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.