Sunday, October 21, 2018

Creativity and Constraint

Who likes rules? Who wants to be curtailed by limits? Or constraints. Most of us began rebelling against such things at about twenty-four months. And writers have spent years encountering commandments on everything from how often you “should” write to how often you “should” use a hook.

The smartest writers among us realize that there’s an exception to every rule. Because there definitely is. In certain instances, you absolutely need to “tell.”  Sometimes more detail is better, sometimes not. Reader expectations about point of view have changed radically and dramatically—even from what seemed acceptable a few decades back. Lots of exceptions.

Still, if you’d like to be an original and “good” writer, as opposed to being someone who writes, consider who benefits when you rebel. Yes, sometimes those exceptions are exactly what’s needed. More often, though, enormous opportunity lurks in addressing issues rather than disregarding them. When writers ignore this source of serendipity, readers pay.

Tip: The best brainstorming you’ll ever do comes from solving an apparently insoluble problem.

Consider this example.
Louella imagined popping the necklace that wasn’t pop-it beads while shrieking, “Don’t you dare comment on me or my kids ever again.”
“Easy there, girlfriend,” Hortense advised, as if reading Louella’s mind.
Is there a constraint here? You bet. The quotation marks in what Louella thinks precede identical quotation marks in what Hortense says aloud. Particularly back to back, two uses of one kind of punctuation are at best distracting, at worst, confusing.

A writer faced with this issue can choose from several options.
  1. Assume that most readers will get it, even if it stops them just for a minute.
  2. Cut the two sentences and make the point some other way.
  3. Decide that the creative response is addressing the issue rather than ignoring or deleting it.
Want to choose # 3? Here’s one alternative: 
Louella wanted to shriek, “Don’t you dare comment on me or my kids ever again.” She wanted to pop the necklace that wasn’t pop-it beads. She wanted to wreck Hortense’s sleek hairdo. She wanted to…
As if reading Louella’s mind, Hortense advised, “Easy there, girlfriend.”
More often than not, there’s an innovative way to follow the rules. So. Why not limit any rationalizing to what your characters say or think. Because the best writers follow very few rules all the time. Those same writers follow all reasonable rules a lot of time. And every writer needs to know those rules—and be able to justify precisely when and why it’s okay to break them. 

After all, as Anne Enright observes with painful candor: “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”

Respect for constraints is among the best ways to make any writing better.

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

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Resonance in the Novel

What’s resonance? calls it “the quality in a sound of being deep, full, and reverberating” or “the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection from a surface or by the synchronous vibration of a neighboring object.”

At least metaphorically, though, resonance isn’t limited to sound. In photography, we might consider resonance a layering (that “deep, full, and reverberating” aspect) and a connection through “a surface or by the synchronous vibration of a neighboring object.”

Obviously, undoctored photos capture only what’s there. But it’s all about the angle. Juxtaposition and reverberation reveal what isn’t immediately visible. 

This introduces the potential to see and perhaps feel something we hadn’t previously.  Fiction does its work this same way. 
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….      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. It’s caused by a kind of psychic reverberation between two times, places, states, or spheres… — “Literary Resonance in the Art of Writing,” Lighthouse Writing Tips
Language and description are tools for layering comparison, contrast, texture, insight, and, above all, empathy—that “faculty to resonate with the feelings of others” (Matthieu Ricard). 

To illustrate, here’s a sentence without resonance: 
Her undiagnosed dementia only affects current recollections. 
The language is clinical. You encounter this character without much noticing, much less feeling, and as George R. R. Martin observes, “fiction is about emotional resonance, about making us feel things on a primal and  visceral level.” 

How does that happen? Resonance. In Dean’s novel, individual loss reflects the broader cultural one, because the primary plot merges with the subplot. Instantly comprehensible metaphor transforms an intellectual understanding into an empathetic one. Here’s the original sentence:
Whatever is eating her brain consumes only the fresher memories, the unripe moments― Debra Dean, The Madonnas of Leningrad
This no longer describes the plight of an individual. The portrait has become universal. Resonance accomplishes that via a metaphor that causes us to look differently, which is a primary purpose of fiction. Without losing focus on the protagonist, complete the picture by introducing reflection, background, or unexpected emphasis. What can you reveal to make readers stop and take notice? How can you make this feeling, this moment resonate?

Tip: Construct a fictional world that's fully dimensional rather than predictable and flat. 

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

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Verbless in Montreal

On a recent vacation, surrounded by French, I recovered bits of the language I’d considered lost forever. Amidst my gratified astonishment, I realized I could translate tons of nouns. Hardly any verbs. 

I pondered this. How do nouns and verbs influence perception of the world? And then, of course, how do parts of speech control the journey of readers through a novel’s world? 

People adore verbs. Stephen Fry claims that “We are not nouns, we are verbs.” Look up quotes on verbs and you’ll discover a lengthy list of nouns people transform into verbs: mother, paintings, NY, jazz, honesty, art, help, love, marriage, spirituality, and a whole lot more. 

What’s behind this? Appreciation of the dynamic, or—action.  Because most of us learned this definition back in elementary school, it seems elementary. It’s anything but.

Tip: Verbs move people and things, and who wants a static world? Give readers verbs.

~ Verbs capture.
Ramon cooed at the infanta.
~ Verbs insinuate.
The knife grazed Esmeralda’s elbow.
~ Verbs capture time.
Prudence will remember that storm forever.
~ Verbs illuminate.
“She longed for cutlasses, pistols, and brandy; she had to make do with coffee, and pencils, and verbs.”  — Philip Pullman
~ Verbs distill.
“Can one invent verbs? I want to tell you one: I sky you, so my wings extend so large to love you without measure.” — Frida Kahlo
~ Verbs expose.
Mirabelle eyed him from under her lashes. 
~ Verbs capitulate. 
You win.
As Michel Thomas put it,  “If you know how to handle the verbs, you know how to handle the language. Everything else is just vocabulary.” So if you’re struggling with a language, grasp whatever you can get. But unless you want readers struggling (or disappearing), verbs triumph. Find them. Use them.

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

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Novel World: Deep rather than Broad

Novelists have numerous reasons for spreading out instead of digging down. For a start, it’s easier. More available territory lessens anxiety about lacking sufficient tension, or even lacking sufficient material. Perhaps novelists haven’t completed their homework—and everything they know about the character and plot is already on the page instead of supporting what appears there. But that world will be a shallow one—the opposite of what readers anticipate.

Instead, explore what you’ve already introduced rather than blissfully introducing more and more. And more.

Tip: Superficial plotting and characterization yield unoriginal plotting and characterization.
Originality can come only from what you bring of yourself to your story. In other words, originality is not a function of your novel; it is a quality in you.     Where so many manuscripts go wrong is that if they do not outright imitate, they at least do not go far enough in mining the author’s experience for what is distinctive and personal. So many manuscripts feel safe. They do not force me to see the world through a different lens. — Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great
In Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Maass emphasizes the need to reject the first two or four or even five twists and traits that come to mind. Why? Because they’re obvious; they stem from the surface rather than the depths. To counteract this, he offers a series of exercises geared to reveal the astonishing pleasure of the unexpected. 

Alternatively, you can increase the probability of surprise by asking yourself what is possible without being improbable. Nor is that a one-time question. Have you pushed each moment, conversation, scene, and confrontation as far as you can? On every page, do you give readers at least one apt yet refreshingly new detail or occurrence?

Too often, life feels predictable. Motives and responses, choices and obstacles seem redundant, mundane. Not only is the real world familiar, it’s unfocused. People and obligations compete for our attention. Few days offer any focal point, and most of us face not only significant concerns but inconsequential ones like will the milk make it one more day.

Such is life. In fiction, though, the last thing anyone wants is tedium or blur. After all, we read fiction to leave that behind. And fiction won’t provide escape when muddled with slow pace, tenuous tension, or panorama so sweeping that readers forget what’s at stake and for whom.
Any time story issues don’t contribute to the true challenges and conflicts of the main character, you’re directing a story’s energy and passion away from that character and her story. — The Editor’s Blog
However implicitly, this observation dispenses some friendly warnings:
  • Limit the number of characters.
  • Imply (rather than state or ignore) the focus of each scene.
  • Link subplots to issues that reflect or enhance the protagonist’s arc.
  • Let readers follow the character they’ve invested in.
Give your story resonance and focus by developing its primary ideas and characters. 

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

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Self and Story

The relationship between them is ironic. Without sufficient ego to believe you have something to say, you can’t write a word. Yet value self over story, and you might be fine. But your story won’t be.

For one thing, if your ego transcends everything else, you’ll disregard legitimate feedback. And few writers succeed, either materially or artistically, without a courageous, creative response to insightful critique.

Curtailing your ego also reminds you who controls your story. Though the obvious answer is “You, of course,” it’s actually more complicated. The author (you) generates a cast of characters to dramatize the fiction and a narrator to guide readers as they follow those characters. Even in memoir, a persona, rather than an author, delivers the story.

What makes for a successful persona? Focus on the readers. In both fiction and nonfiction, guiding readers is the narrator’s purpose. But if ego drowns out everything else, the author begins upstaging the more audience-oriented narrator.

Here’s Katerina Cosgrove on that subject:
I've found, over the fifteen-plus years of being a published writer, that I suffer intensely every time if I let my ego get in the way. Even if I give it permission to stick its tiny little toe out. It always trips me up. In fact, the only way for me to write at all is to let go of any expectations entirely. Otherwise, the disapproval of others, the hot shame of not being enough, the squirmy feeling of not making the grade—or of being simply ignored by the critics, pundits and gatekeepers—is enough to make me want to give up. — “Removing Your Ego From Your Art”
Ah. Though ego might seem to be one’s best ally, that’s rarely true. In “Art and the Ego,” Emma Welsh reminds that as writers
We’re seeking our true voice, our power, our authenticity as artists. We realize—through blood, sweat and tears—that betting on the ego is not going to get us there.
She feels strongly enough about this to pose an extremely challenging question about priorities:
To find out, check out this ultimate test to measure your ego—one that even I can’t pass yet. (Truthfully it may be impossible.) Ask yourself this: if your story was one day incredibly well-loved and highly regarded, would you care whether or not your name was on the project? 
How do you feel about your answer? Maybe you dislike the question, perhaps consider it unfair. Maybe you dislike your answer even more. Fortunately, this isn’t up to any fictitious narrator(s) or characters. You control your own ego.  Maybe a little scary, but also mighty satisfying. It’s your call.x

Tip: Value story over self.

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

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Your Characters and Their “Old Tapes”

Not those you insert in some machine, but the ones that, waking or dreaming,  play incessantly in one’s head.

You have your own. There’s the sports one: instead of making a double play in the last inning of a tied game, you drop the ball. Or you’re an  unprepared teacher, and, one by one, the students exit a classroom with multiple doors. The list goes on: you are—or aren’t—really pregnant. They’re taking your PhD back. You’ve lost your home, job, partner, etc.

If all that’s farfetched, why would you—or your character—fear it, consciously or otherwise? According to neurosurgeon Wilder Graves Penfield, most of us at least occasionally replay tapes from childhood that remain intact—without benefit of the experience and insight that’s happened since. So this syndrome in a character feels instinctively credible. 

Further, if those tapes surpass the superficial or trite, they engage readers quickly. Here’s why:
Characters must have emotional needs, wounds and skeletons in the closet. Factors like these will cause tension and keep the reader interested until the end.     
Readers are nosy; they want to delve into a character’s private affairs. In the real world, we’re rarely able to snoop to our heart’s content. In fiction, we have a license to look around, to open up the secret drawers and hiding places. Be sure to give your readers a chance to do just that. — Jessica Page Morrell, Between the Lines
In “A Character's Fatal Flaw: The Vital Element for Bringing Characters to Life,” Coach Dara Marks analyzes why people hang on and how this drives story: eves
This unyielding commitment to old, exhausted survival systems that have outlived their usefulness, and resistance to the rejuvenating energy of new, evolving levels of existence and consciousness is what I refer to as the fatal flaw of character….     
The FATAL FLAW is a struggle within a character to maintain a survival system long after it has outlived its usefulness….     
As essential as change is to renew life, most of us resist it and cling rigidly to old survival systems because they are familiar and "seem" safer. In reality, even if an old, obsolete survival system makes us feel alone, isolated, fearful, uninspired, unappreciated, and unloved, we will reason that it's easier to cope with what we know than with what we haven’t yet experienced….     
Identifying the fatal flaw instantly clarifies for the writer what the internal journey of the character will be. This is no small thing, because once the writer is clear about what the protagonist needs in terms of internal growth it will clarify the external conflict as well.
To delve deeply into the “Old Tapes” your characters play, explore your own. What do you cling to what’s no longer useful or relevant? Then ponder what freezes your character(s) in the past. How does that compulsion manifest in bad choices, misspent energy, and unattainable goals? In other words, what’s the “Fatal Flaw,” and how does it escalate both tension and microtension?

Tip: The “Old Tapes” your characters play propel plot, evoke emotion, and transmit theme.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Poetic Language for Novelists

Some poets disdain fiction writers, who, in turn, are too often fazed by a genre that seems distinct and distant.

Tip: As in the natural world, cross-pollination is good: for every writer in every genre.

To illustrate, a poem might open like this:
Blue vases of small flowers that don’t die sadlyclaim the sun, hold it—defy the notion of death.

The novelist might say, “Pretty, but not for my readers,” or “Interesting, but not in a novel,” or “I like it, but I couldn’t write that way even if I wanted to.” Couldn’t you? Here’s a prose example:
Staring at the image, Francine looked wistful, and turning away from him, whispered,  “I really like blue vases of small flowers that don’t die sadly. Aren’t they wonderful?”     They were in for it again. Pete could tell. Realizing he had to say something, her husband mumbled, “I guess.” 
Lines that sound poetic, but blend smoothly with prose, can enhance tension by setting up a lyrical mood with rhythm and language—then undercutting it with subtextual confrontation.

Or, especially if your voice and reputation are equally strong, you might try a passage something like this:
The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscoting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.  — Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
Sounds like poetry, doesn’t it?  The intentional rhythm and repetition reinforce each other, further enhanced by strong, visual verbs. The way McCarthy’s protagonist observes and moves intensifies the sensation of shock, delivering the characterizer’s emotion in a way readers experience themselves And it’s the poetry in prose that creates this.

Still, this wouldn’t work for every writer in every novel. Style mustn’t overpower content. Inadvertent repetition annoys. Overblown language fatigues. Self-conscious wording—whether in poetry or prose—drains suspense, emotion, and surprise.

The trick is a happy balance between lyricism and tension, language and momentum. Is this achieved easily? Probably not. Is it worth the effort? You bet.

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