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.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

To Violate or Not to Violate

That’s the question for fiction writers. And it’s both complex and crucial. What we call "point of view violations" affect credibility and thus reader response from the first sentence to the last.

Tip: Anything perceived as a point of view violation is one, and anything not? Isn’t.

Individual readers will be more or less tolerant. But to avoid Hamlet’s indecision and the contamination of “something rotten" in the state of your fiction, accept that certain violations are just violations. If this seems harsh, I’m “cruel only to be kind.”  Watch out for these:

~ Switching from one point of view character to another without justification.

Most readers cheerfully accept consistent and graceful use of two or more perspectives. But abrupt or unwarranted shifts are impossible to hide: they feel like violations.
~ Using 3rd person (“he,” “she,” “it”) and first (“I”) interchangeably. 

Every reader will squirm at “Ali loved barns. I’d love to inhabit a converted one, she thought.” That second sentence requires italics or quotation marks. Better yet? The consistency of “Ali loved barns and dreamed of inhabiting a converted one.”

~ Offering inauthentic observations.

Characters can’t explain what they never saw, can’t possibly know, or wouldn’t admit.

But characters can guess. and readers delight in watching them do so. How does that work?

* Let characters infer from physical cues.

    If Marcy tells readers what Alain thinks, that's a violation. If Marcy observes that he draws close, pulls away, and repeats this over 
    and over, this is more an accurate assessment that he's ambivalent about kissing her than a violation.

* Clarify the distinction between narrator and character.

    Start a new paragraph. To make the shift from close to the character to further away, use a transition to bridge the gap. Here's an

        Sam hated snakes and knew that numerous species inhabited every continent.

       Kenya, where Sam was stationed, was home to five of the deadliest vipers in the world.

* Expand point of view restrictions consistently rather than inadvertently.

    Is whatever sleight of hand you want to execute legitimate? If so, make readers believe it.

In the end, point of view resembles every other aspect of fiction. Set things up meticulously, and you’ll surprise readers so much that you can get away with a lot.  Not everything, though.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Plot Roast

Do it right, and it simmers until every ingredient is equally juicy and tender. Or wait too long, and you’ve got dried-out, unrecognizable mush. The success of dinner depends on what you put together, your means of preparing it, and the cook time. Story is remarkably similar.

The most successful plotters transcend the not-all-that-captivating question: What happens next?
After all, the answer might be, “Esmeralda yawned.” So will the reader. 

Rely exclusively on chronology, and you risk sliding into one or more of the following:

            ~ A series of unrelated, episodic incidents.

          Fiction sometimes works when the protagonist faces one unrelated problem after another, or
          one unrelated villain after another. But the strongest plots emphasize the role of character in
          destiny: choices have consequences. At least in fiction.

            ~ Flatness.

            Protagonist arc can only shift from sad and weak to victorious and empowered because each
            event teaches lessons and summons buried strengths. This stems from the novelist’s emphasis
            on obstacles and solutions, not on the humdrum activity between them.

~ Logistics.

Successful fiction has no room for characters performing morning ablutions, shopping for groceries, logging into the computer, crossing the icy parking lot, or any other detail that merely traces what happens between one drama and the next.

~ Randomness.

Plot based on “If this happens, then that,” rather than “This because of that,” and you risk introducing lots of coincidence. That threatens both credibility and momentum.

And today’s readers expect credibility and momentum. Lots of this is the internet. Every fact is a click or two away, and everything’s presented with teasers (hooks) and sound bites. No waiting. No wondering.

How to achieve that pace in fiction?

*** Summarize everything that’s pedestrian or mundane.

*** Start every scene as late in the action—rather than as early—as logically possible.

*** Hint (but don’t belabor) how each scene results from the one preceding.

*** Launch scenes with a hook—and provide it right away.

*** View plot less as what happens than why what happens is dramatically and emotionally  compelling.

Tip:  Reserve scenes for “someone making a scene,” i.e. struggling with conflict, preferably conflict that forces change.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Curiously Non-Causal Quality of Coincidence

Does the “curiosity” in the title above merely add alliteration? No, because, sadly, novelists don’t necessarily treat causality and coincidence as antithetical. What’s the cause of that?
A loose definition of plot. Ideally, it stems not from a sequence of events but the sense that choices, usually dreadful until the end, produced this result. E.M. Forster famously observed

“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it...If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?”

Only causality can explain “why.” Forster published Aspects of the Novel back in 1927, but nothing has changed since. A recent Editor’s Blog reminds that “Coincidence messes with the suspension of disbelief because it so quickly and thoroughly reminds readers that they are reading fiction.”

And the cause of that one? With the same probability each time, life can deliver victories or catastrophes. Fiction doesn’t work that way. The bar for credibility is far higher than for anything based on fact. That’s why you risk sounding contrived any time you record exactly what happened.

Beware these trouble spots.

  • Planted Clues
She never checked for phone messages, but because she did, Ellie found the note.

  • Fortuitous Accidents
Before Ed could respond, the doorbell suddenly rang.

  • Convenient Backup
Good thing Mark remembered to take his gun after all.

  • Improbable Meetings
Her first love, out of Sue’s life for thirty years, stood on the subway platform.

  • Impossible Rescues
Though unsure of the sergeant’s location, the troops arrived just in time.

Tip: Without credible motivation, responses and actions seem convenient, if not contrived.

How to fix the coincidence issue?

~ Plan your plot—and causally.
As Don Maass put it, “Every scene should be so essential that if you omit one, the whole thing unravels.”

~ Introduce objects and people in advance.
Never add characters, details, or characteristics only as the need arises.

~ Transform sequentiality into causality.
            Build your story not on what happens, but what motivates subsequent events.

Isn’t it curious how often coincidence crops up in fiction?  Convenient as that might be, only causality can earn an ending satisfying to both you and your readers.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Asset or Accident, Experiment or Intuition?

Recently, a very talented writer confided that he never has the slightest idea whether his material is awesome or awful. And, he’s partially right: every writer needs feedback. Yet every writer also needs honest, judicious self-assessment.

Tip: Learn to be your own best, most trusted critic.

Writers usually know a ton of “rules,” everything from “Vary the length of your sentences,” to “Tension is the most beloved character in every novel.” If you know all those rules, and you’re a smart cookie, why can’t you see whether you break the rules unintentionally?

Because most novelists rationalize as skillfully as they write. And then, alas, succumb to their own rationalizations. Ever used one of these?
  • It’s monotonous to start every chapter with a hook.
  • Sometimes readers need a break from all that action and just want to overhear the characters thinking, wondering, and deciding.
  • Words like “anguish,” “yearning,” and “joy” engage readers emotionally.
  • An occasional point of view slip makes things more interesting.
  • Readers choose the novel form because in order to study history and savor description.
  • Anyone who can create compelling characters won’t need much plot.
Hmm. How much of a critic, or writer, can you expect to be if you defend every misstep, justify every self-indulgence, excuse every shortcut, and break every rule?

The trick is to know when you can—should!—break the rules. Certainly too many exist, along with too many instances where rigor should bow to the serendipity of inspiration. Still, those rules exist for a reason, so you need a reason to ignore them. 

Want some help deciding?

~ Identify and appreciate your skills.
Writers often prefer listing their faults. But to undermine those, you need your—assets.

~ Notice and exploit writing accidents.
            They produce some of the loveliest writing moments.

~ Experiment with your plans.
            Try things out. Take risks. You can’t revise what you never wrote.

~ Intuition.
Anyone inclined toward fiction intuitively knows when to ignore the rules.

Listen to yourself. What better way to discover much you already know?