Sunday, December 30, 2012

Happy New Writing Year

In our family, a list of accomplishments, both major and minor, always precludes the dreaded resolutions. This way, you focus not just on how far you have to go but how far you’ve come. Psychologically, this preps you to embrace challenge with open arms. In my experience, talented writers rarely spend enough time congratulating themselves about anything. They just complain about how slowly they write, badly they plot, and self-consciously they vocalize—listing one failure after another.

What fun is that? So. List at least five things you value about your novel or yourself as a writer, such as scenario, plot twists, protagonist, voice, originality, use of verbs, etc.

Now. Take a deep breath. Because it’s resolution time.

·         When Chitra Divakaruni was at Writer’s Institute, she posed this question: “What will you give up for your writing?” Well. What will you? Resolve to write a little more.

·         Agent and writer Don Maass wants tension on every page. Do you provide that? Resolve to maintain increasingly high stakes right up until the climax.

·         Are you revising deeply? That means building character, conflict, and causality—not just making mini-improvements like changing “quiet” to “silent.” Resolve to evaluate, and as needed, repair the underlying structure instead of just the superficial word choices.

·         Are you taking risks? Though you might ultimately discard many experiments, playing with possibilities often creates the most exciting scenes. Resolve not just to get outside the box, but try shredding one whole side of whatever’s boxing you in.

·         Finally, are you writing like a reader? The best way to please your audience is finding the objectivity to evaluate what they’ll see. Are you patronizing or oblique, unfashionably vague or overly precise? Resolve to read your words as if you hadn’t written them.

These are tough resolutions. That’s why you need to remind yourself what’s good about your book and your writing. You deserve that. So does your writing—and your readers.

Tip: The best writers are candid about both their weaknesses and strengths.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Theme: Of Grinches and Gravitas

What’s the subtext underlying complaints about the grinch? Isn’t it disregarding the “gravitas”—or the substance and seriousness of Christmas? Glittering ornaments, pfeffernuesse, red-nosed reindeer, and new earrings or leafblowers are all fun, and all express love.  But they lack gravitas.  Despite their joyousness, they fail to represent the original spirit or theme of Christmas, which combined peace, humility, love, sacrifice, and worship.

These words represent weighty and abiding concepts. All have gravitas, and they have it the way the earliest novels illuminated: “The Tale of Genji” on mortality, “Don Quixote” on courage and perseverance, “Pamela” on class, and “Robinson Crusoe” on friendship. 

What’s that got to do with you as a contemporary novelist? Everything. Today’s novels cover everything from graphics or blogs to slipstream and sub-sub-categories of chick lit. But regardless of genre, the best examples still offer gravitas. They can be about the girl getting the guy or the guy twittering about time-traveling to meet Aristotle. But unless they offer new truth about the human spirit, something’s missing.

This doesn’t depend on tone or subject matter. Jane Austen wrote love stories, but W.H. Auden admired her ability to “Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety/The economic basis of society,” and C.S. Lewis observed that “The hard core of morality and even of religion seems to me to be just what makes good comedy possible. ‘Principles’ or ‘seriousness’ are essential to Jane Austen’s art.”

They are to everyone’s.  Thrillers, westerns, and urban fantasies all benefit from gravitas. It’s the original inspiration for the novel itself.

Tip: Good storylines drive novels. The best storylines leave us knowing or feeling or realizing something the storyline left behind for us.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Talk to Us

Fiction should be special: eloquent, efficient, and edgy; suspenseful, silky, and slim. But as the above sentence demonstrates, too much of a good thing can feel like, well—eating four slices of chocolate mousse cheesecake washed down with a gigantic mug of chocolate malt. It no longer appeals. It’s too rich, too fattening—too much.

Sometimes a basic, serviceable sentence is just what you need, particularly in dialogue or the connections between sentences and scenes. Sometimes it’s better to just say it. Otherwise, you might generate a construction like this:

Where initially the tightly curled nubs of buds, then later on the big, green hands of leaves, and after that the red, juicy, fragrant clusters of fruit decorated the entire tree, now the branches stood bare.

Maybe you should just say “In winter”?

Instead of cleverly trying to insert model T’s, Chanel suits, Charles Lindbergh headlines, or Twitter, might it be reasonable to simply mention the date?

Direct expression beats florid, circuitous language. If every sentence is long and elaborate, if every fact is oblique, and every word resonant, multi-syllabic and striking, how can you emphasize what you need to? How can you be clear yet concise? How can you develop a close, warm relationship with your readers if you relentlessly disseminate imposing messages from a distant peak? To seem real you have to sound real. At least some of the time.

Tip: You don’t want you or your novel to sound like a grocery list. You don’t want to sound like a famous 19th century writer, either.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Connotation and Why You Care

Words have their own “lives,” much the way characters act naughty or nice behind our backs when we’re not looking. The lives of our characters are offshoots of our intentions as novelists. Words, though, have lives of their own—perhaps ones we never planned. This doesn’t mean we get to ignore the history of the words we choose. Just the opposite, in fact.

Let’s say you want your character walking on a starry night. Great. Just remember that Vincent Van Gogh planted a very particular image. Don McLean’s song further accentuated that, and new versions continue to flourish.

Why does this matter to novelists? Because the standard paradigm affects how readers read your scene. One choice is avoiding that language altogether. The other is intentionally harnessing or revamping the meaning a particular phrase evokes.

Let’s say that Lelia, your protagonist, flees the house during a heated argument and heads down a country road lit only by stars. Like Van Gogh’s, these stars seem gigantic and turbulent. They signal fury and madness spinning out of control above a peaceful village. If that’s how your protagonist feels, all you need is, “Slamming the screen door, Lelia stepped into the starry night.”

But what if she doesn’t feel that way at all? Maybe Lelia dashes outside, looks up at the stars and finds inspiration. This marriage isn’t a happy one, and every distant point of light reinforces this new-found clarity. She’s had enough. She’s moving out. She’s moving on. If that’s so, either describe the stars some other way or help your readers see what Lelia does. Perhaps she thinks of Van Gogh and then smiling, shakes her head. The guy who cut off his ear had it all wrong. This is pure “Wish I may, wish I might.”

The familiar phrases that leap into every writer’s mind arrive there because they’re so familiar. So identify any wording that conveys iconic, archetypal imagery, however accidentally. Then make conscious choices. Build on tradition, reverse it, or simply mention “stars” rather than “starry night.”

Tip: Train yourself to notice the connotations that your readers do.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Incite and Insight

Character change must mirror psychological change in the real world. Only a Pressure Point, or external impetus, can realistically motivate someone to take action instead of enduring the status quo. These actions build character arc. The first Pressure Point incites the entire journey, and subsequent ones thrust the protagonist into the next learning opportunity.

To illustrate, let’s say your neighbor inflicts numerous small inconveniences on you. He amasses leaves so they blow into your yard, damages your flowerbed with piles of grass clippings overheating in the sun, and lets his dog use your yard as a euphemism. One summer day, wearing shorts and flip-flops, you exit your backdoor only to slip on a gift from Rover. You-know-what is smeared all over your foot, shorts, legs and thighs. Ugh! Without pausing to shower, you bang on your neighbor’s door.

Why so angry? It’s what Malcolm Gladwell calls “the tipping point.” Suddenly your view of the situation isn’t just different but perfectly clear, as if the optometrist finally got the prescription right. Your neighbor isn’t malicious—wasn’t for the last six years and isn’t now. But his nonchalant apathy about boundaries amounts to abuse. And although you pride yourself on turning the other cheek and hoping he’ll curb both yard and dog waste, that strategy is history. Your new insight? Sometimes you must speak up for yourself, even if you’d rather avoid confrontation no matter what.

In fiction, Pressure Points incite insight the same way. Certain events—sources of pressure—insure that nothing will ever look the same again. The definition of “fair” or “reasonable” has changed irrevocably: You can no longer accept what seemed acceptable. That door has closed.

An added bonus? It’s not only the protagonist’s worldview that shifts. The reader’s does, also. Pressure Points invite readers to examine their own definitions of “fair” or “reasonable.” After all, isn’t that why people read fiction?

What lets Pressure Points offer the greatest insight?

·         Choose self-explanatory events; avoid the necessity for lots of backstory.
·         Use the physical world; avoid basing everything on thoughts or dialogue.
·         Exert great pressure: avoid the myth that anyone changes easily.

Tip: Use external pressure to reveal how we reach insight.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Give Thanks for Writing

Writers often grumble. You can’t get an agent. If you’ve got one, she doesn’t answer your email or he’s not placing your book. You’re terrific at plotting, but you don’t like your voice. Or you consider your voice really pretty good, but how does that help if you can’t plot?

Writing and writers have our share of troubles. Maybe more than most, maybe not. There’s the revising world, the publishing world, the being-off-in-your-own-fictional world. But during the season of taking stock and counting blessings, it might be useful to pause and appreciate what writing gives us instead of what it fails to.

Few novelists do it only for the money. Instead, the desire to communicate, clarify, and characterize usually motivates. And if we’re writing because we have something to say and want to entertain or create beauty or make music or laughter, then what would we do without it? How would we fill that hole? What else could make us whole?

The burning desire to write—and to write well—is a source of pleasure. A writer friend and I had this email conversation comparing writing to a table you’re polishing . The process is going really well until—you find a gouge. Maybe no one but you would even notice. But you know it’s there. You apply some quick fixes—burying rough edges, masking the shape, thickly shading or texturing, hacking, overdoing, and finally rationalizing that only you will ever know.

None of that works. Because you will always know. So you’ll remain dissatisfied until it’s fixed, until you reproduce the perfect image you see in your head—of a table, a scene, an exchange of dialogue.

Don’t fret. This is nothing to complain about! The perseverance to strive for perfection isn’t a setback or burden. It’s a gift. You care so much about your project that you’re willing to give it your all, no matter how long that takes. Doesn’t that make every day one to feel thankful for?

Tip: Before you write for anyone else, write for yourself.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Naughty Words

No, not the body parts most people cover. And not the harsh indictments like “hatred,” either. For novelists, abstractions are naughty because they fail to tangibly link to the external world through seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching.  And of course they’re naughtiest when most familiar: “Alicia yearned for true love,” “Anger entered the deepest recesses of Oscar’s soul,” or “The pain of this loss stayed with Roderigo day after day.” Ugh!

Thankfully, few novelists sink this low often, if at all. Novelists are usually aware of melodramatic, naughty descriptions from agonizing to zestful. But most novelists slip in an expression, a condensation, a vague description here and there. Some of that comes from forgetting why abstraction is naughty.

Abstraction steals the cookies from the cookie jar.  Readers turn to fiction for vicarious experience—the joy of eating brownie bars without fear of excessive calories or peanut allergies. When writers are naughty, readers are instructed to feel anxiety, relief, or misery.

Whether you call it “telling” or “abstraction,” the naughtiness comes from depriving readers of the character world that enticed them to fiction in the first place. At its best, fiction offers emotion without any personal liability. Summary and directive remind readers that they’re reading and not snacking, love-making, getting promoted, or defeating the rapacious CEO.

Sometimes the problem is writers wanting all the cookies for themselves. Instructing people how to feel resembles running the world, calling the shots, and playing at being all-powerful. That might make some writers feel triumphant. But it makes most readers feel—pretty close to nothing.

In contrast, when writers generously give their readers tangible, specific moments and details, readers can groan over the basketball trophy, nod when she gets his love letter seconds before boarding the train to Siberia, or shiver over the doctor questioning the infant’s survival. Don’t steal the cookies your readers want to enjoy.

Tip: Want to be “nice” to your readers?  Give them the fictional experience they seek.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Great Fictional Expectations

Fiction must fulfill certain expectations.  It needs to feel original, fun, true-to-life, and causal rather than contrived. Otherwise, it’s not surprising—simply disappointing.  At some point, though, fiction must overturn expectations instead of merely meeting them. If readers can predict everything to come, why continue reading?

Readers derive the greatest satisfaction from characters that astonish while remaining believable. Readers enjoy situations that make sense yet yield plausible outcomes no one could possibly predict.

Sounds great, but how do you accomplish that? It’s easier than it sounds. Millennia ago, Heraclitus said that “Character is fate.” In other words, who a character is—at the deepest essence—determines what she or he is capable of—what it’s possible to do or achieve. This observation about human nature generates several choices in terms of plotting plausibly but unpredictably.

a.)    Create situations of such duress that character surprise themselves with their accomplishments, whether physical, moral, or psychological. Often, people can’t even meet their own expectations until circumstances demand that.  If characters surprise themselves, they surprise those reading about their fate.

b.)    Create characters of such complexity that they not only get themselves into complicated situations but also devise complicated strategies for ultimately achieving their goals. Characters shape destiny through their own choices.

c.)    Create an environment that determines fate, whether because of cataclysm, status or even the protagonist’s own dreams (or nightmares). This source of possibility contains more choices than you might think. Whether futuristic, current, or historical, whether urban or rural, fictitious or factual, the trick is how setting impacts every one of your characters—but particularly your protagonist. This is less about geography than a combination of culture, luck, and constraint. How does that generate the surprise of true character?

Tip: Probe the commonplace and familiar deeply enough to summon true yet nevertheless surprising truths.

Each of these solutions requires pre-planning. Genuine surprise arises not from gimmicks but understanding character, plot, and setting so comprehensively that your fiction works from a solid foundation of credibility to yield what feels inevitable, but only after the climax. The very best fiction surprises even its own author.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Playing with Problem Paragraphs

We all have those passages. The description’s a bit dull or the scene’s climax doesn’t feel climatic or readers can’t visualize how she triumphs over her attackers. Many writers I work with confess that they know exactly which paragraphs don’t work. They also confess that beyond diagnosing and sighing, they’re not sure what to do. Happily, solutions exist. Many of them start with the concept of “play.”

That’s because much of the problem is psychological. Once you feel something isn’t working you might get discouraged, anxious, worried, even annoyed with yourself. Can’t you be better? Faster? Unfortunately, such responses drain the inventiveness needed to originate solutions. Variations on “play” counteract that.

v     Brainstorm “crazy” solutions. (No censorship allowed.)
v     Make it a game. (What can I learn from this?)
v     Identify what’s at stake. (Both short-term and overall.)
v     Change the source. (Turn dialogue into narrative or narration to scene.)
v     Approach from an alternate angle. (What does the antagonist think?)
v     Perfect the verbs. (Make them precise, concrete and maybe symbolic.)
v     Open yourself to possibility. (Maybe you want to add or omit?)
v     Devise a contest. (Who’s in charge here?)
v     Trim. (Less of weak writing beats more of it—every time.)
v     Laugh at your tribulations. (Or at least manage a smile!)

Tip: Use those problem paragraphs to discover new depth for your story and the craft needed to deliver it.

Here’s the thing. Your fiction should make you happy. And you’ll be neither happy nor effective if problems overwhelm protagonist and plot. 

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Fiction and Flux

 Novels trace change. Think about that. Fiction begins by making trouble for an appealing protagonist. After that, all but the darkest stories follow that protagonist through a series of changes yielding resolution, if not success, happiness and a pot of gold at rainbow’s end.

No one wants to notice those incremental changes in the protagonist. That would resemble watching the wizard work the machinery behind the curtain in the land of Oz.  Change should evolve mysteriously. Yet every scene must advance the protagonist to the climax.

Tip: Justify each scene by centering it around an incremental change in your protagonist.

This is easier to execute than you might think. Try these techniques.

  • Plan how the scene will affect your protagonist.
  • Revise scenes to incorporate protagonist maturation.
  • Coordinate external events with internal realizations.
  • Let the antagonist induce growth in the protagonist.
  • Use your minor characters to help the protagonist evolve.
  • Mesh the external environment with your protagonist’s arc.
  • Represent many kinds of change, from psychological to moral.
  • Consider how small changes help deliver your theme.
  • Imagine your novel without this particular scene.

This last one is the toughest, but perhaps the most instructive. Don Maass, at a Writer’s Institute at UW-Madison, said that every scene should be so essential to the whole that the entire structure collapses without it. Every scene must contribute. Every scene must capture change. That’s more credible, of course, because nothing in the world stays still. It’s also more engaging, because the protagonist’s growth inspires our own.

Yes, you might lose some scenes and have to revise others. Isn’t it worth it to have a novel that’s realistic, dramatic and haunting because it proceeds—inevitably—to its outcome?

Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Riddle for Writers

What do writers and rivers have in common?

Both choose the path of least resistance, which makes perfect sense. Who wants to fight an uphill battle, go against the current, churn and flail instead of flow? No one, and for rivers, that’s no problem.

Not so for writers. Why? Because rationalizations please writers—not readers. Broadening your point of view for convenience or dumping a pile of backstory because it’s easy isn’t just weak writing. It actually robs you of the chance to solve whatever problem you face with an original, dynamic solution. This is the why the exercises in Don Maass’s “Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook” are supremely effective: They make you probe deep under the surface for the genuine truths, the genuine energy.

You’ll never get that meandering downstream, floating on the current of whatever pops into your mind first. Your story will never reach its full potential unless you find a way to counteract the very human tendency to choose the easy route.

Tip: Constraint breeds creativity.

So here are some approaches to try:

v     Decide what readers need in every sentence of every scene—and supply it.
v     Follow standard rules, like minimal backstory and consistent point of view.
v     Don’t solve writing problems by saying you struggled with this one for too long.
v     Generate ten potential solutions to a writing problem. Choose the last one.
v     Don’t give up on the moment until you love it. Your readers will, too.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Conflict versus Dilemma

The greatest stories—the ones that haunt—present the hero/protagonist with an impossible choice: love versus freedom, honor versus death, duty to country versus protection of loved ones. How is the protagonist supposed to choose between such agonizing options? The point is that one can’t, and the impossible struggle to do so drives the story to its climax with such intensity that readers can barely breathe wondering what happens next.

But whether you call it cynical, realistic, savvy or any combination of those, honor and duty don’t quite compel the way they did in Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. So for the contemporary writer, the problem is escalating plot and characterization to that level of intensity. And no matter what genre you write in, this is a problem. Why? Because you want to keep your readers breathless. You want your characters to seem not ordinary but memorably larger than life. Finally, you want a story that lasts because it touches on the human instincts that remain unchanged across the centuries.

The trick is to uncover the elements of your plot that are universal:

  • Nourishment
  • Safety
  • Love
  • Family
  • Security
  • Duty
  • Religion
  • Freedom
  • Loyalty

More of these exist, of course, but this gives you the idea. 

Then you want to take what might seem like a pedestrian conflict (Will she accept his proposal?) and make it more substantial (Will she accept his proposal even though she loves him but her religion forbids her to marry him?) Raise the stakes not just by cornering your characters, which is a terrific starting point, but cornering them with absolutely impossible choices. That’s the kind of thing that keeps pages turning and therefore attracts agents.

Tip: Don’t settle for conflict. Make your protagonist transcend dilemma.

Friday, October 5, 2012

There IS a hurry

Whatever your age, “Take it easy, there’s plenty of time” is a wonderful motto—except if you’re writing a novel.

Readers love efficiency:

  • Details that simultaneously build scene and setting
  • Foreshadowing that hints outcome while revealing character
  • Minor characters that echo the protagonist’s dilemma
  • Description that advances dialogue while adding symbolism

Readers also love efficient sentences:

  • Crisp diction
  • Smooth syntax
  • Parallelism
  • Structure echoing content

In 1657, philosopher Blaisé Pascal quipped, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” That’s still true. It takes longer to find double-duty details (although you’ll get better at it) and longer to write a concise, elegant sentence (although you’ll get better at this faster still).

No matter how long it takes, novels flow only when every moment, every description and every single word advances the story you want to share: moment to moment and sentence to sentence.

Tip: Whatever fails to add literally subtracts.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Power of Suggestion

 Tastes change. Nudity has replaced Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, heavily cloaked in evening wear, yet dispensing rhythmic sensuality visceral enough to inspire shivers. Perhaps we lost something along the way, and as a novelist, you can restore some of that: Not with what you say but what you don’t.

Tip: Most readers welcome at least some inference.

So look for what you might suggest rather than state. Covert glances might substitute for body parts. Some sentences might go unfinished. Threats might occasionally stay implicit. Jump-cuts might replace some of your transitions, and you might gleefully risk someone missing your point instead of being offended by your over-clarifying it.

Implication can strengthen all of these fictional elements:

v     Theme
v     Humor
v     Sex scenes
v     Foreshadowing
v     Clues
v     Emotion
v     Setting

It’s harder to imply than explain, to insinuate rather than expose. It takes extra effort. Aren’t your readers worth that?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Seeing in Scene

Most of us move through the world noticing what interests us—and missing much of the rest, whether that’s architecture or botany, sports, science, and even human emotions. We develop coping strategies to compensate for everything we’re missing, and although this sometimes annoys our life partners, it mostly works fine.

This isn’t true of our novels, though. To truly enter a fictitious world, readers need a comprehensive picture of external and internal. They need the whole picture from close up to far off. They need miraculous and timely delivery of the kind of details unavailable to us in reality. What is she thinking when she smirks at him like that, and how bitter is the wind outside while, snug in the living room, the couple grits their teeth at each other?

Tip: To give your readers the whole scene, you must first see the whole scene.

This doesn’t come automatically to every novelist, or even every talented one. So complete a little homework before beginning the next scene. Make sure that you’ve imagined all the details for every aspect of the scene, perhaps especially those likeliest to escape your attention normally. Then choose the very best ones so your readers can enter that world: so they can truly see your scene.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Verb Verve

Novelists must keep many balls in play—not just character, plot and scenario, but managing pacing, dialogue, setting, point of view and so on. With all that to juggle, it’s no wonder that novelists sometimes forget the power underlying the words used to make that happen.

For writers, words start with verbs. That’s the reasoning underlying the endless warnings about the “is,” “be,” “am,” “are,” “was,” “were” list, otherwise known as the passive culprit. Such words tempt us because the modifiers that follow them are tantalizingly convenient, abundant, available and seemingly efficient.

They’re not. They clog and clutter. They pull readers out of scene. They drag down and mess up. Writers benefit from abandoning these false friends.

You don’t need a vocabulary class. Just start noticing your verbs—and everyone else’s. The more you notice, the more attuned your ear becomes and the sleeker your words get.

Tip: Scrutinize the words you select. It seems foolishly obvious. But those individual words along with how you string them together are the source of your novel’s world and thus the pleasure that world gives your readers.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Welcome to Laurel's Blog

I’ve shared writing tips since 1995, when I started my first critique group through UW-Madison. A second group sprang up a year later, and since the time my first book came out in 2000 (“Take Your Characters to Dinner”) I’ve run three ongoing critique groups, including one for novelists only.

The tips became synonymous with Laurel the writing coach and began appearing as part of my presentations at every major UW writing program (Writer’s Institute, School of the Arts, Weekend with Your Novel, Write by the Lake and my own weekend programs like “Saving the Scene” or “Making Magic with Metaphor.”

I’m now semi-retired. But since I’m teaching almost as much as when I went to the office every day, I’m now inclined to share those tips with an even wider audience. That’s the motivation behind this blog.

The first tip will be about conveying emotion: coming up soon…

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Novels and the Concept of New

Here’s the first novel tip:

Every instant of emotion is both old as human nature and new as this particular interaction. As a novelist, it’s your job to give readers both the weight of all those centuries and the singularity of this clash: to make each moment both universal and individual. So.

ü      Let readers infer. (Emotions aren’t compelling when summarized.)

ü      Be concrete. (And focus on smell, taste, sound and touch rather than just sight).

ü      Identify the archetypal elements in this clash. For example, how did Helen of Troy feel about all the men who’d perish in a war over her and—that there was in fact a war over her—one far from her home and roots. (Find at least three emotional components that hold as true for your characters as for Helen, i.e. guilt, vanity, isolation.)

ü      Probe deep beneath the surface. (Emotions are multi-dimensional. Respect their complexity.)

ü      Make this a novel moment. (Use setting to make emotions physical. End the interaction with enough ambiguity that readers worry and wonder about what follows.)

To make your novel “novel,” come at it in a novel way. Change when you write or how you revise or where you do your writing. Writing a novel is work—but must also be play.