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.