. That’s a great way to know where you’re going before you get too far.

Do start the scene later. You’ll often speed momentum and raise tension by deleting the first few paragraphs.

Do experiment with variations. How else could this happen? Again, focus on cause and effect.

~ Wrong Turn with an Entire Scene

Don’t feel you should keep it just because you wrote it.

Do look for opportunities to collapse entire scenes into a paragraph or so of summary. When you do that, be concrete and explicit. Character emotions are a terrific way to collapse time, plot, or both.

Tip: Like most things in life, fiction benefits from making lemons into lemonade.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

No Talking, Please

This isn’t about being quiet while a professional speaks, or not whispering when you’re bored, or being the good listener nearly everyone aspires to be. It’s about being a novelist.

Tip: Although some novels are offered orally, novels are written—not spoken.

That means if you’re writing the way you talk, stop! If you’re transcribing what you hear, stop! If you long to meticulously record what people actually say to each other, stop!

For better or worse, the composing of a novel has preciously little to do with what’s said in the real world, how well you capture that, or what your friends and family share. Even when they’re seriously pissed off.

Why not keep in mind some of these disparities between the spoken and written word?

1. Real conversation is really boring. Really often. Especially on paper.

Understandably, people daydream lots when even their most beloved family members address them. They have to. If not, they could potentially perish during the onslaught of tedious, redundant, tangential, and judgmental details. Lengthy conversation is often tolerable. Minds wander. Images appear. Grocery lists are written and rewritten. Toleration of wordy prose? Not so much. 

Be realistic. Be fair. Be thoughtful. Don’t force your readers to skim.

2.  In the real world, conversation involves audience response.

For the writer, this is both blessing and curse. It’s a blessing because you can skillfully circumvent all the ploys listeners employ. It’s a curse because since your audience contributes little or nothing: you have to do all the work.

When people converse, they ask questions. What did you mean? Why didn’t she answer? Even, who’s Neil Chambray? Novel readers can’t ask questions. They get it. Or don’t. And if they don’t get it often enough, you know what happens.

3. Extensive physical cues enhance real-world dialogue.

That’s what makes Skype popular. The audience interprets visual cues, notes tone of voice, recognizes the shift from merry to serious. For better or worse, one of the novelist’s tasks is making what characters say so concrete and comprehensive that readers believe they can see the dialogue they’re hearing.

4. Outside of fiction, listener expectations are remarkably low.

Aware that people are speaking extemporaneously, and that unless we’re at a meeting or lecture, we’re willing to accept this individual’s foibles, we accept a rather significant amount of repetition, backtracking, irrelevance, hyperbole, self-congratulation, obfuscation, and ambiguity. After all, we want to know what this person has to say. We persevere, knowing the irritation is finite. In fiction? If this happens too often, well, it’s easier to choose another novel than another friend or family member.

5. Especially in speech, crummy word choice and sentence structure are more frequent than occasional.

Casual speech, even from the wittiest, most brilliant and eloquent, has severe limitations. There is the prevalence of passive voice. Mixed metaphors make us so colorblind that we fail to detect the true colors of sound bites. Between you and I, the rules of grammar isn’t always impeccable, especially after an extra glass of wine. On paper, spoken idioms that sound just right become ships careening into each other because it’s a dark and stormy night. 

Writing a novel is nothing like “telling a story.” Save the talking for conversation with your friends.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Who Is Wallace Stevens?

When I recently solicited search engine help from a computer geek, that’s the question I got, followed by, “Is Wallace Stevens a corporation?”

Wallace Stevens (1879 - 1955), arguably the greatest poet America has yet produced, may not be recognizable to everyone. After all, not many poets are. But he should matter to every writer, which, of course, includes novelists.

Tip:  Know your audience well enough to present details responsively.

Here’s what Stevens could encourage writers to consider: 

~ Audience. 

This poet’s name, beloved to certain writers and unknown or only vaguely recalled by others, clarifies the question of audience. Until you’ve identified yours, you’ll never know what to take for granted and when you explain too little or too much. Readers (including agents) discard possibilities from both ends of the spectrum: feeling patronized, or feeling that they spend more time with Wikipedia and the dictionary than the novel itself. Neither is much fun.

As a novelist, it’s your job to know whether your readers are likely to be familiar with Wallace Stevens, Grace’s version of “You Don’t Own Me,” or The Battle of the Bulge.  Write for everyone, and you might wind up writing for no one.

~ Mystery and inference.

Stevens urges us to “Throw away the light, the definitions, and say what you see in the dark.” What’s the invitation here? Rationality can sometimes be—too rational, too clear, too blazingly bright to let creativity  flourish. Close your own eyes so you can open your reader’s.

~ Symbolism.

“Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor,” Stevens says in “The Necessary Angel, Essays on Reality and the Imagination.”  Both the poet and the novelist need an original vision, accompanied by figurative language that lets readers see beyond the ordinary.

~ Concreteness

In that same book of essays, though, Stevens insists that it’s the relationship between the individual mind and the sound, smell, taste, sight, and touch of the physical world that lets writers fulfill reader needs: “The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real.” Because of that, “Conceptions are artificial. Perceptions are essential.”

~ Unity of content and its expression.

Yes, great ideas can be expressed badly, and shallow observations phrased exquisitely. But in the most compelling verbal moments, the quality matches. And the language seems to reinforce the mood, the idea, the emotion. That’s why “A change of style is a change of meaning.”

~ Ambiguity.

Some of the greatest literature is accessible only if the reader is casual about exactitude, so “The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully.”  Poetry becomes quite difficult if one expects an identical literal meaning from every reader every time. Hmm. Can’t we say the same of certain esoteric but highly influential novelists like Virginia Wool and James Joyce?

~ Inspiration. 

In “Sunday Morning,” Stevens postulates that “Death is the mother of beauty,” Is it the knowledge that life is finite that helps us appreciate the pathos of the seasons, that makes us want to draw? Paint? Write?

That’s who Wallace Stevens is. Want to know more? Start with “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “Evening without Angels,” “Sunday Morning,” and “Adagia.” 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Creativity and Constraint

Richard Powers, author of a several literary novels unrivaled in their beauty, says that "I write the way you might arrange flowers. Not every try works, but each one launches another. Every constraint, even dullness, frees up a new design."

According to evolutionists like the late Steven J. Gould, when it comes to developing new designs—like originating species, constraint breeds creativity. Put another way, we get to enjoy pearls because something irritated an oyster. The principle applies to writing as well:

Tip: Instead of dismissing difficulties, tackle them. That’s a plus for both reader and author.

So which constraints might writers sometimes disregard?

~ Clutter.

For many writers (certainly myself included), one of life’s greatest joys is words flowing so fast that your typing can’t keep up. Go for it. But afterwards? Remember that few constraints are more apt than “Less is more.” Tighten up. Lighten up. Challenge yourself to accomplish the task in fewer details rather than more.

~ Wordiness.

This involves not your details, but how you express them. William Zinsser reminds:

“I might add,” “It should be pointed out,” “It is interesting to note that”—how many sentences begin with these dreary clauses announcing what the writer is going to do next? If you might add, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out. If it is interesting to note, make it interesting. Being told that something is interesting is the surest way of tempting the reader to find it dull; are we not all stupefied by what follows when someone says, “This will interest you” As for the inflated prepositions and conjunctions, they are the innumerable phrases like “with the possible exception of” (except), “due to the fact that” (because),” “he totally lacked the ability to” (he couldn’t), “until such time as” (until), “for the purpose of” (for).

~ Point of view consistency.

Yes, you’ll find plenty of contemporary novels (plenty!) that shift perspective whenever convenient. Should you imitate them? Only if you’re willing to lose what you’d gain by struggling toward a viable—and creative—strategy for inspiring yourself and pleasing your readers.

~ Tension.

You’ve likely heard, if not applied, some of these excuses: “Don’t readers want a lull?” “Why do mainstream/literary novels need conflict? Isn’t characterization more important?” “I write beautifully. Why worry about suspense?” And finally, “Even if I wanted all tension all the time, how would I do it?” Transform insufficient tension into an opportunity to develop “a new design.” Put your energy into momentum instead of rationalization.

Discouraged about self-editing? Feedback from others? Take any frustration you might experience and create a pearl. Goodness. If an oyster can do it, surely you can?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Write Tight--But "Right"

The title rhymes and all, but what might being “right” with your words mean? First, if your intended audience doesn’t enjoy it, something’s off. Take classic novels. Or, for many readers, don’t take them. Because, as Mark Twain put it, the classic is “a book which people praise and don’t read.” 

That’s not right. Neither is a book lauded for its brilliance but too incomprehensible for most of us to tackle. James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake may well be a masterpiece. But if hardly anyone reads it, did Joyce get it “right”? What’s intimidating or tedious is hardly a turn on. So.

~ Accessibility.

This plays a huge role in writing “right.” If readers neither understand what you’re saying nor care when they don’t, something’s very wrong.

~ Guidance.

Inference and confusion are two entirely different animals. The first may initially seem a bit unfamiliar. Yet it resembles something you want to understand; it suggests something positive, even if you haven’t figured it out yet. Confusion, though? That’s a nasty animal. It neither looks nor smells good. Tempt your readers with clues. Provide transitions. Give enough information, but not too much. Because that’s not such a delightful beast, either.

~ Tautness.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius the buffoon informs us that “brevity is the soul of wit,” then proceeds to go on and on. And on. And on. Point taken. Are you writing tight?

     Not if you’re smitten with passive voice.

     Not if you make the same point first generally, then specifically—or the reverse.

     Not if you adore (i.e. fall in love with) wordy verbs.

     Not if you usually use three words when one would do.

     Not if punctilious grammatical correctness clutters up your prose.

Correct forms like “has been competing” can feel as irritating as self-righteous political correctness in the real world. Be clear, not pompous or archaic.

Tight writing reduces clutter. Down with weak words (“is,” “be,” “am,” etc.); imprecise detail (three metaphors or images because each is inadequate); or clarifying what we prefer to infer.

That’s the script: clear, focused, taut. Tight yet right.

But here’s the thing about all those writing rules, no matter who espouses them As Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” How else can you—with a splendid blend of objectivity and passion—decide when to break them? 

Tip: Mediocre writers follow every rule. Good writers know when to break them.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Pale Purple Bikinis and Green and Gold Styrofoam Cups

Starting in childhood, the message accompanying the pencil, or pen, or keyboard is uniform: be vivid. Be specific. Let us picture the moment. Bring on the detail. 

Yes. Yet too much detail can be as bad as—or even worse than—not enough. Excessive description, even when electric and exquisite, can weaken fiction. Because you can inadvertently introduce problems like these:

~ Confusion. 

On the first page of your novel, Marcy leaves the kitchen without offering her husband the customary “Have a good day” kiss. That’s the tension of the opening. Why doesn’t she kiss him? How will he react? Can the couple (and those reading about them) anticipate sweaty make-up sex in just a page or two? 

But what if you decide to add vividness by explaining that last night Hank offended Marcy by saying she looked kind of plump in that sweater. Perhaps you may to clarify that, not being a wordsmith, Hank only meant that the garment was rather risqué for the office. But do readers care that chartreuse is Marcy’s favorite color, the sweater has a boat neck, she wears it with matching earrings, or she managed to scoop it up at nearly 70% off? 

Such sentences are often difficult to compose and position. That might be because the sentence doesn’t belong anywhere. If you can’t place it or fix it, maybe you don’t want it?

~ Distraction.

If readers are captivated by Marcy hesitating outside the divorce attorney’s office, it might be the time to mention that both her maternal and paternal grandparents are divorced. Is it the right time, though, for a lengthy description of how her mother and father fell in love?

~ Blur.

One way fiction differs from life is that it’s a set of focused details rather than a random barrage of them. Reality forces us to sift through and decide what matters. In fiction, that’s the author’s job. 

Don’t you want to attract a reader who assumes that whatever you include is important? A reader who pays attention, because if it isn’t relevant right now, it surely will be later? If you want readers like that, then every detail has to count.

~ Repetition.

Details sometimes result in a general description, then a specific one. Or a specific, then general one. Neither of those works.

Tip: Less description? That’s sometimes more. When in doubt, leave it out.