Sunday, September 24, 2017

Do It with Verbs

But not just any old verb. Only so-called “strong” or “action” verbs propel, fire, and glide to accomplish what writers want and readers need. Verbs like “was” or “have,” though essential to communication, electrify writing no more than vague nouns, useless adverbs, or redundant adjectives.

Tip: Weak verbs produce weak sentences—which produce weak novels.  

In “Verbs: Spice Up Your Writing with Verbs that Rock,” Dave Bricker remarks:
If your writ­ing was an elec­tric gui­tar, your verbs would be the vol­ume, tone, and dis­tor­tion con­trols that shape the music of your sen­tences.
Johnson’s “Writing Style: Use Good Words, Not Bad Ones” suggests:
Strengthen your verbs by making them as specific as possible. Eat, for example, could also be nibble, devour and gobble, depending on what you want to convey. Likewise, sit could be slouch, spread out or recline.
Henneke concurs:
strong verbs add action, vitality, color, and zest. So, the “secret” to writing with gusto is to choose stronger verbs. — “99 Strong Verbs to Make Your Content Pop, Fizz and Sparkle”
Forget about adjectives -- they're as floppy as a gaggle of 98-lb weaklings. Verbs, on the other hand, are the muscle-men and women of the beach. After all, if your goal is to move readers (either literally or metaphorically), doesn't it make sense to focus on the ACTion words in your writing?— Daphne Gray-Grant, “Starve an Adjective, Feed a Verb”
Committed to verbs? Here’s how to work out with them so they work for you.

~ Expand your working verb vocabulary.
In conversation, we use the same verbs over and over: “Come here,” “Bring the popcorn,” ”Let the dog out.” The problem arises when the fiction writer accesses that same limited number of pedestrian verbs.  Start collecting intriguing verbs.  Check the many online action verb lists.
~ Ruminate.
Mull so readers needn’t. Not “Working through the many disagreements about how to spend money made their marriage that much stronger.” Instead? “Discussing money, instead of quarreling about it, strengthened their marriage.” Invest time in choosing weight-bearing verbs. The more you ponder and practice, then the easier this gets. 
~ Exercise and apply.
Chase different—and better—verbs, even when not actively writing. Notice great or ghastly verbs in everything you read and hear. Yes—everything. 
You can do it.

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.