Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Secret Spaces inside the Scene

Fiction requires vividness, suspense, and empathy. But do you leave readers enough room for an intimate experience of detail, tension, and emotion?

As Charles Baxter puts it, 
A novel is not a summary of its plot but a collection of instances, of luminous specific details that take us in the direction of the unsaid and unseen.
That’s subtext, which, according to A.J. Humpage, 
is the implied meaning or theme within the narrative. It can also refer to the thoughts, actions and motives of characters that are not always so overt.
If everything is “overt,” from the character’s loneliness to the cold moss where she rests her tear-stained cheek on a fallen tree in the Southeast corner of the Olympic National forest, then perhaps ironically, fiction becomes drab, tepid, and dispassionate. 

Tip: Spell everything out, and you deprive readers of the chance to participate.

In Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Lisa Cron observes that:
When you put together large numbers of pieces and parts, the whole can become something larger than the sum.…The concept of emergent properties means that something new can be introduced that is not inherent in any of the parts.
What’s this new entity? In the best novels, it’s the synthesis of every aspect of fiction: plot makes detail more vivid, context builds characterization, and description intensifies suspense. But there’s more. That’s your readers feeling, wondering, interpreting, and analyzing. Until “The End,” those responses change frequently. And if the writer succeeds, many of those conclusions will prove irrelevant or inaccurate. Do you want surprised readers? Give them some freedom.

When readers can infer, fiction imitates life. There’s no circumstance where we reliably have all the information. So if fiction leaves nothing to the imagination, a novel is not only overloaded and oversimplified, but unrealistic. 

How can you encourage reader participation?

~ Subtext in dialogue.

      People rarely say exactly what they mean. Your characters shouldn’t, either.

~ Metaphor.

     When symbolism works, it replaces setting dense enough to overwhelm plot.

~ Emotional overload.

      Provide clues that let readers experience what the characters do.

~ Focus.

     If your goal is intense drama or suspense, don’t let anything compete with that.

Instead of walling readers out with excessive description and explanation, let readers take the journey along with your characters—instead of getting it secondhand.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Shopping Cart and the Novelist

Consider this random grocery list, left behind at a supermarket.

Anything strike you?

That’s what this blog’s about. Not a suggestion that if you can’t fix a passage or find a publisher, stock up on butter pecan ice cream, toffee peanuts, chocolate syrup, and marshmallow fluff for topping. Nor will the following suggest how to build a character from a mash-up of income, hair color, education, favorite TV show, and place of birth. Instead, here’s the deal.

Tip: The wonderfully unexpected is available everywhere; you only need to notice.

And that’s mostly a matter of habit. Because finding pattern in chaos approximates the age of humanity itself. Things have changed, though:  
Surprise, the unknown, is all around us, but due to the way human beings live now, our lives are built to streamline through, to desperately try and cut through surprise, mystery, or ignorance. All the information in the world is available from a computer screen. — J.P. Shiel, “The Element of Surprise: A Storyteller’s Secret Weapon”
For creators in any field, including fiction, the price paid for that instantaneous knowledge is high. We’re no longer continually on the hunt for the observations to protect our families, no longer sifting and sifting to recall a particular fact. It’s easier just to look it up, and that includes storm watches and warnings.

This means it’s harder for the cook or woodworker or novelist to surprise herself. That’s not good, because as Jane K. Cleland puts it, “The best surprises add significant insights to the characters involved in that surprise, while setting up future suspenseful situations.” It’s why people don’t want to know the ending of the book or movie in advance. Surprise is fun.

Now what’s this got to do wth shopping carts? Scrutinizing details is among the many potential strategies for perceiving pattern and producing surprise. For example, what can you infer from the list above?

     Lots of brand names

     Both fancy tortellini and pedestrian hamburger

     Few carbs

     No desserts

If you wanted to, couldn’t you use this list to build a profile, shape a character, compose a backstory? You probably don’t want to, because that’s unlikely to improve your novel. Here’s what will, though:

~ Notice everything around you. Seek the unfamiliar in the familiar.

~ Recognize “found art.” Ruminate on its meaning.

~ Check for patterns in the apparently random. This might take practice.

~ Look for potential organization in what seems totally chaotic.

~ Train yourself to brainstorm without censorship. Inhibition thwarts creativity.

Next time you find someone else’s list, imagine the story behind it. This will open you to a more insightful and original version of that story you really want to tell.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

“Awwww” versus Awe

Neither including the sound "awww" nor "telling about the concept "awe"is likely to evoke the desired reader response. But "showing" either?  Perhaps juxtaposed? Ahhhh. Here’s why.

Awe comes from perceiving perception, as in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See:
To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away.
Or from spirituality versus practicality in Colson Whitehead’sThe Underground Railroad
Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people's heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.
Don’t you experience awe when someone explains the incomprehensible?
Looking a dead insect in the sack of basmati that had come all the way from Dehra Dun, he almost wept with sorrow and marvel at its journey, which was tenderness for his own journey. In India almost nobody would be able to afford this rice, and you had to travel around the world to be able to eat such things where they were cheap enough that you could gobble them down without being rich; and when you got home to the place where they grew, you couldn't afford them anymore. ― Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
In contrast, “Awww,” like ice cream that never melts, is cleaner and happier: 
Although there are times I'd give anything to have her back, I'm glad she went first. Losing her was like being cleft down the middle. It was the moment it all ended for me, and I wouldn't have wanted her to go through that. — Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants
But perhaps most effective of all is an unexpected pivot. In Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Sabbathday River, the shift from “aww” to awe represents not a doll’s murder, but a child’s:
 She saw, freshly, the two blond little girls in smocked dresses on the television commercial; she could hear the happy jingle extolling the doll's mind-bending ability to wet. And her name: Sallie Smiles! (The exclamation mark thoughtfully provided by the manufacturer.) Naomi Roth's parents--they of the Little Red School House and Pete Seeger persuasion--had been horrified, naturally enough, but she must have had her fill of ant farms and nonsexist creative discovery objects. The small blond pixies on the television were the company she kept in her fantasy of the parallel childhood she was not leading. She coveted the doll.     
When it disappeared, less than a week after her birthday, she had waited before panicking.Then she approached her parents, whose unmistakable relief over her carelessness--the carelessness they assumed, despite her denials--was clear. Naomi's older brother declined to shed light on the situation, but months afterward it was from his window that she saw her doll again, grimy in city filth on the roof of the apartment building next door. It lay on its stomach against the asphalt, its bright face obscured, its fleshy pink hue bleached to stark white, and the legs between which it had wet so endearingly splayed to the extent of its somewhat limited hip sockets.
Tip: Expand your novel’s world by capturing rather than mentioning “aww” or awe.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Man Who Said Everything Twice

“Not much traffic today.” His wife nods, and they continue on. He lights a cigarette. “Nope. Not much traffic.” As their destination comes into view, she says nothing. He clears his throat. “Nice flat lake.” She turns away from him, toward the window, as he repeats, “Nice flat lake.”

Irritating as this man is, she probably won’t leave him for this reason alone. But if this pattern materializes in your novel, your reader will likely leave you.

Most writers know that they mustn’t repeat. So why do they?

~ Metaphorical throat clearing

Saying it again resembles “um” or “er” in conversation. Maybe details or events occurred twice in the first draft and were never deleted. It’s mostly habit—and you can break it.

~ Schooling

Over and over, writers heard: introduce what you’ll say, develop what you introduced, summarize what you said. This makes sense for teaching and learning. Is that what novels are about?

~ Distrust of the reader

This one is the most powerful. Good writers are nearly always insecure, comparing themselves to novelists they love and feeling they fall short. Very short. Concern that the metaphor is shaky, the subtext too subtle, or theme too understated, such writers clarify. Usually, though, they merely repeat what readers already absorbed.

What do writers repeat?

* General/specific

You know. First you comment on all dogs, then on individual breeds. You could also reverse the order to specific, then general. But don’t.

* Metaphor and explanation

If the metaphor can’t communicate without explanation, it’s not one you want.

* Transition

Yes, you must link each detail or idea or moment to the next. But, for example, don’t link each detail or idea or moment to the next by repeating the whole thing!

* Recent events

Never bring other characters up to date by repeating what readers already know. Hint. Condense.

How do you handle the repetition problem? You already know. About the lake and the traffic.

Tip: Once is enough.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

It’s Not a Dream!

Fiction is neither as long-winded, random, or forgettable as the scraps of stories that visit us during the night.  The novel’s achievement starts with the creation process that John Gardner describes:
In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. 
This is narrative at its happiest and best—writing that gives readers a  world more dramatic, realistic and moral than daily routine. But the boundaries of this world are fragile. In fact, as Gardner points out, “one of the chief mistakes a writer can make is to allow or force the reader’s mind to be distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream.”

Those distractions come in many shapes and sizes, but the other kind of dreaming goes a long way toward explaining them.

~ Cliché.

If you’re gifted enough, of course it’s possible to write anything. But, for the most part, any version of “Henrietta woke, relieved that it was only a dream” won’t work. Dreams may be messages to the dreamer, but rarely to anyone else. If you want your novel to delight others, everything must seem new, starting with the plot and ending with the details capturing it. Cliches like waking from a bad dream? That is a bad dream. 

~ Grounding

Dreams let us fly out windows, land in foreign countries without deplaning, simultaneously chat with former lovers and elementary school teachers. If there’s anything fun about dreams, that’s probably it. But readers demand a fictional dream that, however invisibly, explains arrivals, departures, changes of location, and everything else that makes any world outside a dream clear, logical, sensible, and compelling. 

~ Credibility

In your nightmare, your patient and adoring Mama turns on you for no reason, viciously humiliating you in front of every teacher you encountered in your entire life. No wonder you can’t wait to wake up! But the point is that fiction, unlike dream, requires motive and causality. It’s logically true to itself. Anything else shatters the fictional dream that Gardner describes.

~ Pace

Often when we narrate our dreams (or are forced to hear someone else’s), events and details emerge with agonizing slowness. Trivia receives meticulous tedium, while grounding rarely arrives at all. In contrast, novels need momentum and context. Without those, readers doze off, blissfully escaping to the other kind of dream.

Tip: Dreaming is the first step for many writers. But it shouldn’t be the last.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Bridge It

San Francisco weather often hides part of the Golden Gate Bridge. Without the mid-portion, it resembles two ends of a structure—with only heavy mist in between. Omit the transitions in fiction, and readers might feel as if only mist joins one sentence to the next. With an important exception. California fog can seem mysterious and romantic, whereas two disconnected ideas or sentences or paragraphs are anything but.

How often do fiction readers need a bridge? Every time they sense a shift, and that’s in the reader’s mind—not the writer’s. Shifts include focus, time, space, speaker, mood, emotion, scene, or verb tense. And lack of connection isn’t among the surprises readers enjoy.

Tip: What seems linked to the writer doesn’t always seem linked to the reader.

Because most writers live with their story world until every relationship seems obvious. So those crucial transitions joining one observation or moment to the next often go missing. 

Here’s an example: 
Leaning back with a sigh, Abby surveyed everything she loved about the living room: white carpet versus drapes in a slightly different ivory tint, Danish modern furniture, hand-blown glass artfully catching the light in various corners.     Though her husband had only black socks, they always looked mismatched.
Whoops. How did we get from interior design to hubby Bill’s habits? For the writer, this might seem crystal-clear. The character muses on order and taste and how differing hues complement each other, unlike her husband’s mismated footwear. Abby might resent his slovenliness contrasting with her taste, which she clearly admires. Perhaps she wonders why she likes snow-white with ivory, but not brand-new black with three-years-old black. 

And, in fact, developing any of those would clarify why the passage abruptly shifted from decor to laundry. The crucial component you accidentally omit from the page perplexes readers. Huh?

Remedies exist:

~ Notice, even if you don’t want to fix this until later.

Consider capitalizing markers like LETTING HER MIND WANDER, or LATER THAT EVENING.  This reminds that you need to improve this temporary transition.

~ Collect transitions in your daily world.

Store effective links from what you read, hear, and see. This becomes part of noticing.

~ Identify the connections you thought of but never included.

This smooths the way while adding causality and suspense.

Let readers view the entire bridge—without something missing in the middle.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Allure of the Lure

What about these openings?

“When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had travelled across a desert of living sand.” —Kevin Brockmeier, A Brief History of the Dead 

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” —Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“You better not never tell nobody but God.” —Alice Walker, The Color Purple

In every case, don’t you want to read on? Don’t you feel you can’t help it, even though you ought to walk the dog, empty the dishwasher, pack the lunches, turn out the light?

Tip: Start every scene—especially the first one—by enticing your reader. Irresistibly.

Because, as Paula Berinstein puts it, “We all know that if we don’t capture reader attention within a few seconds, we might as well kiss the sale of our work goodbye.”

K.M. Weiland adds: 

Readers are like fish. Smart fish. Fish who know authors are out to get them, reel them in, and capture them for the rest of their seagoing lives. But, like any self-respecting fish, readers aren’t caught easily. They aren’t about to surrender themselves to the lure of your story unless you’ve presented them with an irresistible hook.

Hooked on hooks yourself now? These tricks might work more often than not:

~ Check to see if your hook is already there—just not in the opening sentence. 

~ Emphasize what drives the scene. 

How will it intensify the obstacles from the previous one? What must the protagonist learn? What additional pressure will the antagonist exert? What single sentence propels the protagonist into the next difficulty or exacerbation of a previous one?

~ Value high stakes over context, which you can easily fill in after you’ve grabbed attention.

How can you crystallize huge tension right now? Can you provide enough grounding with a prepositional phrase or two?

~ Write vigorously. 

This means connotative nouns, active metaphorical verbs, and minimal modifiers.

~ Watch your sentence structure.

Don’t overdo any one technique. But compound sentences rarely coalesce the most energy. Strive for either short sentences or highly rhythmic long ones.

~ Use the ending of the scene to launch the subsequent one.

It’s often helpful to have that in mind before you even begin writing a scene. How will this one cause whatever’s next?

Like so many things about fiction writing, developing hooks is a skill that anyone can master, simply through lots and lots of practice. No magic involved. Doesn’t that challenge hook you?

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Novelist and Cheap Dental Floss

You know the kind. Bought on impulse at a price too good to be true, it knots and breaks, leaving behind tiny, disgusting, barely removable fragments. Of course you should discard it. But small though the investment is, you’ve made one and feel obliged to see it through. Is that how you treat whatever you’ve already written? If so, is that in your best interest? 

Tip: If it really doesn’t work, let it go.

“An editor,” says Susan Bell, “doesn’t just read, he reads well, and reading well is a creative, powerful act.

What does it mean to “read well?” Mostly likely, that no matter how much you put into this point of view, setting, even scenario, sometimes you must admit that it simply isn’t salvageable. Consider these questions.

~ Is this problematic whatever so ill-conceived that no amount of editing will fully repair it?

This is a tough one. You thought long and hard about this scene. You can visualize it; part of you loves it. But the objective part of you—the portion that cares more about the story than its author—knows that the dialogue is limp, the tension low, the new character an irritant, the stakes low, and the collection of simple or compound sentences lethargic. Listen to the writer rather than the ego. Don’t keep words (or lousy floss) just because it’s an investment.

~ Does this detail or sentence or character add?

Here’s Thomas Wolfe’s confession:

What I had to face, the very bitter lesson that everyone who wants to write has got to learn, was that a thing may in itself be the finest piece of writing one has ever done, and yet have absolutely no place in the manuscript one hopes to publish.

~ Is this moment, however lovely, simply backstory?

Beware lengthy forays into the past, especially flashbacks. Fiction readers follow the suspense of what’s ahead, rather than the yesterday’s news about what led characters to this point.

~ Is this example a rather self-indulgent journey into what you long to teach or describe?

Colette makes this distinction: “Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

~ Is whatever passage you’re questioning redundant?

How many images or metaphors capturing the same thing are too many? More than one, even if each differs slightly. Craft what you want the reader to experience, and you needn’t repeat. Here’s Truman Capote: “I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

According to C.J. Cherryh, “It is perfectly okay to write garbage–as long as you edit brilliantly.” But if you can’t bear to relinquish your investment in time and words? Consider not writing them in the first place. Plenty more—and better—words where those came from.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Writer “R” and “R” and “R”

Pushing yourself to meet deadlines, achieve goals, and revise deeply—all great. Rejuvenating every so often is not only equally great, but crucial. So here are some “r’s” to balance not only writing, but the writing life.

~ Replenishment.

How can you create if you’ve exhausted the supply of words, ideas, story questions, metaphors, and revision techniques? Maybe you need a vacation. Or a staycation.  Or a rigorous workout, a hilarious movie, a fancy dinner.  No two novelists will need exactly the same thing or amount of it. But when you genuinely need a break, take one. Minus the guilt.

~ Remembrance. 

As Dean Koontz reminds,
Have fun, entertain yourself with your work, make yourself laugh and cry with your own stories, make yourself shiver in suspense along with your characters. If you can do that, then you will most likely find a large audience; but even if a large audience is never found, you'll have a happy life.
When did you last remind yourself what drives you to write your novel?


Obviously, you want rhythm between dialogue and narrative, scene and summary, snappy and leisurely sentences. Don’t you also need a rhythm in your writing time? Sometimes a super-short session on one day might produce a far magnificently productive one the next. In contrast with flexible goals, rationalization, of course, is the writer’s enemy.

~ Reality.

As A. Lee Martinez put it, “Those who write are writers. Those who wait are waiters.” External and internal circumstances will never cease rollercoasting, so protect momentum when it hits. For the rest of time, if necessary, create a schedule. Then respect it.


Neil Gaiman admits that “All writers have this vague hope that the elves will come in the night and finish any stories.” If that hasn't worked for him, it’s unlikely to work for the rest of us. This doesn’t mean that a litany of “should’s” “should” immobilize you. Or you “should” descend to guilt equivalent to consuming an entire carton of gelato. Resolve not to squander the exquisite energy fired by your scenario, or characters, or the stimulation of crafting words. Remind yourself why you’re writing.

Tip: The act of completing a novel requires as much balance as the art of writing one.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Harsh Numbness Descended to My Entrails, Writhing There

Whoops! A harsh numbness as opposed to a cheerful one? The numbness actually descended, writhed later? Is it strategic to discuss emotion (or lack of it) in terms of entrails?

Here’s why not. Ever start watching an old movie only to become dismayed by the music? The melodramatic facial expressions? A plot so obvious it seems a sixth grader contrived it? Although you’re dying to know who Tony Curtis was or how the young Tommy Lee Jones looked (blond and great!), you give up. No novelist wants readers doing that.

Tip: Tastes change.

Obvious as that seems, what you learned to read in what my folks called “their youth” (see how language changes?), that’s unlikely to be what you want to write right now.

So what’s different?

~ Concept.

It may have been true since Ecclesiastes that “there is no new thing under the sun,” but as Donald Maass puts it in Writing the Breakout Novel:
What about your premise? Is it truly a fresh look at your subject, a perspective that no one else but you can bring to it? Is it the opposite of what we expect or a mix of elements such as we’ve never seen before? If not, you have some work to do.
It’s a bittersweet irony that readers enjoy familiarity—but never too much of it.

~ Characterization.

Readers loved Dickens not despite the unctuousness of a creep like Uriah Heep or unmitigated greed of Ebenezer Scrooge, but precisely because the good and bad guys were unquestionably identified. Now, though, every bad guy is in some way good, and every good gal overcome by fatal flaw. In pretty much every book, today’s characters are full-bodied, passionate and resilient, but usually wrong-headed in at least one way.

~ Plot.

A great divide exists between those arguing that literary fiction is never about plot, while genre fiction is never about anything else. But writing coaches like Lisa Cron or Jessica Page Morrell, not to mention agents, publishers, and readers themselves, like to see high stakes. Unlike the meandering beauty of the 19th century novel, what sells—and gets read—is a causal chain of events that are neither improbable nor overly predictable.

~ Language.

Today’s fiction has its own share of overwrought agony. It also has examples like these, retaining the rhythmic intensity of yesterday’s sentences with the acute diction and metaphor that contemporary readers hope to encounter:
When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had travelled across a desert of living sand.—Kevin Brockmeier, A Brief History of the Dead
Quiet as it's kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.—Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
 I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.—Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Of course you want to read on. They sound like right now—at its very best.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Think like a Bird?

Once a young marsh hawk apparently considered an open garage part of the skyline and flew inside, perching on the metal rafters controlling the sliding door. Fine. Until it couldn’t escape. The woman, nature lover that she was, told the neighbors she’d free it right away. No problem.

First at the front door, then just inside, then closer to the rear, she offered the bird raw hamburger, cooked hamburger, a chicken leg, canned and dry cat food. No dice.

Still undaunted, she got a broom and gently chased the confused stranger toward the front. Over and over it flew maniacally forward, only to reclaim its original post. She became increasingly afraid—she and the hawk both. It clung, fluttering frantically, piteously opening its golden beak to emit silent cries more taxing than a howl ever could be.

The bird had done her in. Or had it? “Think like a bird,” she chided. “Think like a bird,” she barked and began searching the yard for a something natural enough to represent escape. The woman took her time arranging the branch, altering its position, attaching more sticks, setting it up to imitate exactly what it was supposed to be. And, lo, this time when the broom urged the prisoner forward, the raptor found the tree, hesitated, circling for relentless moments until its back leg briefly touched the tip of the facsimile tree and it zoomed away.

For novelists, it doesn’t matter that this woman sank to the driveway gravel and wept for some time. It matters that she thought like a bird.

Tip: Enter the mind of every living being in your novel, whether child, wizard, cat, or grandpa.

After all, if you want every character to feel real for readers, first every character must feel completely real to you. In a short story titled “The Remobilization of Jacob Horner,” John Barth wrote: “In life there are no essentially major or minor characters. To that extent, all fiction and biography, and most historiography, is a lie. Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.”

Your story or novel should have neither characters too minor for dimension, nor snapshots that reduce some players to heroes, others to reprobates or scoundrels. 

How do you think like each of your characters?

~ Explore desire.

Nothing reveals a person (or a bird) as well as a burning obsession to change the
external or internal territory.

~ Brainstorm.

Let your subconscious roam free. How are you like a goat? A chancellor? A seer?

~Cheat a bit. 

For a while, choose a hat to wear each time you switch to a different head.

~Empathize deeply.

Use your own emotions, uncomfortable or embarrassing as that perhaps seems.

“Take Your Characters to Dinner.”

Mentally interact with them outside the format of your story.

You needn’t rescue a hawk, or, before the last page, anyone else. But your readers expect that if you include one in your book, at least epiphany occurs, you penetrated that avian mind.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

“Anguish” or “pain”? “Yearning” or “Desire”?

The difference? Less is more. For novelists, that notion never gets old, because most of us want more words, more syllables in those words, and more melodrama everywhere. And why not?

Because, Brendan Kenny puts it, 
Hyperbole and overstatement do more harm than good. Hyperbole is exaggeration. Overstatement is an attempt to convince your audience by bludgeoning them with facts, arguments, and pleas to get them to accept your assertion.
And this is as true for fiction as for law. In an interview with Roxane Gay, Joshua Henkin agrees:
I tend to gravitate toward understatement. My novels and stories are animated as much by what’s not said as by what’s said. It’s the silences in fiction (and in life) that, if rendered well, can be most illuminating.
Tip: The source of emotional engagement is putting readers in the moment instead of pushing them there.

Inflated or cliched language and description never involve readers the way these passages do:
My mother always says that fear and pain are immediate and that, when they’re gone, we’re left with the concept, but not the true memory—why else, she reasons, would anyone give birth more than once? I think I understand what she means when I look back on the night of the fire. Part of me knows that there was tremendous pain, that the heat of the blaze as it came down though the old village on the hill and Slavko’s farmland and our orange grove and ripped through the fig and almond trees, the pinecones sizzling like embers for what seemed like forever before they exploded, was unbearable; that to say that it was difficult to breathe is an impossible understatement; that the hair on my bare arms was already singed when the fire dropped down through the pines and rushed the brick wall. —Tea Obreht The Tiger’s Wife
You’re right there with the girl trying to beat back the fire. This connection happens because of the opening metaphor, the particularity of the details, the reflection after the fact, and the acute physical sensations. An understated portrayal of tragedy.

Understatement works equally well for joy. In Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria, the Queen Victoria’s new status terminates what could’ve been a budding romance, and she tells her prime minister:
“I was so happy … before.’”     “I find that happiness can always be recollected in tranquillity, Ma’am,” said Melbourne.      Victoria put her hands down and looked up at him, her pale blue eyes searching his face. “You were happy too?”     When Melbourne spoke, it was in the voice not of the urbane Prime Minister, but of a man of advancing years who is facing the loss of the only thing that is still capable of bringing him joy. “You know I was, Ma’am.” 
The Lord’s unadorned admission conveys everything Victoria needs to know, and through her, to those experiencing the scene vicariously. 

Shout, and you might get ignored. Whisper, and everyone will lean in to overhear. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Novelist and “Hardwired for Story”

Exactly what does that catchy little phrase actually mean?
Your reader is biologically wired to respond to your protagonist’s inner struggle. When we’re lost in a story, our brains sync with the protagonist’s and her struggle becomes our struggle. This isn’t a metaphor—functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) reveals that when a story engages us, we experience what the protagonist is going through as if it were happening to us—because it is. We feel what she feels because her emotions travel down our neutral pathways. —Lisa Cron, “Story First, Plot Second,” from Author in Progress, Therese Walsh, ed.
That neural pathway connection depends on the characters of a story or novel. Almost magically, readers respond to vital ones as if they were vitally alive, but without any of the danger, disappointment, mayhem or messiness that real-world interactions bring. Cron goes on to add
To hell with those clunky virtual reality visors—humans already come equipped with the most effective VR of all: the ability to neurologically slip into someone else’s life, especially when she’s struggling with an unavoidable problem trying to figure out what the heck to do. The unspoken question we’re wired to bring to every story is: What would it cost, emotionally, to have to go through that? What will I learn about what makes people tick that will help me navigate my own life?
So as the storyteller every novelist is, your initial challenge is to let readers make an emotional connection that sparks something meaningful to the personal lives of your readers. This could be curiosity, betrayal, paranoia, forgiveness, spirituality—any human issue.

You don’t need anything complex to accomplish this connection, observes Orion Jones in “How the Human Brain Became Hardwired to Tell Stories”:
A standard story-telling formula may go something like this: character(s) + predicament(s) + attempted extrication(s). In short, the very stuff of life. Like our language instinct, a story drive—an inborn hunger for story hearing and story making—emerges untutored universally in healthy children. Every culture bathes their children in stories to explain how the world works and to engage and educate their emotions.
All stories, from cave paintings to meta-novels, share those basic elements. In “Storytelling: What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains,” Leo Widrich reminds that “A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect.” 

Tip: Build plot and characterization keeping the hardwired impact of story in mind. 

Most novelists already know that characters mustn’t seem flat, that many readers dislike too much “telling,” that episodic or coincidental plots rarely convince, and that story resides in plot instead of theme, rather than the other way around.

So it’s less that writers should revise their approach to plot and characterization than remember what underlies those. Spoon-fed readers can’t experience anything vicariously. Stereotypes don’t evoke human behavior, and thematic statements move us far less than the journeys that reveal those. Consider why internal arcs satisfy more than external ones, why you need to “show” the behavior of your multi-dimensional characters. 

The “why” might just be the path to the “how.” Although it may not feel like it when seeking an agent or publisher, every novelist has a built-in audience. You’ll find those readers through characters who are universal and thus empathetic plus a plot that is causal and thus credible.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Novelist as Character Beats Character as Novelist

Even writers tire of fictional protagonists enduring blocks, deadlines, and the humiliation of the one-shot-wonder syndrome. Writers can become almost as disenchanted with someone else’s pages reflecting a mirror image—whether witty, maudlin, or ironic—as other readers became long ago.

But using your non-novelist self as template, inspiration, or guru for a protagonist? That’s another story, quite possibly one which exquisitely blends truth with embroidery of it, genuine feeling with “recollection of it in tranquility,” as William Wordsworth put it.

Certainly that involves risk. Skimp on the tranquility component, and you might transform anyone who irks you into a melodramatic villain. Perhaps you’ll splash your politics all over your chapters, or compile scenes so syrupy with self-pity that pages stick together in interactions that seem endless.

For the lucky writer, though (and the lucky readers who get their hands on that novel), the synthesis of raw emotion with the objectivity of narration approaches closest to universal feelings and themes. After all, as Joseph Campbell put it, “You are the Hero of your own Story.” What a great foundation for the hero your imagination and craft create. Why not take that concept further? Shanon Grey believes that “Your life is a book; make it a bestseller.”

How might you infuse your fiction with personal emotions and experiences?

~ Articulate your reactions to events, whether trivial or monumental.

Using either a mental or written journal, consider how anger smells, what your stomach muscles do when you’re happy, or your personal metaphor for fear or passion or spirituality. Note these, again, either on paper or in your head, so they’re available when you need them.

~ Assess “ticking clock” anxiety in your daily world.

According to Sidney Sheldon, “Life is like a novel. It’s filled with suspense. You have no idea what is going to happen until you turn the page.” How does it feel to await the doctor calling you back, the results of the job interview, the tally of an election? That’s how your protagonist feels. Of course you can’t just “tell” readers that, or they’ll never turn the page to get the results. Instead? Translate your responses into imagery, body language, or metaphor.

~ Probe. Shamelessly.

“I think one of the appeals of suspense is to safely explore our innermost fears,” Lisa Gardner observes. Readers can’t do that unless the novelist does it first. Do you shout in rage whenever you’re actually hurt? Does sour grapes ever convince you that the unwanted outcome feels okay? What role does rationalization play in your interaction with others? With yourself?

~ Appraise the stakes.

Whatever worries or bothers one can escalate, even when insignificant as a thoughtless thing you said or heard. Concentrate on how hard you can grit your teeth over what to do. Now make your character feel that, so your readers can.

Tip: Be your own “artist’s model.” And it doesn’t cost a penny,

Many writers enjoy research, correctly believing that it can cement geography, history, and forays into sports or art, quilting or banking. But one area of emotions often goes unexplored: what the writer knows about suspense, emotion, and life. Why neglect that opportunity?

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sense of Pace

Its familiar namesake—sense of place—is easier to imagine, if not manage. At least you know that readers expect setting to support and vitalize character action and reaction. Yes, the details might prove cliched or skimpy. But what if those details overwhelm? That’s when momentum comes in, and it’s as crucial to assess as tough to judge.

Tip: Readers expect pace to seem invisible.

If readers become conscious of pace, that’s trouble, and not of the fun, exciting kind you inflict on your characters. 

Wikipedia defines pace as “the length of the scenes, how fast the action moves, and how quickly the reader is provided with information.” Carol Benedict notes the effect of these variables:
Every story has a rhythm. If it’s a monotonous one, readers may lose interest. Pacing the rhythm can build tension, emphasize important events, stir the reader’s emotions, and move the action forward.

Pace is about illusion. Unlike time in the real world, nothing ever moves too swiftly or tediously. It’s always optimal. And therefore it stays invisible unless it doesn’t work.
Readers who notice any of these problems can become uncomfortably aware of pace:
  • “Telling.”
  • Confusion (rather than ambiguity or subtlety).
  • Lack of variation.
  • Laborious sentences.
  • Lethargic dialogue.
  • Low or repetitious stakes.
  • All the time in the world.
  • Reliance on stereotypical language, plot, or characterization.
  • Excessive description or spelling out.
  • Scenes lacking in momentum that need to be summaries.
Fortunately, many solutions exist. Here are some possibilities:

~Every time an issue seems almost resolved, introduce a new obstacle.

~ Keep high action/drama scenes moving.

~ Avoid unnecessary adjectives and especially adverbs.

~ Contrast short and simple sentences with long, embedded ones.

~ Structure sentences and paragraphs to emphasize climax.

~ Delete the “thinking aloud” that characterized your first draft.

~ Read like a reader.

You won’t nail this last one every time, or even every other time. But the more you practice, the better you’ll get at conveying the illusion that nothing’s ever too speedy or slow.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Good and the Ugly

Story loves heroes. Beowulf conquers Grendel (also his mom). Even to solve money problems, Elizabeth Bennet refuses to marry an oaf she doesn’t love. Amy Tan’s protagonists ultimately transcend erroneous judgements about themselves and others.

Is the writer’s task to reveal the entire picture of a character, including hideous fantasies and metaphorical warts, or will that drive writers away? The best answer: Yes. Also no. 

Some fiction tracks  immoral anti-heroes with perfidious secrets. In Ian McEwan’s Solar, Michael Beard is a Nobel prize-winning physicist who has bottomed out, both professionally and romantically. And here’s a snapshot of Nino Ricci’s protagonist in The Origin of Species:
Alex wondered why he was following this man around like his pet. It was better than just going stir crazy out here was what he told himself. But it wasn’t just that. Somehow, the more time he spent with Desmond and the more reasons he amassed to detest him, the more he felt in his thrall. He wasn’t sure what sort of pathology might lie behind this, if he was drawn to him because they were so different or because he thought them the same.
Throughout this novel, the reader (or at least this one) keeps yelling, “No, don’t do it!” Yet, over and over, Alex makes the worst possible choice. Psychologically, perhaps that’s cause for cheer, as in, “I’d never make that mistake.” Emotional engagement comes not from admiring the character, but wanting to help while secretly believing we could do better.

In “How to Make Unlikable Characters Likable,” Jessica Brody offers this advice:
Tip 1: Give your hero one redeeming quality or action (even if it’s small) at the beginning of the story.Tip 2: Give your hero an enemy…a really evil one.Tip 3: Make us “love to hate” them.
Does that always work? The unlikable protagonist functioning as unreliable narrator in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs generated a literary uproar. Here’s the author’s response: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’ ”

Though Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings produced no uproar, she agreed: “One thing I’ve noticed that’s a kind of disturbing trend is fiction about and by women who the reader is meant to feel ‘comfortable’ around—what I call slumber party fiction—as though the characters are stand-ins for your best friends.” So likable has its place, as does discomfiting. 

If the best fiction changes same-old into new, then making sure your protagonist is likable might be the safest but not necessarily best bet. How can you keep readers turning pages?
  • Dark secrets must be insightful and universal—not just ugly.
  • Both character strengths and weaknesses must feel like part of a whole being.  
  • Readers need to feel compassion before they encounter unappealing traits.
  • Justification for questionable choices and behavior promotes empathy.

Tip: If characters seem whole and alive, readers are more apt to tolerate their shortcomings.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Opening Up

Buds are full of promise. How large will this one get, how fragrant, how multi-faceted, and will the culmination prove worth the wait? If a bud is a rich with potential, how much more so a novel’s first sentence, paragraph, page, chapter. There you entice readers. Or lose them.

Openings hint at what we can expect, help us decide if we should await the outcome. Contrast these: 
Our quick breath encircled our heads in the late-winter air as he pulled me by the hand, through lines of Model Ts and Cadillac Coupes, toward the glow of the Colonial Theatre. My body coursed with elation and guilt, every bit as intoxicating as the rum drinks he'd mixed for us out of the trunk of his car. The frenzy of the Jazz Age had overflowed from the cities into smaller towns like ours in music, film, fashion, and literature, resulting in restlessness and tension between generations and ideals. Fueled by the energy of the new, we had toasted our agreement: That night it was only us in the world, and we would live like it was ours.     He'd lifted a triple-stranded pearl necklace over my head and set it on my skin, kissing the scar on my collarbone, a relic from the first night we'd found each other. He whispered that the necklace was only costume jewelry, but one day he'd buy me the real thing. --Erika Robuck, Fallen Beauty
Here’s a very different beginning:
The girl standing in the foyer when Alex went down to get his mail, trembling slightly on her cane, was Esther. Not a girl, really: a woman. Everyone in the building knew her. Or everyone, it seemed, except Alex, who, in the few months since he’d moved here, had never quite managed to be the one to open a door for her, or put her key in her mailbox, or start a conversation with her in the oppressive intimacy of the building’s elevators.     She was looking out through the plate glass of the entrance doors to the street, where sunlight now glinted off the morning’s earlier sprinkling of rain.     “I wouldn’t go out there if you don’t have to,” Alex said, then regretted at once his admonitory tone.     From the confusion that came over her, plain as if a shadow had crossed her, it was clear she hadn’t understood.     “The rain,” he said. —Nino Ricci, The Origin of Species
Individual readers will prefer one approach over the over. And why?
  • Contrast the depth. Which probes psychology in a way that intrigues you?
  • Evaluate the scenario. What grabs you, and why?
  • Consider the language. Which seems more vital? Original?
  • Check the syntax. Which types and variety of sentences meet your needs?
  • Respond to the imagery. Does it stimulate your senses?
  • Meet the characters. Do you want to follow them—or flee?
  • Note the point of view. Is it the kind of window into a world you’re looking for?
  • Reader participation. How free must you be to reach your own conclusions?
The average novel reader won’t consciously pose even one of these questions. Still, readers instinctively consider quite a lot of this when checking the opening to decide if this book’s for them. What does the first page offer? Does its potential unfurling seem like something worth following? Whatever the source, is there a genuine hook?

Tip: Your novel’s opening matters more than anything that follows.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Chocolate and the Novelist

Picture, then inhale the scent, of your favorite flavor. Better even than lilacs, right? Chocolate offers poetry for the tastebuds, antidote for sadness, compensation for anxiety or stress. It’s also a reminder to everyone, including novelists, that enough is enough. 

Take details. Consider the many, many paragraphs of your novel that aren’t drama, action, or dialogue.  These fall into two general categories. 

Some narrative is immediately and directly integrated with the plot, thus creating or sustaining tension. Examples? Backstory, foreshadowing, some kinds of setting, or revelations of resources characters possess or lack. Description intrinsically linked to plot often zips along.

But a lot of the detail in novels has nothing to do with plot. Imagery and information often defeat tension. Still, novels would be mighty thin without description, symbolism, character nuance, and topics from art through zebras. 

Narrative, plot-oriented or otherwise, always affects pace, though the first  category far less than the second. That’s where chocolate comes in. First it fills your mouth with something besides your fingernails while you decide how much you need for clarity, reader satisfaction, and agent attraction. Chocolate soothes during the painful acceptance that you’re not a mindreader. Also, it warns that even something glorious can overwhelm, even nauseate, if over-indulged.  

You might consider all those add-ons that make fiction worth reading—and writing—as the sweet tang of chocolate: fantastic in moderation, but unappealing in smothering doses.

Tip: Too much, even of something quite wonderful, remains—too much.

Subtlety is key. According to Jerome Stern:
Serious writers, including comic writers, are interested in subtlety, in avoiding heavy-handed effects and obvious characterizations. They want to make readers pay close attention, and readers enjoy picking up on clues as subtle as a hesitation or a dropped glance.
Readers expect novels to order chaos, but not to remove every doubt. Readers want lots of chocolate, but not as the main course. These questions might help.
  • Do you leave space for reader imagination?
  • Do you overstate rather than imply?
  • Unsure whether readers “get it,” do you repeat once more, just to be sure?
  • Do you explain your metaphors?
  • Do your adverbs (“lazily,” crazily,” “dazedly”) “tell” what the dialogue already “shows”?
  • Do you ever overwhelm your plot with description or fact?
  • Do you write as if you have faith in reader ability to infer?
Thomas Mann observed that
Subtlety is the mark of confidence… A writer who is confident need not prove anything, need not try to grab attention with spates of stylism or hyperbole or melodrama… He will often leave things unsaid, may even employ a bit of confusion, and often allow you to come to your own conclusions.
In other words, enough chocolate to satisfy (which could be a lot!), but not to overwhelm.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Silent Spaces of the Scene

Life is chaotic, fiction is focused. Reality tends toward amoral inconsistency. Fiction, though, from its inception, has conveyed meaning and significance through causal, focused character arc. Unlikely as it perhaps seems, the silent pauses of the story—the moments when readers supply what writers imply—help shape the moral world that expresses theme.

In Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen, storytelling guru Robert McKee, observes that  “Silence is the ultimate economy of language.” 

Is this goal worthy? The English Definition Dictionary defines economy of language as “sparing, restrained, or efficient use, esp. to achieve the maximum effect for the minimum effort.” Isn’t that what every reader, and thus every writer craves?

Admirably, McKee, who is all about practicality, urges, 
To master the technique of saying little but expressing much, first train your eye to see into the depths of the unsaid and the unsayable inside the people around you, then train your ear to hear the said.
So the novelist begins, as all the best novelists do, with observation, but of a very particular kind: watch first, listen after. Because it’s not just politicians who rarely say what they mean. What are you watching for?

~ Body language.

What is the speaker doing? And are the movements and gestures consistent with the words?

~ Facial expressions.

Are they forthright or disingenuous? What might one slightly raised eyebrow mean?


This is the magical space where readers rule. What might they imagine when neither the characters nor the narrator says a thing?

Once you’ve done some psychological training with your eyes, train your ears.

~ Tone.

Is the character hostile, sarcastic, subservient, or what? How might you communicate the speaker’s mood without casually, lazily, carelessly resorting to adverbs? Most of them “tell.”

~ Subtext.

Few of us say everything we mean. If we did, more people would get fired and divorced. Instead, we hint with questions like “Is that what you’re wearing?” Insinuation is at least as crucial in fiction as life.

Most fiction balances action with introspection. What integrates them? Silence. The not-so-empty pause between one movement of a sonata to the next engages the listener. Readers, too, require a brief delay to absorb what’s lyrical, appalling, non-negotiable, or inevitable. Silence can accentuate the midpoint of a novel, the climax of a scene, the motivational potential of a pressure point. Let your readers slow down so they compare, contrast, think, and appreciate. 

Tip: Respect the need for moments of silence in your novel.

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.