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.