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?

~Rhythm.

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.

~Resolution.

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?

~Pause.

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.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

“R’s” for Writers

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

~ Recurrence.

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

~ Reflection.

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

~ Repetition.

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

~ Resolution.

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

~ Resonance.

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

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

~ Revisitation.

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

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

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Letting Your Words Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Post-Birthday Blog

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

~ Why do you write?

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

To Reach, Neither Preach Nor Teach

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

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

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

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

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

And this is why.

~ Put characters foremost. 

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

~ Harness the power of plot. 

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

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


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

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Banished!

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

~ Fatigued and fatiguing scene and especially chapter openings. 

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

~ Drooping middle.

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

~ No deus ex machina.

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

~ Offstage action.

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

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

~ Dead metaphors.

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

~ Mixed metaphors.

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

~ Passive voice.

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

~ Double Negative.

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


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

Sunday, March 5, 2017

To Verb?

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

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

~ Verbs can electrify or lull.

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

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

~ Verbs can act or just be.

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

~ Verbs can punctuate or falter.

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

~ Verbs can symbolize or confuse.

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

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

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Glorious Sentences Are Made—Not Born

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

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

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

Sunday, February 19, 2017

What Can Dogs Teach Novelists?

Most of us love dogs for attributes equally delightful in fiction writers. It’s easy to love someone who only wants to please, who would do most anything for most anyone. Novelist Nora Roberts claims that “Everything I know, I learned from dogs.” Perhaps not, but here are some canine secrets, anyway:

~ Tenderness

Charles Baxter was 100 % correct when he observed that “Hell is story friendly.” Kindness to readers involves unkindness to characters—often and viciously. This doesn’t mean that writers are cruel-hearted. If you want readers to bleed emotionally over these beings you’ve sent into their lives, the creator of those characters must bleed emotionally as well. 

This discomfort comes in two flavors. It’s painful to watch your good guys in trouble, yet also painful to sorrow over the pain your villains bring on themselves. Whenever this seems unendurable, contemplate the stoicism of dogs.
~ Loyalty

Even if punished, banished, struck repeatedly with a rolled up newspaper, they never give up on those they love. Don’t give up on your characters, however confusing, exhausting, or mortifying Don’t give up on making your novel everything it could be, either—no matter how many years that takes.

~ Passion

Consider how canines greet other canines, not to mention live or dead anything-in-motion, and definitely not food. Food!!! Everything, then, is delicious, captivating, magnetizing, and always new. What a terrific way to move through the world. What an even more terrific way to write about the world. Invite passion, whether about storms, ice hockey, or the bulging contours of a ripe tomato. There’s no better antidote for dismissing boredom, in your readers or yourself.
~ Shamelessness

Yes, naughty dogs droop their necks so they can look abjectly at you through half-raised eyes. It’s mostly show, however. Reach your hand down for a forgiving pat, and all’s forgotten. The next hamburger at the edge of the table will meet the same fate as those preceding it. You left it there. Do you truly expect the dog to ignore it?

“Dogs act exactly the way we would act if we had no shame,” Cynthia Heimel believes, and shame has no place in the novelist’s toolkit. Dogs teach us that having sex with strangers in broad daylight is no cause for chagrin. Neither is sniffing the foulest leavings that came from the foulest places. Don’t disrobe in public or play in the cat box. Please. Do probe humanity’s darkest places. That includes your own history, your own heart.

Tip: Dogs can be role models for the treatment of characters—and readers. 

Here’s Charles M. Schulz about being too hard on yourself: “All his life he tried to be a good person. Many times, however, he failed. For after all, he was only human. He wasn't a dog.”

Sunday, February 12, 2017

“The Decisive Moment”

In the preface to the book of that title, Henri Cartier-Bresson accompanied his photographs with commentary, including “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” Unintentionally, of course, this idea applies not only to camera work, but to the engine that drives fiction. 

Tip: “Decisive Moments” structure your novel and the scenes (or summaries) composing its plot.


It starts with noticing. Whether with camera, computer, or pen, you need first to identify significance, then be certain that you capture it. After all, as he observed, “Once you miss it, it is gone forever.” 
Ready yourself to seize flashes of inspiration, whether they wake you at dawn, strike when you get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, or disrupt concentration on rush hour traffic. 

Don’t, needless to say, endanger yourself with sleep deprivation, eyes on your iPhone, or both. 

~ Do make sure you have a means to record even the most slender wisp of idea. Otherwise, how will you ever know how big it might have become?

Cartier-Bresson felt strongly about the impact of a single moment, saying, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” 

~Don’t view this premise as unrelated to fiction.

~ Do harness the construct of the “decisive moment” to structure your novel and choose what you present in “live time” and what you summarize.

In fiction, those “decisive moments” are the pressure points that create character arc. The protagonist’s customary response, whether waiting, rationalizing, or denying, is now impossible. However painfully or foolishly, the character must act—and immediately. Just as photographers portray the external world, the novelist must accept that readers want to view the most intense moments through action and imagery. The best pressure points are photographable. This prevents the clutter of excessive rumination, review, or reconstruction. 

Once you recognize your novel’s events in terms of “decisive” or “significant,” you’re on track to decide what should unfold, detail by detail. The rest? Collapse it into a swift abbreviation of what readers need to know but have no need to watch.

The Cartier-Bresson phrase “proper expression” is already ambiguous, and more so when applied to prose. Yet in either fiction or photography, “proper expression” means that the portrayal says it all—no caption needed. If you’ve found the “decisive moments” of your protagonist’s journey, never deflate them by explaining what they mean. 

Haven’t found the “decisive moments” yet? How matter how many words, drafts, or themes you’ve amassed, it’s back to the storyboard. The best novels, no matter how historical or literary, always build from the moments when there’s no turning back. And it’s most fun for readers when these pivots, or turning points, are barely visible until the plot ends and readers grasp the how and why. 


Here’s to “decisive moments.”