Sunday, June 10, 2018

Composition: Harmony ad Variety

In paintings or photos, balance creates attention and beauty. No single element should overwhelm any other, while those individual components echo, contrast, and complement. Finally, monotony of form, color, or anything else, muddies. Where’s the focal point?

These precepts also pertain to the novel, though, obviously, not in terms of color or shape. The fundamentals of fiction include:

* Action: Dramatization of cinematic scenes.

* Dialogue: Two or more characters conversing.

* Narrative: Transition and context grounding action and dialogue.

* Information: Backstory, exposition, facts, or intellectual stimulation.

Tip: Good fiction varies and harmoniously balances its components.

~ No one element should overwhelm the other
Unless sufficient narrative supports the action, you’ve dumped the reader in the stream without a life preserver.      Everything in fiction serves story. So even if this is an informative moment, it mustn’t overwhelm the characters’ journey. Still, too much action resembles a few crumbs of cake slathered with a quarter-can of frosting. In fiction and everything else, too much of a good thing remains—too much.
~ Individual components echo, contrast, and complement.
Fiction immerses readers when the whole’s more than the sum of its parts. The narrative adds irony or clarity to the dialogue. If the stage business simply repeats, such as “‘Get Out!’ Marge shrieked angrily,” you’ve neither contrasted nor complemented.     But, for example, if setting affects the action, or intensifies the dialogue, one element enhances another.      Contrast matters, too. When suspense is high, tease readers with an information break. Conversely, if you’ve just explained at length, appeal with humor, lyricism, or tension.
~ Monotony of form, color, or anything else, muddies.
Some writers treat dialogue like a faucet that stays off or on. Characters don’t say a thing for pages, but then talking floods everything else. A mess in either a novel or a painting.
Whether with fiction, photos, or paintings, audience satisfaction springs from balanced elements that each contribute without any one overpowering.

**** Laurel's new book, Beyond the First Draft, is now available from Amazon or Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing. ****

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Ambiguity versus Blur

The distinction  between them is largely in the mind of the reader. Still, one might call it teasing, pleasing uncertainty versus irritating, dispiriting confusion. Gregory Ciotti (“How to Write with Substance”) offers a useful way to view this: “Write to express, not to impress.”

He goes on to suggest that you 
Brainstorm horizontally, revise vertically.     What makes for a boring novel is the same as what makes for boring non-fiction: the story grows horizontally instead of vertically.      Writing that is “too wide” tries to explain everything but ends up saying nothing. 
In other words, it’s okay (though not necessarily optimal) to play with every possibility as you begin. But once you start to consider reader needs, which is what revision’s really about, then it’s time first to narrow and cut, then to develop not with glaring clarity, but enough of it so readers can feel intrigued rather than lost.

Lack of context loses readers faster than anything else. To the novelist, it’s always obvious how the story moved from one room to another, from one mind to another, or from one issue, connection, or symbol to another. But how obvious are those to anyone else? 

The potentially worst sources of blur include:

* Failing with setting.

  This is a fertile breeding ground for cliche and vagueness. Be swift and original.

* Introducing a new character.

  Pay special attention to characters who echo others in terms of roles, names, traits,
  or obstacles.

* Jolting readers by abruptly altering time, place, physicality, symbolism.

   Provide clear but subtle transitions.

Great novels are rarely immediately accessible. Establish essential guideposts. Then seek subtext.
~  Subtext is the unspoken but revealed feelings and history and dreams of your characters.
~  Subtext is strong because it reveals truth—true emotions and true thoughts and unfeigned motivations.
 Subtext that runs through a story brings depth and dimension. It ramps up tension and conflict. It’s much deeper, more fundamental to a character’s traits or personality than is surface revelation. Because what underlies the text is not explicitly stated, the reader might have to look harder, listen closer.  ~ Beth Hill,  “Subtext—Revelation of the Hidden”
Tip: The optimal level of clarity is less obvious than it seems. Pun intended.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Spring and the Novelist

Spring. Lots of possibilities there. The season of hope and rejuvenation. To grow leap, originate, open, force.  A renewal, an opening, a flexibility. And those are only the basics. Might a fiction writer put any of this to use?

~ Renewal.
I can shake off everything if I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn. But, and that is the greatest question, will I ever be able to write anything great… — Anne Frank
Why not use the awakening of the landscape to wake your passion for your own novel?

~ Serendipity
No tears in the writerNo tears in the reader.No surprise for the writer,No surprise for the reader. — Robert Frost
Why not use the startling nature of spring to discover something new about your scenario, protagonist, opening, ending, or even your own writing process?

~ Leap.

Characters only grow by sprinting out of lethargy and into the fray.

Why not try cornering them even more than usual?

~ Launch.

Without urgency, fiction falters. Readers seek propulsion, over and over: the start and end of each scene, the first chapter, the midpoint, and so on.
At your recent talk titled “Urgency and Momentum” you introduced a new theoretical framework you’ve been exploring, that you called “request moments.” You spoke about how much of the time, most if not all of us are doing not what we want to do but what other people ask of us either directly or indirectly. Your point was to arrive at a type of necessity, that creates, as you put it, “forces in narrative that make characters do what they do.” Many stories with real urgency and momentum grow out of a simple request; someone says to someone else, “There's something I want you to do.”  — Susan Tacent Interview with Charles Baxter 
Why not seek techniques that entice your readers?

Of course like other people, many novelists find spring addictive. Time to be outside—to row, or hike, or garden. But no matter how seductive that call, don’t let it overpower your muse.
Be ruthless about protecting writing days…  — J. K. Rowling
Tip: Spring isn’t just a season or a verb. It’s a process.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Plan to Keep the Plot Pot Boiling

If only you could add the right ingredients and without watching the flame, maintain a roiling, steam-producing rhythm without the flame rising too high or sinking too low. But more cooks can smoothly simmer spaghetti than writers can instinctively reach The End with optimal heat.

Fortunately, there’s a straightforward (though not necessarily painless) method every writer can use. And it’s easier than boiling an egg.

The answer is an outline, but a unique one. Novelists frequently associate outlining with the first draft, since a plans promotes credibility and causality from the start. Besides, if you get stuck, as often afflicts the novel’s middle, at least you know where you thought you were headed.

Useful as such can outline is, it won’t help you assess tension. Here’s something that will:

For each scene, complete first I then II. Because you want to focus on conflict,  it’s crucial to start with the obstacle, desire, force, or change driving the scene. Hint: verbs best express that.

I. Write one brief, non-detailed, super-short sentence that captures what the scene’s point of view character wants—or doesn’t. Here are a few examples:

     Abe covets Beth’s reassurance that their marriage remains sound.


     Carol fears humiliation if Don dismisses her flirtation as ridiculous. 


     Ed agonizes over Dr Fred sharing only part of the medical truth.

* Part I reflects tension and suspense. Passion, sexual or otherwise, is always involved. 

2. A brief contextual statement of where the characters are and what happens. Such as:

    Beth arrives late at the restaurant she reluctantly agreed to and leaves Abe there alone.


    Don ignores Carol rubbing herself against him during a study session at the college library.


    Dr Fred admits that Ed is ill but refuses details even when Ed insists.

* Part II is context. It’s where the characters are and what happens to them.

Like most things, this technique gets faster and easier with practice. Stick with it, though, and you’ll have a way to evaluate whether each scene possesses the oomph to be a scene. More important, you’ll not only know what happens, but what matters. Readers choose fiction for the emotion it evokes, and that comes from—high stakes.

Tip: Whichever method you choose, assess the tension in every scene of your novel.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Plot Pot

Writers and writing coaches can argue passionately about whether story springs from plot or characters. The divide has become particularly pronounced since the appearance of “literary” fiction, a genre which implies it might be okay to write a novel where a gorgeous voice and memorable characters compensate for lots of stasis. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some novels offer escalating danger, but it befalls characters whom readers can’t relate to and don’t care about. 

Isn’t it the mesh of character and plot that propels story? After all, adversity is the best way to meet characters—to test their mettle. 

As K.M. Weiland puts it in “Plot vs. Character: Which Is More Important?”:

Fiction is about balance—in so many ways—and certainly nowhere more so than in the matter of plot vs. character. Good writing should not be about pitting plot against character, but rather about finding the harmony between them. 

The indivisible integration of plot + character has always built narrative. And isn’t that still, despite numerous experiments, what the novel is for? After all,

In our modern age, there are writers who have heaped scorn on the very idea of the primacy of story. I'd rather warm my hands on a sunlit ice floe than try to coax fire from the books they carve from glaciers. ― Pat Conroy, My Reading Life

Tip: Story comes from what happens to characters readers are invested in.

You probably agree. But what if, like many novelists, you’re either fantastic at tension-rich events or fantastic at characters sufficiently full-fleshed to cast shadows. Perhaps you worry that you'’ll never be equally skilled at both. 

The remedy? Quit viewing character and plot as separate entities. Happily, this works whether you’re starting a first draft, halfway through it, or at any point in the revision process. 

Perhaps the best way to visualize characters in context is some version of a Scene Goal Outline. So what’s a Scene Goal, anyway? An “Intense, explicit character desire that impels choice and action” (Laurel Yourke, Beyond the First Draft).

For each scene, distill the goal down into as few words as possible. How else can you assess whether you’re revealing characters and propelling the story forward causally rather than causally?

Watch your verbs. Contrast “was worried about the next hour” versus “terrified about the phone ringing.” The latter verb reflects character emotion and thus causes action. Since scenes are about tension, a Scene Goal always involves forcing characters to act rather than think or react.

How many Scene Goals do you need? Ideally, one for each scene. Keep those goals super-short and harness verbs to reveal character feelings, since that’s what connects readers to story.

Use the Scene Goal Outline to make the plot and dramatic personae intertwine inseparably. Because, as Heraclitus put it, “Character is fate.”

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Writing: Solitude and Sociability

Thanks to Wyatt-Mackenzie publishing and Purcell Agency. Equally important, here’s a thank you note to every writer I’ve worked with, whether online, over a weekend, during a retreat, or in a university department or critique group. Maybe you and I barely remember each other, but still I thank you. Because however much I taught you, you taught me much more. Each of you contributed to realizing the dream of composing, then publishing Beyond the Fist Draft: Deep Novel Revision.

Around the time I published my first book—Take Your Characters to Dinner—my colleague, Marshall Cook joked that “It takes a village to publish a book.” He was kidding, as he often did. But at the time neither of us realized how many sources of wisdom and inspiration contribute to the completion of any book.

That may seem counter-intuitive, because writing is customarily associated with seclusion. And it’s certainly true that when you’re at the notebook or keyboard, there’s only you and the space you hope to fill. Numerous complaints about this syndrome exist. Here’s Ernest Hemingway:
Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
Isaac Asimov agrees
Writing is a lonely job. Even if a writer socializes regularly, when he gets down to the real business of his life, it is he and his type writer or word processor. No one else is or can be involved in the matter.
Rachel Carson concludes that solitude is a phenomenon writers must embrace:
A writer’s occupation is one of the loneliest in the world, even if the loneliness is only an inner solitude and isolation, for that he must have at times if he is to be truly creative. And so I believe only the person who knows and is not afraid of loneliness should aspire to be a writer.
So it’s not whether writing is lonely, but whether you can mitigate that. Of course you can. 

Everyone agrees that writers must market. At a recent conference, Laurie Buchanan said to me, “Getting people to know about your book is a way of honoring it.” So whether you’re published or hope to be, make connections. Meet not only authors, but also agents, publishers, booksellers, bloggers, readers, and fans. 

Networking isn’t just for marketing; it’s for inspiration. Get yourself a writing partner. Join a critique group. Attend conferences, weekenders, and retreats. The support you’ll find there helps you write the best book you can.

My own antidote to loneliness is the blessed experience of working with writers in numerous venues. What could do a writer greater good than nourishing an addiction to books on writing, pondering the questions writers pose, and providing on the spot illustrations of technique. What better way to study the craft? What better way to become a better novelist? So thank you!

Tip: Keep the good company of writers so your own writing dreams can come true.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Revision: Rigor and Riches

Hard. Boring. Exhilarating. Scary. Inspiring. Painful. Transformative. Mention the word “revision,”and each novelist will respond differently. With one exception: writers either love revision or loathe it.

There’s plenty of reasons, many legitimate, why you might dislike the process. Writers don’t always know where to start or how to fix what they find.  When novelists accept the questionable advice to just spew out first draft, the result can be pretty awful. And then the fun’s over. Now it’s time to concentrate, to work. 

Besides, cutting can be painful. The expression, “Murder your darlings,” which has a long, complex history via such greats as F. Scoot Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, sums up the way writers often feel. It takes energy and effort to get the words down. What do you mean I have to discard them?

And yet, you do. Here’s why:

In my experience, cutting back is the crucial act that allows the vitality, precision and emotional heart of a piece of writing to emerge. ― Pamela Erens

So, usually, the first act of revision is eliminating everything you can willingly discard, and then a bit more. After all, if the great moments and sentences are buried, how can you know what to keep?

How to start cutting:

  • Repetition of words, details, and information readers already know
  • “Telling” and then “showing” or “showing” and then “telling”
  • Excessive or familiar description
  • Long set-ups before you reach “the good part”

The great news? Once you pare down, you can see how to proceed. These questions might help you get started:

~ Is the scenario original and substantial?
~ Do the characters seem both consistent and alive?
~ Is enough at stake?
~ Do chapters and scenes begin and end with hooks?
~ Do you capitalize on your novel’s point of view?

After addressing the fundamentals, you can smooth sentences and perfect word choice.

Is this hard work? Absolutely. Is it worth it? As Stephen King put it in a Writer's Digest interview

The writer must have a good imagination to begin with, but the imagination has to be muscular, which means it must be exercised in a disciplined way, day in and day out, by writing, failing, succeeding and revising

There you go. First rigor, then riches—at least in terms of craft, if not royalties.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Physics of Emotion

Physics explores the essence and behavior of matter and energy.  In terms of fiction, this parallels the distinction between how characters feel and what they do or say. The difference is crucial, because when you say that Nancy is “angry,” or worse, “incredibly angry,” you’re not saying much. You’re simply “telling.” To “show,” readers need to participate in what you want to convey. For that, you need subtext or physicality, whether literal or symbolic. 

Instead of abstractions like “rage” or “frustration,” let readers hear how a character via what she doesn’t say. For example, “I see. That’s all you have to say about it.” The two sentences subtly capture an entire history.

Alternatively, reveal Nancy’s fisted hands, fiery scowl, squinted eyes, or her tone—that whisper thinly veils the urge to shriek. 

Tip: Make emotion tangible.

In “Showing–and Telling—Emotion in Fiction,” Dave King observes that “All good writing starts with good watching,” and, yes, that’s a terrific place to begin. 

Waiting in line, passing time in the airport, or nibbling in a restaurant, subtly, of course, check out body language. Can you guess how people are feeling even if you can’t hear what they’re saying? And if you can, why? What did you observe?

For further revelation, consider the work of Auguste Rodin. According to Nicole Myers, associate curator of European Painting and Sculpture, 

Rodin’s capacity to capture the human spirit in all its nuances was unrivaled. He was one of the first artists to consider fragments and partial figures to be complete works of art capable of expressing even the most complex thoughts and emotions. 

Even without knowing the titles of these two works from the current Rodin exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago, we can guess which emotions the artist wanted to convey. 

But how does that work in fiction? Actually, with remarkable similarity. Discard the notion that anything intangible, straightforward, and intellectual can capture feeling. In Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides describes this phenomenon:

Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness,’ ‘joy, or ‘regret.’ Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I'd like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.’

When we’re feeling emotions rather than writing about them, the event happens in a body. It needn’t even be a human one. There’s no question about whether cats are bored or irritated or dogs grateful. No words needed.

Words, of course, are the writer’s only tool. But some words don’t do what they’re supposed to. A lot of fiction is summary, often quite abstract. Emotions, though, are born in the realm of sensation. So if you want readers to feel them, you can’t describe. You must make feelings live.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Compress it! Pace It!

For the fiction writer, repetition is a trap, and a tough one to avoid. Later events must be set up, new characters need to know what readers already do; and sometimes it takes a few mishaps—possibly in the same setting—to get the protagonist properly cornered. Writers often hope that so long as something’s slightly different, such as the same anger for the same reason but more intently, readers will find it new. Sadly, that’s rarely the case.

Nor will scene versus what’s known as summary/sequel/narrative entirely solve the redundancy problem. Summary can magnificently foreshadow or dispense information. But the high stakes that fiction needs frequently originate in scene rather than summary. Or between them.

Tip: Exploit the underused territory between scene and summary.

The mixture of narrative and scene creates the illusion of “live” fictional time, just at a faster pace. 

Because she hadn’t contacted him since returning to New York, Ed reared back when Anna tried to hug him.

That’s a really brief, somewhat oversimplified example of the landscape between a full-blown scene and an entirely collapsed summary. Yet the sentence illustrates a swift summary (the dependent opening clause) preceding the start of a scene (the independent final clause).

Combine scene with summary, and you can accelerate the pace, or speed at which events pass readers. Instead of revisiting what readers have already seen (she hasn’t contacted him since returning to New York), modify something. Did Anna start to call Ed? Did Anna run into her former fiancé? Did Ed’s voice mail quit functioning? Change helps pursue not only the original source of tension and perhaps something else entirely.

That’s because novelty is not only what readers want but what novelists need. Bypass the parallel or similar by shaking things up.  That’s a boundless source of tension, emotion, and originality, not to mention the potential for symbolism, suspense, and complex characterization.

What kinds of questions shake things up so that nothing ever feels exactly the same?

  • If the location feels identical, how has the place changed?
  • Could an email or phone call let you summarize part of a scene?
  • If the character’s emotion is similar, how can you add a contrary nuance or dimension?
  • Depending on your novel’s point of view, can you revisit a moment from another perspective?
  • Can the scene end very differently this time? 
  • Can you add a “ticking clock”?
  • Can you develop rather than merely repeat any symbolism?
  • What’s the effect of a similar place at a very different time?

These questions suggest ways to manage momentum. And in “5 Ways to Pace Your Story,” K.M. Weiland observes that

Pacing is like a dam. It allows the writer to control just how fast or how slow his plot flows through the riverbed of his story. 

Pace originates not just from syntax and rhythm, but also scene and summary. Explore the fertile territory between those last two.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Scene: The Big Picture

In a way, every scene resembles a bouquet. Individual elements compose both. The end result must offer a coherent whole with a clear yet unobtrusive focal point. When the elements complement each other, the totality becomes far more effective than a single contribution. It’s the difference between this:

and this:

No one would mistake a couple of flowers for a bouquet. With scenes, though, it’s less clear. Precisely what constitutes a scene?
A scene is a sequence of events that happens at a particular place and time and that moves the story forward. — Randy Ingermanson, “The Art and science of Writing Scenes”
Another slant on the scene comes from Jane Friedman:
A scene is a stylized, sharper simulacrum of reality.
Ideally, the scene integrates everything from both definitions. So a scene needs:

~ Tension.

Unless there’s substantial suspense, summarize instead.

~ Momentum.

The scene must contribute to character arc, or, again, wouldn’t summary be better?

~ Setting.

Although locale mustn’t dominate, characters need grounding. Always.

~ Artistry.

Along with drama, scenes need causality, propulsion, originality, and grace.

~ Credibility.

Only plausible characters and events evoke reader emotion. 

~ Focus.

Regardless of style or voice, tension is the crux of every scene.

Yet novelists conceptualize scenes differently. Drawn to setting or symbolism? You might disregard tension. Maybe you’re an action sort of gal. Will your characters be disembodied? Will you emphasize what they do and ignore why they do it?

Scenes work when novelists disregard personal predilection to provide the whole picture. Who wants a lopsided bouquet? 

Tip: Readers enjoy scenes that balance their elements—that complete the picture.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Your Voice, Please

The issue most novelists face isn’t a career like tinker, tailor, sailor, or spy, but, more likely, the residual from being or having been doctor, lawyer, or teacher. What might those last three share in common? A style slanted toward instruction coupled with “the curse of knowledge.”

First about that style. At least somewhat academic and professorial, there’s a plethora of multi-syllabic verbiage, as opposed to “lots of big words.”  The lofty tone is often characterized by passive voice, rather than “passive voice occurs frequently.” Contractions, unfortunately, are usually avoided. Sentences are long and complex but not necessarily rhythmic.

Determined to foster the meticulous understanding that previous professions demanded, novelists sometimes “tell” and then “show,” or “show” and then “tell”—just to make sure. Finally, educators and professionals often applaud this structure: Here’s what I’ll say, now I’ll speak my piece in detail, and, oh, since you perhaps missed it (possibly because you spaced out due to the endless repetition), I’ll just go over it one last time. 

First of all, novels need storytelling, suspense, and secrets. Edifying isn’t part of the recipe. In fact, what E.B. White said about poetry applies equally well to the novel: 

A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer... He unzips the veil from beauty, but does not remove it. A poet utterly clear is a trifle glaring.

And yet, ironically, the novelist obsessed with being clear at any cost might misstep anyway. Sadly, “the curse of knowledge” often interferes. As Steven Pinker explains,

I think the curse of knowledge is the chief contributor to opaque writing…It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that readers haven’t learned their jargon, don’t seem to know the intermediate steps that seem to them to be too obvious to mention, and can’t visualize a scene currently in the writer’s mind’s eye. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the concrete details—even when writing for professional peers.

Although Pinker’s emphasis here is nonfiction, the task of guiding readers through a fictional world can present an even greater challenge. After all, to compose a scene, novelists must know tons about setting, background, arc, motive, stage business, and conflict. No scene will be successful unless writers collect far more than will ever make it into the book. 

But here’s the problem. The prepping that helps a novelist create a better page increases the difficulty of assessing what readers don’t know or can’t follow.

So what’s the solution? You can’t undo the fact that you used to win cases or still consult or occasionally volunteer to teach here and there. You can remember that a novel isn’t a brief, a lecture, a lesson plan, or a diagnosis. So.

~ Walk in your reader’s shoes as often as you can.

~ Informalize your voice. 

~ Build bridges.

~ Provide grounding.

Tip: Great storytellers neither teach nor preach.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Arithmetic of Fiction

Few novelists ponder the addition and subtraction of storytelling. But writers can gain a lot from doing so.

Tip: A novelist’s single best editing tool is a metaphorical scissors.

As Louise Brooks puts it, "Writing is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent elimination."

Anton Chekhov agrees: "Brevity is the sister of talent."

Dozens of writers have commented on economy, so this blog could offer endless examples. Since that seems painfully ironic, on to the next topic.

Tip: A novelist’s second best editing tool is adding metaphorical bridges when needed.

Those bridges are called transitions.

Transitions are words or phrases that carry the reader from one idea to the next. They help a reader see the connection or relationship between ideas and, just as important, transitions also prevent sudden, jarring mental leaps between sentences and paragraphs.  — Leah McClellan, “Why transitions are important in writing”
Novelists want readers to savor the story without the unpleasant reminder that they’re reading one. So not just any transition will do.
transitions move the story forward cleanly and seamlessly. Done skillfully, your reader will hardly notice the breaks. — “All Write Fiction Advice”
Few of us build those bridges instinctively. How to accomplish that? First, identify the connection that never got onto the paper. Second, integrate that transition into the narrative.

Tip: Excess disguises what matters, not only for the reader, but also for the novelist.

In an odd psychological quirk, novelists often assume that the fictional journey needs whatever they wrote. Why else would they record it? This takes a lot for granted. Details might repeat, wander off topic, waste words, or explain the obvious. In a cluttered passage, how would you know? Inefficiency masks significance.

If clutter buries, you won’t notice the leap you require readers to take between one scene or moment or paragraph or sentence and the next. Cut superfluous dialogue or description, and the landscape of your fictional world becomes visible. Now you’re ready to build bridges.

Subtract enough, and it all adds up.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Pattern and Surprise in Fiction

The relationship between convention and deviation, expectation and revelation drives fiction. That’s exhibited in the pattern of story that’s remained stable for centuries: conflict…development…resolution. Obviously, though, tweak the specifics and that pattern feels different every time. 

Dozens of other patterns also underlie fiction: the structure of the paragraph, the alternation between scene and narrative, the major character arcs, and the moods, moments, or memories that echo each other. 

All those components of fiction involve reader expectations, whether fulfilling them or adding tension and suspense by credibly failing to fulfill them. 

Lisa Cron’s superb blog—“A Reader’s Manifesto: 12 Hardwired Expectations Every Reader Has” (October 9, 2014)—identifies the most crucial reader expectations. What could be more important than how writers handle focus, empathy, pace, and plot? 

Yet, in every instance, the presentation of setting or symbol affects reader response to those critical aspects of fiction that Cron lists.

Tip: Revisit without merely repeating. This satisfies the desire for recurrence plus change.

So if you return readers to a completely parallel or symmetrical exchange, issue, or location, you’ll defeat reader expectations every time. If Taffy again confers with her mom about her husband’s unemployment, something must differ. Maybe Mom thinks it’s time to leave him, or hire him in dad’s factory, or have Taffy work there herself. 

Otherwise, the story feels static. And Jessica Page Morrell is exactly right that every scene captures a progression toward fulfillment of arc. How can that happen if the characters simply repeat what they said before with the same objects in the same place?

Nor can even a conversation with higher stakes occur in an unaltered location. Maybe Ernesto proposes to Tamilla--his gorgeous, ambivalent girlfriend—in a rowboat drifting on moonlit Lake Emerald. However magnificent Lake Emerald, readers will balk at returning there if everything looks identical. Instead, maybe thick storm clouds now hide the moon. Is this boat too old and creaky to be safe? Disgusted with Tamilla’s affairs, perhaps Ernesto’s ready to drown her? Or maybe she’s the one who wants to send a body somewhere the police won’t easily find it.

The need for modification also applies to symbolism. If Gram gave Ernestine an exquisite hand-woven shawl, don’t simply over and over mention the shawl—or the chandelier or the tennis racket. Instead, use symbolic objects to represent how the plot thickens. Does the wood stove scorch the shawl? Must the impoverished family sell their chandelier? Despite the racket that belonged to Albert's renown uncle, does the boy still lose the state championship? 

Things don’t stay the same, though in life, it might feel as if they do. Fiction readers seek the credibility and pleasure of experiencing both the pressure of time and the possibility of growth and catharsis. Meeting those apparently conflicting expectations of familiarity and evolution may not be as difficult as it seems. As Susan Dennard reminds, 

You’re a reader too, so when you go back and read your story from start to finish, you’ll be able to sense if you’re meeting expectations or not.

And variation is a terrific tool for accomplishing that.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Micro-tension: What Is It and Why You Care

Many novelists know about the need for “tension on every page.” How do you get that? Micro-tension, as Donald Maass explains in The Fire in Fiction:

Keeping readers constantly in your grip comes from the steady application of something else altogether: Micro-tension. That is the tension that constantly keeps your reader wondering what will happen—not in the story, but in the next few seconds. 

The April 19, 2009 “wordswimmer” blog adds

the term alone–-micro-tension–-implies a larger tension in a story, say, macro-tension, which in turn suggests two levels operating within the story simultaneously.

So the novelist is juggling, but juggling more than pure action. 

In a December 13, 2012 interview with Michael A. Ventrella, Maass elaborated on micro-tension:

Tension is not about action, explosions and shouting. It’s about generating unease in the mind of the reader. There are many ways to do that, many of them subtle. Even language itself can do it. When tension exists in the mind of the reader there’s only one way to relieve it: Read the next thing on the page. Do that constantly, on every page, and readers will read every word—you have a “page turner,” no matter what your style, intent or type of story.

Clear now? But of course you need to not only to understand the concept but apply it. Here are some strategies for accomplishing that.

~ Crisp details.

Less is more. Give readers lots of information, particularly at moments of high suspense, and you elicit thinking when feeling is the goal. Watch where you position your exposition.

~ Hard-working dialogue.

If characters talk the way people do, you get the same lack of tension that often fills daily life. Also, as Sol Stein puts in Stein on Stein, give your characters “different scripts.”

~ Time crunch.

The ticking clock keeps readers as worried as characters. What if it’s too late?

~ Internal dilemma

Little is more suspenseful than a cornered character unable to choose between two impossible options. Torment your characters. Readers will love you for it.

TIP: Novels need both broad overall tension and incessant, immediate edginess.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Time It

Who wants to snap the photo after the sun’s risen or the gull flown? Whether photography or proposal, wrestling or writing, it’s all about finding the moment.

At its best, fiction gives both writer and reader the astonishing power to control time. Boring moments whizz by while anticipation becomes thrill instead of anxiety. 

But like everything else about storytelling, time management requires a deft hand. Here’s why:

A work of literature can be thought of as involving four different and potentially quite separate time frames: author time (when the work was originally written or published); narrator time (when the narrator in a work of fiction supposedly narrates the story); plot time (when the action depicted actually takes place); and reader or audience time (when a reader reads the work or sees it performed). — Beth Hill, “Marking Time with the Viewpoint Character”

Of these categories, audience perception matters most. So if you want readers to grasp significance, proceed as if 

Length is weight in fiction, pretty much. —Joan Silber, The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes

~ Don’t linger over detail that contributes only to this moment rather than the big picture. 

Ideally, that big picture divides the characters’ journey between time collapsed into summary or savored within scenes.

Time perception refers to the subjective experience of the passage of time, or the perceived duration of events, which can differ significantly between different individuals and/or in different circumstances. Although physical time appears to be more or less objective, psychological time is subjective and potentially malleable. — “Exactly What Is Time” Blog

~ Manage pace by speeding or slowing to maximize suspense and emotion.

How long events last matters as much as how quickly the plot proceeds.

~ Always start the scene at the last possible moment.

The best scenes and chapters begin when something’s at stake—immediately at stake.

And control of fictional time also involves when scenes end. Too soon, and readers might feel bewildered or disappointed. But too late, and neither writer nor reader has the oomph for what’s next.

~ End every scene except the final one with the next obstacle the protagonist faces.

Tip: In fiction, time should offer the opportunities that reality lacks.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Hard-wired for Story

The organic world is mostly phototropic. Like plants and moths, people gravitate toward the light. In fact, the longing to stare at the sun can risk sunburned eyeballs, even damaged retinas. 

Without the deleterious side effects, storytelling has always wielded similar magnetism.

 Since humans have been humans, they’ve told stories. That’s because
According to Uri Hasson from Princeton, a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience. — Leo Widrich,“The Science of Storytelling: Why Telling a Story is the Most Powerful Way to Activate Our Brains”
You’re a novelist in a world crowded with obligations and distractions competing for attention. When children—and grownups—beg “Tell me a story,” they want to hear a great one. How can the storytelling instinct help you attract readers and keep them engaged?

~ Tension.

It’s no accident that any writing coach will insist that it’s needed on every page. Interrupt the story, and you interrupt reader connection with it. That connection, of course, is why readers care about characters and why fiction has always been a means for cultural instruction: 
in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention–-a scarce resource in the brain–-by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters — Paul J. Zak, “Why Your Brain Loves Good Storytelling”
~ Causality

Unless each—each rather than some or most!—event in the novel determines what follows, the novelist offers the randomness of life rather than the meticulously shaped progression of story.
A story, if broken down into the simplest form, is a connection of cause and effect. And that is exactly how we think. — Leo Widrich
~ Universality

Different cultures certainly express human emotions differently. But the emotions themselves remain constant. That’s why stories let people vicariously bleed under the lash of slavery, recoil at the stench of a dragon’s breath, shiver in the trenches of a battlefield, or bask in the awe of a kiss from the spouse you’ve loved for fifty years.

Tip: The greatest stories spring from capitalizing on the human instinct for narrative.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Fiction Loses a Legend

Last week, at age 88, beloved author Ursula K. Le Guin, died. It helps a little to know that she had as healthy a perspective on mortality as everything else:
You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose…That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes, it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself? — The Farthest Shore
That book is fantasy, so maybe you’d think, “I don’t like that wizard, fairy, dragon stuff.” But, take care, because here’s what she said about the realm of imagination: 
People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.
What did she mean?

Tip: Possibility is among our greatest creative gifts. Why reject it?

Her work gloriously intertwined myth, imagination, defiance, and poetry. You’d find a glimmer of revolution in everything she wrote or said. Here’s part of a speech at Bryn Mawr:
When women speak truly they speak subversively—they can’t help it: if you’re underneath, if you’re kept down, you break out, you subvert. We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. That’s what I want–-to hear you erupting. You young Mount St Helenses who don’t know the power in you – I want to hear you.
Quite timely in January, 2018. But gender issues have filled her books from the beginning, particularly the most famous one: The Left Hand of Darkness. It creates a fantastical world rich with suspense and some of the loveliest language ever put together. The novel raises questions about identity, society, and culture. How do we resist? What does it mean to love? How do we know who we are? 

She was a master of irony, as well. The Dispossessed is also more anthropological than supernatural. One of the worlds she creates prides itself on the wall that opens the book. What’s the big deal about a not particularly sturdy barrier? The people of Anarres don’t believe they’re hemmed in—they insist they’re protecting themselves from the outside. Voluntarily.

Le Guin’s talent combined keen understanding with enormous skill at expressing that understanding as no one else could. She was wonderfully modest and totally accessible to those who approached her at conferences. Not just a rare writer, but a rare human. 

And because of that, a great teacher.
Thanks to “show don’t tell,” I find writers in my workshops who think exposition is wicked. They’re afraid to describe the world they’ve invented.…This dread of writing a sentence that isn’t crammed with “gutwrenching action” leads fiction writers to rely far too much on dialogue, to restrict voice to limited third person and tense to the present.
She disliked misconceptions about writing as much as she disliked injustice or greed. This award-winning author devoted her life to nurturing the human capacity to create a reality more credible and moral than the actual one, saying, 
There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.
At least we’ll always have hers.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

The Power of Richard Powers: Act II

Maybe you don’t read literary or experimental novels. Or you think novelists should leave poetry to the poets and lectures to the nonfiction writers. But. If you care  how your sentences sound, or have facts or beliefs to convey, Richard Powers can teach you lots. While you read.

All his novels have heft, but some are more digestible than others. Here’s why:
 One of my pleasures as an artist is to reinvent myself with each new book. If you’re going to immerse yourself in a project for three years, why not stake out a chunk of the world that is completely alien to you and go traveling? — from a Kevin Berger interview with Richard Powers, The Paris Review
What a great way to think about the writing of books, and what variety his readers get. Why not start with The Time of Our Singing? It links music with race relations and physics. At a concert on the Washington Mall by the black diva Marian Anderson, German Jewish physicist David Strom falls in love with Delia Daley, diva in training. In the racist world they inhabit, can music keep them united? Who will their three interracial children become? And, most crucially, what didn’t you know about your own racism? Not to mention physics.

The Echo Maker is also fairly conventional—except for its huge themes and heavenly voice. Here’s the opening:
Cranes keep landing as night falls. Ribbons of them roll down, slack against the sky. They float in from all compass points, in kettles of a dozen, dropping with the dusk. Scores of Grus Canadensis settle on the thawing river. They gather on the island flats, grazing, beating their wings, trumpeting: the advance wave of a mass evacuation. More birds land by the minute, the air red with calls.
This novel explores the brain injury resulting from an automobile accident, a plot which raises questions about “real” or “natural.” Then why cranes? As Margaret Atwood observes in  “The Heart of the Heartland” from New York Review of Books, Native Americans named these birds “echo makers” because of their call. For the protagonist’s brother, who thinks a stranger inhabits every familiar person, only an echo of the past remains. The novel conveys a moving story interspersed with psychology, neurology, and larger-than-life symbols. 

Orfeo has less plot. But if you’ve ever wondered why music affects us as it does, this is where to find out. The novel plumbs the mystery of music, the impact of silence, and the secret of creativity. Typically, Powers can’t restrain his sense of humor:
Bonner leans his forehead against hers. Zig when they think you’ll zag. Creation’s Rule Number Two.
     What’s Number One? Els asks, willing to be this bent soul’s straight man.
     Zag when they think you’ll zig.” 
So many brilliant novels by Richard Powers, so little space. Galatea 2.2 tackles Artificial Intelligence. Can a computer produce an essay indistinguishable from a scholar’s? As that computer becomes increasingly human, how does it feel? And what about the human teaching the computer to be something other than itself?

The Gold Bug Variations is the Powers novel I love best. Not much plot, but enough story and suspense to enliven passages about DNA, philosophy, and the history of science. Who wouldn’t love the synthesis of Bach’s Goldberg Variations with Edgar Allan Poe's “The Gold Bug”?  Here’s a sample. 
The loss of a great library to fire is a tragedy. But the surreptitious introduction of thousands of untraceable errors into reliable books, errors picked up and distributed endlessly by tireless researchers, is a nightmare beyond measure.
Tip: Want to stretch your horizons as a writer? Stretch your horizons as a reader.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Power of Richard Powers: Act I

This prize-drenched novelist isn’t for everyone, because, by his own admission in an interview with Alec Michod, he finds no distinction between novels focused on “thinking” versus those geared toward “feeling”:
We’re all driven by hosts of urges, some chaotic and Dionysian, some formal and Apollonian. The need for knowledge is as passionate as any other human obsession. And the wildest of obsessions has its hidden structure.
Most novels neither reveal hidden structure nor synthesize philosophy with plot. And often, readers associate the Apollonian world of music and hard science with nonfiction, and the Dionysian one with levity, drama, and passion. For this reason, the average reader generally gravitates toward literary novels or the more plot-driven, accessible alternatives. 

Obviously, we all get to read whatever we want, and many readers, and thus many writers, lack the patience for forays into abstractions like neuroscience, genetics, or music theory. If you’re up for that, though, the rewards of any novel by Richard Powers are enormous. What might you discover as reader, writer, and human being?

Powers, a former programmer, now composer, author, and teacher with boundless curiosity and humanity, says that
The brain is the ultimate storytelling machine, and consciousness is the ultimate story.
Let’s examine that. According to Lisa Cron in Wired for Story:The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence:
Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.
Both Cron and Powers suggest that if if we’re going to label ourselves at all, we’re not rational creatures who convince with facts but folks inspired, driven, and completed by drama. In other words, the stories we tell make us who we are. 

And who is that? How constricted or broad? Powers continues with 
shared stories are the only way anyone has for escaping the straightjacket of self…We read to escape ourselves and become someone else, at least for a little while. Fiction is one long, sensuous derangement of familiarity through altered point of view…Fiction plays on that overlap between self-composure and total, alien bewilderment, and it navigates by estrangement. (Alec Michod interview)
Whether or not you ever read a novel by Powers (and the next blog will encouarage you to try), consider your opportunities and responsibilities as a storyteller.  You might want to view fiction a little differently.

~ Fiction performs its work by making the familiar strange and the strange familiar.

~ Fiction provides an opportunity to be less and more than oneself.

~ Fiction integrates the wildness of Dionysus with the reserve of Apollo.

~ Fiction convinces by synthesizing character and morality, action and idea.

~ Fiction introduces the grand possibility of uniting rather than dividing science and art.

Tip: Why limit the parameters of fiction? They can be as broad as you want to make them.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

More Real than Reality

Story depends on suspension of disbelief, which depends on creating a world that ironically boasts greater credibility and vitality than the everyday one. What’s the source of this term? A conversation between William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge about reaching an audience. 

Wordsworth focused on the intensity part, suggesting that the writer’s task is  
to give the charm of novelty to things of every day . . . the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.
Altering reader perception remains as important now as then. Coleridge, though. emphasized the capacity
to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. . .
Without believability + electricity, readers won’t linger long. The novelist needs to heighten reality, producing one so acute that readers forget they encounter an imaginary one.

Is getting readers to accept this fictional reality difficult?
The reader picks up a book primed to believe the unbelievable. A reader knows a piece of fiction is fiction. He wants to be entertained by what-ifs and imagine-thats. The writer’s sole task, then, is to keep up his end of the contract, to keep the reader immersed in the reality of unreality. To do nothing to slap the reader into an awareness that what he’s reading is indeed impossible, improbable, and not worth imagining.  — Beth Hill,  “Convincing Readers Your Fiction is Real”
Tip: Unlike literal reality, fiction requires suspension of disbelief. 

Here’s why. Perhaps an author says there’s an animal resembling a miniature version of another animal. This creature is pale, not very big, and unusual in shape and features. The male gets pregnant and experiences violent contractions to deliver about two thousand offspring through a special stomach pouch. Does this seem a bit unreal? Provide a photograph and there’s no room for doubt.

But a fabricated creature is another story—especially when it appears in one. First, the creation of your own mind must be accessible to everyone else. You must convince your audience that the environmental factors of your novel’s world fostered this evolutionary outcome. Finally, this invented creature mustn’t prove too convenient, i.e. coincidentally materializing to produce threat or salvation. 

Fiction must prove itself, accomplishing this by changing the angle, nailing the details, designing the characters, and sharpening the causality. That’s why “but it happened that way” is no more strategic than why can’t they picture how “x” looks. Imagery is the writer’s job—not the reader’s.

Rely too much on reality itself (whom you know or what you remember) and you’ll have a harder time convincing readers to accept the reality you create. Instead, put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Is it vivid? Was it set up? What, given these circumstances, could really happen?

Readers want to accept fiction as a variant of truth. Don’t let them down.