Sunday, December 29, 2013

New, New, New, New, New

We’re starting a new year, which arrives with a flurry of resolutions, hopes, and dreams about a new start. Nu? What have you done to make your novel “new” lately? If you haven’t, perhaps you’d like to. Because our word for the long narrative comes from the Latin “novellus,” meaning, of course, “new.”

A novel that does nothing new is last year’s news. While it’s truer than ever that “there is nothing new under the sun,” it’s your job to make your novel feel new. These strategies might get you started.

~ Opening.
Link the setting and atmosphere to the dilemma, and any location or conflict becomes original.

~ Plot
Dig deep. As Don Maass frequently reminds, the first nine twists you generate will most likely lack the punch of the ones you brainstorm following that.

~ Character
Whore with a heart of gold? Quarterback who wants to make it big so he can save his family? Whores and quarterbacks—why not. Stereotypical ones? Uh, uh. Make one major change, be it status, dreams, occupation, even gender. Shake things up.

~ Syntax
Sentence structure is important and it’s not necessarily instinctive and English teachers aren’t the only ones who loathe run-ons and so you should get out of the rut. Vary. Change patterns. Transcend habits, even if that requires conscious, concerted effort.

~ Imagery
Roses are red. Skies are blue. Tears equal sad. Spring equals happy. Roses come in a rainbow of colors, as do skies. And character tears can make readers quite sad—for the wrong reason. Can’t find anything new for your scene? Turn it upside down. Probe its core. That’s where the imagery you need is hiding.

~ Climax.
If readers have expected a set scene for a couple hundred pages, don’t rob them of that pleasure. Still, satisfaction blends the predictable with the startling. One perfect detail will get the job done. Again, the secret is discarding the first dozen or so possibilities. The great ones come from thinking long and hard enough.

Tip: Resolve to find ways to make your novel “new” in this new year.

Have a happy one.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Musing on Sylvia Gilbertson's "The Muse"

Writing about art takes chutzpah. Synesthesia—the sound of sculpture, the words for the music—is even less easily experienced than articulated. And a novel about art must convey the beauty and mystery it chases. That’s what Sylvia Gilbertson’s The Muse pulls off.

“ love with the loneliness of night” at a very young age, Ada “slipped into the hallway to draw Christmas trees, flying cats, birds with long purple feathers, herself like some foreign orange flame bolting off the edge of the paper.”

But by the time Ada reaches Italy to study the great masters, her imitation of them has transformed her into an imitation of herself. She hadn’t noticed, so she's shocked when her professoressa warns: “’Child,’ she said. ‘I offer you the words of Paul Gauguin. L’art est la plagiat ou la révolution. Do you understand? Art is either plagiarism or revolution.’”

Conventionality—too much pedestrian comfort—is the enemy, at least for Ada. She needs someone to light her fire. This turns out to be the leonine Michel. In his presence, she sees how “The tree trunks sharpened, flattened, and became two-dimensional, as if painted onto a giant canvas installation in some avant-garde outdoor museum.”

Like any good muse, Michel not only inspires; he teaches her to see that "the silvery bark was still smooth and taut, rippling like Michelangelo’s strong and slinky forearms and thighs. The dappled sunlight spattered them with mottled shadows that drew out their grain, their resplendent curves. They were as hard and beautiful as sex."

Michel incites Ada’s personal revolution—reclaiming the self she traded in for easier choices:

"She rolled off the bed and lay naked on the floor. The cool tiles pressed against her buttocks and the backs of her thighs, but her forehead still burned. She flung her arms up and closed her eyes. The voluptuous orange sound was bearing down on her. Then she could see it next to her, the gleaming black shape of a piano leg looming out of the color. The squirming source of music above her. A cosmic web revealed. And the world tilted."

Gilbertson fuses tradition with originality, archetype with individuality, and art with sex. It all adds up to a romp through Italy, sensuality, and the magic a muse can make.

Tip: Probe beneath the surface for the hidden connections that take novels beyond the pleasurable to the eye-opening.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Goldilocks and the Novelist’s Perspective

Figuring out what your reader needs can resemble being lost in a deep, dangerous forest, where every possibility seems overwhelmingly excessive or inadequate. No, you’re not hunting a bowl of porridge. But if you need to describe one, how can you know what’s neither too much nor too little but just right?

One of the wisest and most appealing dads from all literature had an answer. Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird advised going outside yourself: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

That’s no easier to accomplish writing fiction than outside it. Still, objective diagnosis might just help you “climb inside.”

Novelists tend to focus on plot and language. While both are crucial, neither gets you “inside” anyone. These elements might.

~ External and internal detail.
Most writers lean on one or the other, but readers need both. To fulfill that need, consciously evaluate whether every scene offers inner and outer worlds.

~ Immediacy from the character and guidance from the narrator.
Context—in the right amount and at the right moments—lets readers experience the greatest possible appreciation of the conflict.

~ Distance and proximity.
Readers love close-ups of characters, but those close-ups become most meaningful when readers see both character dilemma and the impact that the outside world exerts on it.

Although these tools help you diagnose, you’ll still wonder if there’s a surfeit of psychoanalysis or setting—whether this detail makes the scene vivid or clutters it.  You’ll still need readers to help you, probably more than one of them and definitely ones with no agenda. Beware input from those who love you or your genre to pieces or envy you enough to contemplate tearing you to pieces.

Start, though, with imagining the world from under the reader’s “skin.” Then you’ll have your eye on a balance of those complex ingredients that make every novel more than the sum of its parts.

After all, Goldilocks is a kind of magic, an improbable tale of anthropomorphic bears who still resonate after all this time. The dream of balance both underlies that magic and helps create it. Balance the frequently ignored elements of fiction and you, too, can make magic by creating a world so real and welcoming that no one ever wants to leave. Because it’s “just right.”

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Wink at Alison Anderson’s "Darwin’s Wink"

Molly Giles, author of Iron Shoes and other fiction, described Anderson’s novel as “A love story, a war story, an ecological adventure, a biological poem, and a treatise on the fragility of life—Darwin’s Wink has it all..... Like the elusive, bejeweled mourning bird it celebrates, this book will waken its readers to unexpected wonders.”

Anderson’s novel is indeed exquisite, with wonderful tension in terms of danger as well as philosophy and morality. Yet not plot but idiosyncratic character and theme drive its momentum. That isn’t a recipe for everyone, and most writers are better off using quotation marks though not italics (especially inconsistent ones).

Still, this book offers numerous lessons, both Darwinian and otherwise, to every writer.

~ Omniscient point of view.
Anderson clearly but gracefully shifts perspective. This is difficult to execute, and she models both how to do it and why it’s worth the struggle.

~ Characterization.
Writers are often drawn to unappealing characters but then stuck with fiction that turns readers off. The blend of vulnerability and chutzpah that infuses all of Anderson’s characters is among the best strategies for counteracting the malaise of wounded characters.

~ Dialogue
With or without quotation marks, it’s tricky to have characters argue philosophy and sound both convincing and intriguing. This novel does that over and over.

~ Originality
Too many novels feel as you’ve already read something just like this. Here, though, the island is not only a place where you’ve never been, inhabited by people (and  birds) you’ve probably never even imagined, yet somehow evocative of the best fiction about islands, scientists, quests, dreams, and biology. Startling yet familiar. What could be better?

~ Plot as microcosm of theme.
These characters struggle with compassion versus necessity. How does being a human animal differ from being another animal? Should only the fittest survive?

Tip: Become a “fitter” writer by scrutinizing novels that epitomize your goals for your own.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thanks for This Gift

Think of all those grim quotes about writing and writers: Don’t do it unless you must. While envying everyone better or luckier, you’ll bleed behind that lonely typewriter. Besides, you’ll still need a “real” job, not to mention confronting agents, audiences, critics, and the ever present: “When are you going to finish that book?” Given all that gloom, since it’s not usually the money, just what do we get from being writers?

~ Energy.
Writers perpetually listen, watch, wonder, recall, and speculate. Their minds are ever active, snapping up images, ideas, possibilities. What a romantic way to move through the world.

~ Patience.
Writing well, like doing anything else well, requires practice, hard work, and lots of time. With everyone in such a rush and so distracted, isn’t it great to have one thing absorbing enough to make time disappear?

~ Discipline.
Most writers care deeply about craft. They seek not just publication and compensation but critique and continuous growth. They work hard. They revise, edit, and revise a little more. They get to feel great about what they do because of the care they take.

~ Euphoria.
Sure, on lots of days you painfully struggle to meet a public or personal deadline. But sometimes, the writing glides or sizzles, producing a feeling that rivals anything you’ve ever experienced (including you know what).

If you could wish away your love of writing or your talent for it, would you honestly go for it? Of course not, because writers do it better.

Tip: Pause. Breathe deep. Remember why you feel lucky to be a writer. Because you are.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Storyteller’s Legacy

Some folks get the chills from touching a fossil fish. It swam the warm seas of Wyoming fifty million years ago. How do you even take that in? Humans do so by picturing it, an act that plays a major role in how we fathom the unfathomable. Visualizing images is the wellspring of plot, which is the wellspring of story.

In “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human,” Jonathan Gottschall argues that the oral storytelling tradition may be as old as language itself, and that the first peoples to tell stories had an evolutionary advantage over others.

Even if this is only partly true, it gives significance to every story. Whether about a spaceship, widower finding unexpected happiness, or linguistics professor seeking the meaning of language, every storyteller joins a tradition that weds entertainment to morality, that makes story both individual and personal yet part of something larger than self.

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T.S. Eliot says that “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” He had poetry in mind, but surely his observation applies to every writer, every artist: “The emotion of art is impersonal.”

He praises “tradition,” which “involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence…Someone said: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

Again, if his premises are even partially true, they bring responsibility and opportunity:

~ Read a lot. A novelist recently complained to me that friends scorned him for “just” reading. “Oh, so you’re not really doing anything then, right?” Wrong. Reading is among the most important aspects of the writer’s craft, not only so you can know what’s been done well but so you can know what’s been done. Period.

~ Seek objectivity. This means finding strength, morality, beauty, and intelligence in all your characters (even those you personally despise).

~ Let your plot speak for you. That’s what being a storyteller means.

~  Value your story more than its teller. That creates the greatest stories of all.

Tip: Being a storyteller is quite an honor. Treat it accordingly.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Tune Out to Tune In

We all know about the disappearance of quiet, much less tranquility. Many people, including writers, still enjoy wilderness camping. But they often enjoy it with enough devices to keep them Linked In so continuously that even in the wild they lose touch with their own thoughts. “What’s the harm?” is the consensus. And so long as you have breaks where your mind can flow without distraction, why, yes, no harm at all.

Tip: Continuous external feedback limits the free space needed for creative solutions.

In “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” Daniel Golen calls “open attention” a source of “serendipitous associations” —an opportunity for “utter receptivity to whatever floats into the mind.” In Nicholas Carr’s review of this book in “The Times,” he lauds the “fresh insights” that emerge from “productive daydreaming.”

Look up “open attention,” and you’ll encounter material about emotional healing and forgiveness. Hridaya Yoga defines it as “the natural expression of a consciousness which is not preoccupied with achieving one thing or another. It is an impersonal attention, free of attachments, judgments, labeling.”

Perhaps you’re not into that. Perhaps, even if you are, it seems irrelevant to your life as a writer. Yet every novelist encounters problems: Exposition at the opening, the big Set Scene, the climax, the theme, the logline, and so on. Those are the standard ones. Personal issues also besiege: The sentence that refuses to smooth, the metaphor that won’t unmix, and the detail floating just out of reach.

The standard approach is to sink your teeth into the problem and grind away until it loses—or you do. Yet if there’s enough quiet, enough “open attention,” no one has to lose. Including your readers.

If a question floats in your awareness while your mind’s gently open, you can ponder without grappling and brainstorm without censorship or interruption. It’s hard to be creative when frustrated and harder still to be creative when stimuli, however appealing, bombard you. In fact, the more appealing, then the greater the distraction.

Listening to yourself may seem egocentric and disconnected. But you’re not writing your book on a social network. You’re not revising your book as a team effort. It’s your book, and you have to hear yourself well enough to write it. That daydreamy space is your greatest source of inspiration, partly because only you can have it. Meditation? That’s optional. Whatever works for you. Freeing your mind to solve problems as only it can? Far less optional. Let the phone buzz while you...just listen, inside instead of out…

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Identity of Story

How much can you change a story and have it be its genuine self? Classics like “The Great Gatsby” endure numerous iterations, emphasizing certain variables and eliminating or altering others. This latest Leonardo DiCaprio version preserves many of the most famous lines and states the original themes so blatantly that F. Scott would drink himself to death even faster if he had to hear these lines.

But, aside from the disparities between film and fiction, is this still Fitzgerald’s story? Nick Carraway has become someone else—a fiction of screenwriter imagination. And because every narrator impacts story so powerfully, the transformation of Nick changes everything.

His most famous lines come near the novel’s opening: “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.” Fitzgerald assures us that this is a reliable narrator, an antidote to “careless” Tom, Daisy, Jordan, and even Gatsby. Nick’s the human embodiment of the eyes that oversee a landscape of shame. In the film, though, Nick becomes voyeur rather than conscience, less an outsider than someone intent on sampling insider privileges.

The end of the film resurrects Fitzgerald’s vision, as a morose Nick muses that no matter how much we hurl ourselves forward, we remain doomed to endless retreat. This ending resurrects the original, suggesting what gives story identity.

It’s not character names. It’s not quite plot. No. Readers sense story identity through three avenues:

Point of view.
~ Your narrator is your reader’s window into your story. This controls what readers see, how remote that feels, and whether the view is pristine or occluded. Nick Carraway is a very particular window into the worlds of Gatsby and the Buchanans. Does your narrator succeed in emphasizing or concealing what you intend?

~ Voice.
Storytellers bewitch via authenticity combined with charm, humor, or majesty. But a genuine personality that’s long-winded, passive, and effete bewitches no one. Is your voice not just unique but one that readers want to hear long after the story ends?

~ Theme.
Plot is only a vehicle for delivering vision, and you can’t reduce any theme worth its weight in plot to a platitude. Do your themes embody a vision that’s yours alone?

Tip: Love and respect your story enough to protect its inherent integrity.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Handling the Landing

 Novels and air travel share much in common. Imagine your flight leaving early, smoothly ascending, flying without turbulence, and gracefully gliding back to earth. Ten minutes early, no less. Alas, another aircraft occupies the assigned berth. Twenty minutes later, no one can recall the applause-worthy flight and descent. All the travelers take to baggage check is how long they waited to unclick the seatbelt.

The ending overshadows everything else for all passengers, including novel readers. It’s no time for self-indulgence from the one in charge. Imagine the Captain slowing just prior to destination to ask, “Weren’t those mountains majestic? Sure hope you folks saw the brilliant neons of Las Vegas as we flew over. And, by the way, did you notice how we changed altitude, as needed of course, to insure a safe and swift arrival?” Is this guy nuts? You can remind yourself what you enjoyed or discovered, thank you very much.

But you’re no pilot, you say. Happily, this has nothing to do with you. Unhappily, you’re wrong. Here’s how the landing can bump, bump, bump.

~ The Let-Me-Spell-It-Out-for-You Ending
However smart we actually are, we all like to believe we’re just a little smarter still. Nothing defeats that happy confidence faster than a patronizing summary, especially during the last few pages, or worse yet, the final paragraphs. Who’d forgive that?

~ The Lingering-at-the-Gate Ending
You’ve nailed the climatic point.  All signs read “go.” But you’re early. Best to delay? Stretch things out a little longer. Don’t let them rush away. Fine, so long as you know they’ll never forgive you.

~ The Lurch-to-a-Grinding-Halt Ending.
You’ve heard that agents and publishers prefer about 70,000 – 90,000 words. You’re at 92, 479. So you—just stop, without synthesizing sub-plots or clarifying the role of choice in fate. Why not? So long as you know they’ll never forgive you.

~ The Landing-at L.A.-instead-of-Philly, But-Maybe-They-Won’t-Notice Ending.
Hold on. Why am I here? How’d I get here? True, I’ve arrived. I’m no longer en route, which is sort of good, except—I feel as if I’ve awakened from someone else’s dream. After signing on for a particular journey, no one wants to descend somewhere else, clueless about why or how. Who did this to you? You’ll never forgive them.

Every moment of a novel matters. What matters most? The first page. It gets you off the ground—with a soar or a groan. Then the last page. It’s what you remember when you tell your friends about this book.

Tip: The landing leaves people applauding or lamenting. Which do you want?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Beauty and the Written Word

People rarely compare novels or the sentences composing them to sonnets or cathedrals, to sculpture or symphonies. Yet the artistry is parallel—meticulous engineering that results in capacity to mesmerize. Great plots amaze: A woman proves her loyalty by each night unraveling the tapestry she’ll reweave the next day; a man dooms ship and crew because he confuses the death of a white whale with justice; a boy travels down the Mississippi fleeing “sivilization” and finds it in a runaway’s heart, or a girl discovers how many kinds of mockingbirds exist and why they deserve protection.

What makes these plots gorgeous? For a start, each says something not just important, but profoundly so—about who people are and who they might become. Each plot synthesizes behavior and thought, proving its hypothesis with events both probable and essential—each incident leading inevitably to the climax. That has the haunting power of a symphony, no?

Novels depend on plot. But the best novels contain sentences rivaling the magnificence of scenario, scene, or theme. Here’s a tiny sample.

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”  -- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

“All he knew, really, was digging.  He dug to eat, to breathe, to live and sleep.  He dug because the earth was there beneath his feet, and men paid him to move it.  He dug because it was a sacrament, because it was honorable and holy.” -- T. Coraghessan Boyle, “The Underground Gardens”

“The aspects of his life not related to grilling now seemed like mere blips of extraneity between the poundingly recurrent moments when he ignited the mesquite and paced the deck, avoiding smoke. Shutting his eyes, he saw twisted boogers of browning meats on a grille of chrome and hellish coals. The eternal broiling, broiling of the damned.” --Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections

How do you start producing increasingly beautiful sentences?

  • Know what you want to say—something original. Important. Yours alone.
  • Listen for rhythm—in everything you read or hear. It begins with noticing.
  • Explore all five senses, and “explore” never means the first thing that leaps to mind.
  • Replace vague, distancing constructions like “There were” and “It is.” Tighten up. Get close.
  • Take risks. But take them thoughtfully.
  • Never rationalize the weaknesses you pretend not to notice in your prose. Ever.

 Tip: Aspire to beauty. You’ll never let your readers down.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Getting off the Ground

Planes taxi plenty before liftoff. Add a scheduling or weather problem, and they idle in their spot on the runway as passengers grow increasingly irritated. The passengers are stuck. Readers, however, are not.

Unless you get underway swiftly, readers might simply opt for a different journey. They don’t want to wait to hear the safety instructions or weather report at their destination. They simply want to be en route to it. Yet writers sometimes treat readers like trapped passengers.

Why not let readers feel they achieved altitude without all those preliminaries?

~ Establish what’s at stake.
Immediately. Infuse that opening trouble/conflict/problem with as much tension and emotion as you can muster--because it has to be big enough to build a book on.
~ Start with a straightforward event.
Self-explanatory incidents generate the greatest suspense. Avoid situations that necessitate lots of complicated set up.
~ Limit backstory.
Explain what you must. Stop there. As Don Maass once put it at a conference in Madison, “Once you’re 70% of the way through your novel, you can have as much backstory as you want.” Not before, though.
~ Make things move.
Not every novel includes adventure, or needs to. But contrast spilling the contents of a shopping cart with worry over some sort of trouble occurring in the supermarket. Big difference between those.
~ Add context.
But limit yourself to who, what, where, when, why. No one likes to be lost. But no one’s reading your novel to get directions, either.
~ Emphasize the physical.
Commenting on the protagonist’s problems is the equivalent of “telling.” Focus on what happens both to build scene and eliminate everything interfering with it.
~ Watch the metaphors.
Even if yours are great, don’t overwhelm at the start. The opening is a place to connect with characters and empathize with their troubles. Make that the focus.
~ Set the tone.
Don’t mislead by promising humor, sex, or adventure that never reappears after page two.

No one likes waiting.

Tip: Don’t request patience at your novel’s beginning. Instead? Just begin.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Please don’t shout!

Readers “hear” perfectly well and dislike what amounts to fiction that hollers: Bold, CAPS, italics, underlining, delineating, explaining what the scene will or did express.

Tip: Shouting is patronizing. Who appreciates patronizing?

And yet it’s rampant. Insecurity plays a major role. Consciously or not, many writers think, “I don’t write well enough to make my point, so I’ll just clarify. And in case someone reads extremely quickly, I’ll just clarify again. And slip in a bit of special formatting. How can that hurt?”

It can. Lots. Lower your voice, please. Did you ever notice how many people raise their voices with children, dogs, and English-as-a-Second-Language speakers? However inadvertent, even well-meaning, yelling comes across as insult. Its source is a different kind of mistrust—not of self but audience. Maybe they’re too young, too almost-American, or too downright canine. Yet people resent this, and perhaps even dogs feel the same way. If they don’t understand about asking to go out when they need to, yelling won’t clarify. This applies to readers, as well. Yelling isn’t more clear—just more annoying.

But don’t throw up your hands in despair or join Screechers Anonymous. A few super-serious questions might help.

~ Do you value your theme more than your plot?
That could make anyone scream, so evaluate your priorities.
~ Are you writing literary or mainstream?
Such readers are particularly quick to sniff out condescension.
~ Are you applying the speech formula to your novel?
Fiction gives you one shot, not hinting the point, making it, and then reviewing.
~ Does your scene require special effects for clarity and intensity?
If so, revise your scene. Use your words.
~ Aren’t italics or bold legitimate in some instances?
            Of course, but you’ll do better pretending no such instances exist.
~ Have you revised enough to feel good about your manuscript?
Then let it speak for itself. Please.

If you’ve ever stood in a bookstore or used book sale checking novel after novel to see which ones you want, consider why you put some back. Though cloaked in many disguises, the issue is often “Too condescending—and I get enough of that at work.”

Whispering, insinuating, suggesting, demonstrating all beat bellowing. Every time. Bury the megaphone. Unclip the microphone. Try whispering. Is there really a better way to make people lean in and listen?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Who’s Doing the Heavy Lifting?

People read fiction for various reasons—escape, entertainment, and illumination, information, or insight. But probably not one reader would add “enduring an exhausting workout” to that list. That’s what the gym—and the job—are for.

Tip: The less hard the writer works, the harder the readers have to.

Novelists can fatigue readers with what they put in or leave out. Here’s a partial list:

  • Picturing context for the characters.
  • Transitioning between moments, places, and external/internal realms.
  • Shifting point of view.
  • Including numerous characters.
  • Assigning distracting character names.
  • Introducing ambiguous metaphors.
  • Isolating images, subplots, and themes.
  • Composing lengthy sentences with multiple phrases and clauses.

Many readers enjoy ambiguity; that isn’t on the list. Readers don’t enjoy having to guess and compute. Sometimes that’s unvoidable. Attempt to make everything clear and easy, and you could wind up sounding graceless and boring. As often applies to the craft of fiction, balance is the key. These questions help test whether you make readers cope with something they needn’t.

  • Do you ground your characters in physical space?
  • Do you avoid unnecessary shifts, especially of short duration?
  • Do you transition whenever you change time, place, point of view, etc.?
  • Do you include the smallest number of characters you can get away with?
  • Do your characters have accessible names, i.e. as close to familiar as credibly possible?
  • Do taglines help identify characters, i.e. the one with green eyes or that oversized purse?
  • Do character names start with the same letter or sound similar?
  • Does every symbolic reference make complete sense on the literal level?
  • Do you weave imagery into motifs, or recurrent patterns?
  • Does every single subplot link to the central one?
  • Are your themes tied both to the protagonist and to each other?
  • Do you divide sentences for rhythm, variety, and clarity?

 Responding to all these questions sounds like a lot of work. It sure is. Novelists are supposed to work hard so readers don’t have to. Occasionally, you’ll have no choice: The plot or theme or psychological exploration simply demands a certain amount not of obscurity, but of complexity. Just be able to honestly justify asking your readers to “work.” And never put them on duty more often than you can help. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Revision to Clarify Vision

At a recent critique group session, a very serious writer very seriously asked, “How am I supposed to think about things like transitions and context when I’m ‘in the zone’? The very serious answer, of course, is that you’re not supposed to. Few writers experience that magical, “in the zone” state of fiery creativity often enough. The words come as fast as you can get them down. If only you could capture them faster! It’d be wasteful to squander those rare, euphoric moments when ideas and images pour forth from someone you barely recognize as yourself.

Why do some writers find the first draft thrilling? You’re unsure where you’re going, so it’s delightfully mysterious. Lack of censorship plays an even larger role. How liberating not to concern yourself with clarity, imagery, tension—even what to keep or toss.

If you dislike revision, perhaps you miss the freedom of that “zone” even more than its electricity. Uncensored velocity rocketing you toward completing the first draft? That’s terrific stuff. Unbeatable.

So is revision. To see again, to see anew, to see better. Certain processes harness fire to fuse things, to get to the heart of the matter, to expose the best part. Revision is among those processes. What could be more molten than finally perceiving exactly what you want to say and exactly how to say it?

Tip: Revision is an opportunity to clarify the ambiguity of your original story idea.

Perhaps you find revision closer to icy censorship than more acute vision. If so, changing your approach might help.

Hot and cold.
Alternate between making lightning-fast, spontaneous changes and cautious methodical ones. Avoid counter-productive patterns.

Fast and furious.
Instead of revising cerebrally, speed along. You might discover that swiftly going through your manuscript many, many times pleases you more than painstaking progress. And the more pleased you are, the better results you’re likely to achieve. Don’t let bad habits control your approach to revision.

In the zone.
Revision involves labor, but of love. Rework your manuscript with the enthusiasm you felt for the first stage and—your changes will reflect that. Don’t let love of your story and yearning to witness its completion get you down.

Writing a novel is a continuous process toward greater vision for author, character, and reader. Why not savor every second of that process? There’s more than one way to reach “the zone.”

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Scope of the Story

Focusing a novel is a bit like poor Goldilocks struggling to find what’s neither too huge nor cramped but “just right.” Reviewing Scott Anderson’s biography of “Lawrence in Arabia” in “The Times Book Review,” Alex Von Tunzelmann had this to say: “Regardless of the relative historical value of these individuals, however, the multicharacter approach has the great virtue of opening up the story’s complexity.”

Few fiction readers consciously assess how much complexity they seek. But since most readers instinctively know, writers need to care. It’s the reason one likes an author or title enough to scan the opening online or in a store, yet rejects this one. The novel feels either like too much work or insufficient substance. Either boils down to “not worth my time.”

Several factors contribute to complexity. The point of view could be roving or omniscient. Maybe numerous subplots tangle up the story. Perhaps the sentences feel ridiculously short or long. The metaphors congregate like ants at a picnic. Or the cast of characters under- or over-whelms.

Tip: Use your cast of characters to give your novel “just enough” complexity.

Having too many characters resembles agonizing over who survived the aftermath of the hurricane on page one, but instead learning that little Tiffany, in room 478, has a cousin whose great-aunt passed when she was only ten, and perhaps because of that, there’s been a lot of divorce on that side of the family. In fact, Marcia, the step-daughter of the step-aunt’s fourth husband, is one of six children. Wait. Was Marcia in the storm’s path? Is she a major character? If not, why mention this?

Too many characters bloats the story badly enough to affect compassion for the characters we’re supposed to care about.

Yet a scarcity of characters builds a skewed world. In our dreams we’re often both protagonist and antagonist. In our memories or anecdotes, it’s a one-person show starring its originator. All of that’s kosher, because the goal isn’t constructing a completed story. When that’s the goal, however, you need enough characters to help the protagonist grow and change. Yet you don’t want so many characters that you blur what’s important.

How might you reach “just right”?

  • Introduce characters in terms of the protagonist—and usually protagonist stress.
  • Give every character a distinct voice and identity.
  • Watch for arcs. Unless every minor character has one, bring out the ax.
  • Use every character more than once. Cull those with bit parts.
  • Merge if possible. You’ll produce one strong character instead of two weak ones.
  • Assess complexity. Is this number of characters apt for the intended audience?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Whispering Really Is Okay

Please don’t shout!!! Hear those exclamation points shrieking at you? Of course you do! Annoying, isn’t it? We read fiction—and just about anything for that matter—for entertainment, information, illumination. But we don’t read so someone can tell us what to feel or think. Nor do we read to feel like a well-meaning but rather bad, stupid dog.

Yet most writers occasionally shout. Maybe we can’t help it. Our images, themes, and observations are that important. And if they are? Implication is the way to convey them. Because when someone shouts, folks stiffen up, cross their arms over their chests, grit their teeth, or flee—not a single response you want to evoke in your readers (or anyone else).

For most writers, the ending elicits the loudest shouting. Naturally. Almost as bad as reaching the end of the journey with your characters, you’re now at the end of your chance to convince readers of—whatever you desperately hope to convince them of. Truth is ambiguous. Love is better the second time around. Men are only physically stronger than women. War is almost never the answer. 

It doesn’t matter what you want to say, whether it’s true, how passionately you believe it, or even how well you communicated it in your novel. Inside a voice whispers, “They won’t get it.” Or, “They’re not convinced. Tell them again.” Or, “You’ve tried to show for three hundred pages. Now it’s time to tell.” Or, “Last chance! Go for it! Don’t lose this last chance!!!!!!!”

Alas, no. If there’s ever a time to whisper and insinuate, it’s the last chapter, page, paragraph, sentence. This isn’t the time, well, to be right. Rather, it’s the time to write well. It isn’t the time to prove your thesis. It’s the time to leave readers with an image—one as fleeting as the last dim colors in the evening sky. But equally memorable.

So no shouting just before “The End.” Also avoid these varieties of shouting:

One-sentence paragraphs.
Explaining why tragedy is truly tragic.
Melodramatizing why tragedy is truly tragic.
Over-used, overwrought words like “anguish,” “yearning,” “smitten,” etc.
Telling what you showed or will soon show.
Exclamation points!!!

Tip: Hoping to convince or inspire? That’s only human. But novels do it with plot.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Immortality, Story—and Those Who Write Them

Here’s a possibility. Write as if you know that death is inevitable. But live as though you can defy it. Why the melodrama? Because of Dustin Hoffman’s amazing treatment of art, aging (and ageism), time, love, and immortality in the movie “Quartet.” If these subjects have ever crossed your mind, you might want to see this movie. Like the laughter it prompts, “Quartet” is a powerful inoculation against the virus of despair.

The movie insists that you’re as young as you feel inside, that it’s never too late, that if you have your wits about you (even some of them), you ought to continue raising a bit of hell.  And if you’re a writer? Write hanging tight to the hope that your words will let you—and whatever you love—live forever.

Madisonian Bob (Buzz) Humke recently published “The Logging Road Gang.” The novel he worked on for many years not only pays tribute to the town where he grew up and the parents who raised him; his novel lets that era, the changes that era brought, and the people who engineered them—survive for everyone who reads his book or even hears about it. That’s what novels do. That’s the power they have.

Of course we write them partly for that reason. Is it too lofty to call art not only the enemy of time, but of death itself? John Donne’s sonnet warns, “Death be not proud”; you’re less “mighty and dreadfull” (sic) than you think. Donne bases this on faith that after death we “wake eternally.” But this inspiration doesn’t reach us through salvation; it comes from the enduring power of his sonnet.

You can’t know the fate of their writing, and not knowing, you can generate lots of negativity. Some of us mastered the “art” of worrying and complicating years ago but enjoy staying in practice. This “art” can quickly become a self-destructive habit. Maybe you won’t be good enough. Maybe your tank is getting low. Maybe so and so is better, or so and so already said it. Or who cares if anyone says it.

What if you never publish. Does it matter? Not necessarily. Friends and family (not to mention Facebook) let your words live on.

“Creating is the closest thing to being immortal,” said African philosopher Mokokoma Mokhonoana. If you have something to say, that’s a gift. If you have the style and energy to get it out there, why waste that gift? Maybe your words will survive you.

William Shakespeare insisted that his love’s “beauty shall in these black lines be seen/
And they shall live, and he in them still green.” Forever young. The sonnet, too.

Tip: What are you waiting for? Stop reading this. Go write something.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Where Does Your Novel Start?

The first page of your novel—and even the first sentence and paragraph of that page—matters more than any other part of your book. You not only attract readers (or fail to), but set the tone, elicit sympathy, and clarify what kind of journey your protagonist and thus readers will take. More importantly, you establish whether readers want to invest in that journey. With the stakes this high, you want to—keep the stakes high!

More than anything else, that comes down to where you start. Recently a writer asked if she should begin her novel when Larry’s wife Erica disappears. Or, instead, should the novel open at the moment when lonely Larry determines to begin actively searching?

To decide, consider the difference between these two starting points. One is a feeling of desperate loss, a feeling which introduces questions about what to do, which actions to consider. The other moment—a forceful decision to take action—is an actual plot point. It’s a true inciting incident, because it produces the plot rather than preceding it.

Mark Twain observed that “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.” Isn’t the start of your novel far more significant than word choice? Note the gap between thinking about an action and taking one. Use that distinction to identify your starting point.

For your opening, you need the following components:

~ A moment of action (not a feeling, situation, or problem)

~ A self-explanatory action (not one that requires backstory, context, or elaboration)

~ An action explosive enough to drive an entire novel (not a conflict, but a dilemma)

~ An action with high stakes (not just risk, but a lose-all or win-all gamble)

~ An action that reveals the nature of your protagonist (not soon, but instantly)

~ An action that bonds us with your protagonist (by uniting courage with vulnerability)

As an exercise, a warm-up, an off-stage gathering of insight, it’s terrific for you to develop a full understanding of the events that caused your protagonist to risk the action that sets your novel in motion. But that’s only for you. You needn’t share it with your readers, and you definitely needn’t start out with it.

Tip: Begin your story not with what motivates action, but as close as possible to the point where the action starts.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Private Jokes Are No Joking Matter

Did you hear the one about the hen at the hectic intersection? Yawn. The only thing funny about a well-worn comic moment is someone thinking it’s funny. But genuinely “funny”? That matters. It doesn’t just give novels depth and texture beyond basic plot and theme. Humor makes novels better simply because everybody likes to laugh. And private jokes are the best of all.

So. Take a second to picture yourself with a spouse, partner, or dear friend roaring with laughter over—something hilarious only to the two of you. This is a special kind of funny. Whether slapstick, witty, subtle, or all of the above, it feels personal. No one else quite gets it. That’s the point.

Personal humor (or anything else for that matter) is special. It feels slightly illicit, which most of us find sensual. A private joke involves a clique, if only of two, so it’s exclusive. In-group humor depends on insider information and is thus a commodity. All great, but can you do that in your novel? Of course.

~ Set the scene.
Bad jokes inundate with context. Decent jokes offer almost enough. Great jokes hint what the audience needs to know, preferably in advance and just clearly enough to command attention without being obvious.

~ Plant seeds.
Good jokes, in fiction and everywhere else, build slowly, often in three’s: A vague reference, a slightly more pointed one, then—whomp!—the punchline.

~ Use slightly esoteric references.
If you never ask readers to stretch for dim recollections about Paul Bunyan, Walter Cronkite, the Uncertainty Principle, or Teddy Roosevelt, then no private joke is possible. Private jokes depend on a somewhat arcane reference clicking into place.

~ Suggest rather than state character behavior.
Forget those tedious assumptions about prom queens or neurosurgeons. Instead, give your astronaut or whatever traits that plot forces to the surface. Humor flourishes with the surprise of foiled expectations.

~ Use the five senses.
A good joke is not just something you hear or read, but one you can at least visualize, and, ideally, connect with viscerally.

~ Mix and match.
Blend graphics, word play, irony, and burlesque. Besiege us in more than one way and—we’ll love your book all the more for the fun we’re having.

Tip: Charm your readers not just with public jokes but private ones.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Tension and Texture

In fiction, creative nonfiction, or screenplay, a good storyteller adds layers to elevate story beyond plot, infusing it with humor, originality, psychological insight, and deeper understanding of the human condition. If a story seems multi-dimensional instead of flat, that’s texture.

Tip: Texture enhances tension by making what happens more original, empathetic, and thus haunting.

Only so many basic plots exist. But you can add texture in as many ways as there are writers to add layering.

Film is a terrific vehicle for investigating texture. Your commitment is hours instead of weeks, and you can find many free screenplays on line. “Silver Linings Playbook” is a good example.

It opens with protagonist Pat’s main concerns: His biological family and his wife.

~ We know what’s at stake right at the starting line.

The protagonist immediately explains that the situation is his fault—but it’s going to be better. Because he’ll see to it.

~ We immediately know how much we like this guy: He’s honest, responsible, resilient.

The protagonist’s room in the institution appears next: Jar of mayo, black trash bag, and the sign “excelsior.”

~ We know this story might be dark, sad, and romantic: It’ll be funny, too.

Then the group therapy session starts.

~ We can expect realism: We can expect an antidote to grim realism, as well.

After that, Pat’s doctor warns that his mom’s taking him home without medical approval.

~ We know, because we know how stories work: He’s just not ready.

That means trouble. Count on it. 

If you haven’t seen this, do. So the synopsis stops here. If you watch it and/or read the screenplay, notice how playing with expectations creates texture. What’s happiness? What’s sad or funny, sane or crazy? What’s true love? Who deserves what—and why do they?

This film lets you examine ways to open, interweave plot with theme, create likable characters, and transform individual predicaments to universal ones. It does that with texture.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Psyche and Nike

The common meaning of “psyche” is soul—spirit. But its source is a complex myth about the relationship between soul and body, the antidote to another goddess’s envy, and the union of two beings. What’s relevant to the contemporary novelist, though, is the equally complex relationship between “self” and story.

Enter psyche. What makes a story matter is the revelation of an individual spirit. Maybe you love being Irish or Hmong or Norwegian and this story brings your culture to life. Maybe your relationship is so happy that you want to write a romance where every dream comes true. Maybe, like Chad Harbach, you love both "Moby Dick" and baseball and want everyone to see how much they have in common. Psyche provides a way to express “self” through story.

Some consider psyche the “true” self and ego the false one—overly focused on goals, materialism, arrogance. Whether or not you agree, you might think of psyche as the source of your story and ego as the engine driving you to complete that story.
Few novelists can survive without a healthy dose of ego. After all, if you lack confidence in yourself and what you have to say, even the quickest, worst first draft ever is a ridiculous amount of work. If neither you nor your story is worth anything, why bother? Ego—i.e. confidence, gets you started and keeps you motivated through all the revising and strategizing needed to find an agent, a publisher, or a do-it-yourself plan.

~ Only your psyche can originate a novel people want to read because you alone could write it.
~ Only your ego can generate the fortitude to strive until your novel is good enough for people to read.

Ego and psyche are twin sources of strength. At its worst, psyche breeds amorphous images meaningful only to their creator. At its best? Psyche weds individuality to commonality, lets you transform subjective imagination into community property.

At its worst, ego generates the kind of defensiveness that rationalizes away useful critique: You’re always right, of course, and the reader (Why listen to this dolt?) is simply too foolish to see why you had to “tell,” introduce twenty-six characters in your first four pages, or bury any shred of plot or tension beneath exquisite description. But ego also inspires the confidence to strive for excellence, often best achieved by welcoming and implementing intelligent feedback, even when it’s painful or arduous. Ego can actually let you put your story before your “self.”

And Nike? Athena’s sidekick symbolizes flight, glory, victory, triumph. She represents ego, not egotism. You needn’t be a winged deity or fast-mover who relishes competition and hungers for fame. But you do need the energy that unites spirit with ego.

Tip: Those folks are exactly right: “Just do it.”

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Down with Wimpy Protagonists!

Yes, the protagonist’s journey must resemble an arc from weakness, confusion, or shortsightedness to growth and maturity. That’s how he or she earns the happiness of the ending, granting readers the satisfaction accompanying that. And yet.

Of course we don’t want to blame the victim! But we don’t necessarily adore victims, either. We sympathize and willingly offer support, pity, concern, possibly money. But love? If heaven helps those who help themselves, readers love those who help themselves even more. Spunk is a big draw.

Empathy correlates with the reason for the protagonist’s problems. When life deals you an unjustly crummy hand like poverty, an abusive partner, or incurable cancer, we root for you. It’s not your fault! There are no easy answers. Even the questions might be unclear. But if the problem’s primarily insecurity, an annoying boss, or too much jealousy, this might evoke different questions. Did someone promise you a rose garden? Do you know that others suffer starvation? Homicidal spouses? Incurable tumors?

Every protagonist needs a flaw. But external pressure causes the protagonist to conquer this weakness. Whether the limitation is moral or psychological, there’s no better way to build arc. That’s how story works: The audience watches plot drive someone toward greater personal and universal good.

So weakness can only be a single facet of a personality that’s complex, energetic, and appealing. Otherwise—yawn, rather than watch this struggle to transcend self-pity, readers might just as well have a petite snooze.

The source of arc isn’t voice or description or a terrible childhood or a depressed outlook. It’s a cornered protagonist facing a moral dilemma where the single choice is growth toward heroism.

Here’s how you might offer that to your readers:

Give your protagonist a sense of humor.
Make your protagonist maintain a positive outlook.
Grant your protagonist an immature yet beautiful soul.
Ground your protagonist’s problems firmly in the external world.
Don’t weaken those around your protagonist. Instead, empower your protagonist to rival the strength others exhibit.
Trap your protagonist.
Trap your protagonist much, much more.
Eliminate every viable escape route.
That’s how to shape an arc. Everything we need to know already exists in our own minds and hearts. This applies to your protagonist, too.

Tip: Appealing protagonists suffer more from circumstance than personal weakness.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

What’s in That Bag?

I picture my friend’s kids eyeing their holiday presents on the coffee table. “Whaddy’d I get? Whaddy’d I get?” I think of another friend bringing a surprise dessert secreted in a fancy bag, and although I’m supposedly more sophisticated, my question’s exactly the same. What enticing surprise awaits me?

Novels, of course, operate on the same principle. An opening that gorgeously packages the promise of surprise presents a present. You can’t be sure what wonder hides under the foil and ribbons, but, man it’s gonna be good.

Tip: Don’t ruin the surprise!

Of course not, you protest. I want my readers entranced, suspicious, empathetic—all the great stuff that comes from a set up that stays secret until that exquisite paper is slashed, revealing contents even more exciting than what veils them. Then why give away too much? And, alas, it’s so easy to do.

Here’s how to ruin the surprise:

·         Set up so carefully that there’s no possibility of wondering or guessing.
·         Set up so obscurely that there’s no possibility of wondering or guessing.
·         Divulge the right clues, just at the wrong moments.
·         Divulge useless clues, though at exactly the right moments.
·         Explain everything.
·         Explain nothing.
So how do you wrap with as much wham as the secrets it masks?

ü  Set up adroitly. Careful packaging foreshadows fun, and that’s what the packaging’s for. Tease us about the joy of eventual disclosure.
ü  Play with disguise. What if it looks as if you could expose the contents one way, and yet—maybe there’s a more original solution? Maybe no one ever used before? There’s more than one way to wrap a gift.
ü  Disperse clues cleverly. Who wants to guess how to remove the paper or ribbon. We want to shred that covering ourselves! We don’t want to break fingernails, though,—or minds, or hearts, wrestling until quitting suddenly seems more attractive.
ü  Remember what you’re wrapping—and for whom. If you put holiday paper on a birthday present, someone will complain (as well they should). If the tape shows or the edges bulge, it kind of says, “I don’t love wrapping (writing) or you,” or, at best, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Don’t ruin the mystery. Don’t ruin the gift!

That’s what a novel is. But its true value arrives with its climax. Until then, hide shrewdly, so the reveal feels as thrilling as receiving a present from someone who wants the lucky recipient to enjoy every moment—from snazzy bag to even better surprise within.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Dreaded Deadline

Like many things in this world, the deadline is a double-edged sword. Deadlines set by writers, their critique groups, or even their writing partners can leave lots of “i’s” undotted, not to mention characters and plots undeveloped or inconsistent. But without deadlines, we can either write one thing forever or not write much at all.

Yet rushed deadlines can eliminate readers, including agents. One reason for rejecting manuscripts is a great idea almost executed. Just not quite. So determination to send out your queries on September 15 or January 1 is only in your best interests if your work is as good as it needs to be.

How good does it need to be? Hundreds of positively dreadful books get published. Yet the goal is surely a good book, not a “good enough” one. Still, about half the writing population never feels satisfied, always thinking it could be a little better. Yes, it always could be, yet writers need a realistic level of satisfaction, a willingness to let go so that someone else can enjoy it, even it’s not perfect. It doesn’t need to be.

It does need to be good. The other half of the writing population is too easily satisfied, quickly deciding that it’s already as good as it needs to be, probably better. But sending or self-publishing too soon is arguably worse than stressing for too long. The novel needs to be good enough not just for you, but for your readers. You don’t want an agent or anyone else thinking, “Love your idea! But you didn’t pick up the pace, deepen the characters, eliminate the passive, exploit the setting, or remove the clichés.”

So. If you honestly think you revise for too long, consider these questions:

·         Would a deadline help you?
·          How will you stick to your deadline if you start rationalizing?
·         Are you aware of a perfect novel?
·          Do you secretly believe that enough patience will make your novel perfect?
·         How will you know that you’ve “finished”?

If you honestly think you don’t revise enough, consider these questions:

·         Is your deadline an excuse to avoid revision that feels hard or boring?
·         Does your deadline provide enough time to polish your novel as it deserves?
·         Have you objectively assessed which improvements your novel needs?
·          If you start rationalizing about need for revision, how will you curb this?
·         How will you know that you’ve “finished”?

Tip: A deadline is a tool, and any tool can help or hurt. You can use it to pound yourself in the head or—make your novel a must-read.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Passion and Revision Both End in “s”-“i”-“o”-“n.”

The luckiest writers are probably those who adore revising. A whole string of metaphors exists for this achievement: Sculpt the contours, trim the dead wood, justify the arc, and, ultimately—make your dream of what your novel could be come true.

Naturally the flip side is a competing set of metaphors: Buckling down, facing the music, dragging your heels, missing the good times. So is there hope for passionate revision? Of course. They share four letters in common—and more, besides.

“S” is for seriousness. Whether the ardor’s about ping pong or pinball, Puccini or promiscuity, people take their passions seriously, perhaps obsessively. Obsession makes some writers adore revising until the scenes sizzle and the sentences sing. Other novelists are daunted, even bored, by striving for perfection. Maybe you find tinkering torturous. But, seriously, is anything more thrilling than making your good novel great?

“I” is for intellect, because that glorious, electric, utterly creative and uncensored flood of words, images, and ideas has ceased. It’s time for a clear-eyed assessment based on your knowledge of craft combined with your best efforts to apply what you know. Does this seem unrelated to passion? Hmm, unless you’re doing some thinking about even the most fundamental kinds of passion, you’re apt to behave like a teenage boy. Unless you actually are a teenage boy (and possibly even then), combining mental agility with ardor will likely achieve happier results. This applies to fiction, too. 

“O” is for old. Been there, done that. And this is the reason those who dislike revision usually offer first. “I don’t want to revisit what I’ve done. I want the thrill of something new.” But does real passion ever get old? If what you adore is Beatles or Beethoven, do you truly mind hearing it one more time? If your characters stride and your prose hums, will it hurt you to keep improving even more? Old things mean you’ve laid the foundation; you’re not always worrying about what follows, because you already know. Finally, old stuff is invaluable: Antiques, good wine and cheese, vintage clothing, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Botticelli’s paintings, and the last draft you’ve completed, still awaiting the magical touches you’ll add next.

“N” is for new—yes, new. When revision works for writers, it’s because the process of polishing, of reaching for perfection, doesn’t just redo but continuously produces something different from what preceded, i.e. new. Philatelists go nuts over a new stamp and lepidopterists over a new swallowtail. Successful novel revisers revel in each draft—as different from the preceding as another stamp or species. If it feels old hat, if you’re not learning as you go, if you’re sucking the life from your manuscript, then you’re not revising with the passion you need, and of course you don’t enjoy it that much.

Your attitude toward revision controls your approach. How much baggage do your drag along? What might you leave behind? What can you add to your bag of tricks?

Tip: Revise your attitude toward revision to fuel it with passion.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Every Novel’s an Adventure Story

Say a woman walks the Lake Michigan shore. Call her Evangeline, because she’s a bit 19th century and fancies herself a scientist of sorts, a fossil hunter. The chill wind cuts right through her blouse; she’s not dressed for this walk. Evangeline continues on, anyway. Something magnetizes her about this rock outcrop, so different from the rest of the beach with its glittery sand, its heaps of polished stones in myriad colors and shapes. The smooth slabs here are cut into hundreds of tiny steps, a landscape so intriguing that she willingly endures stench from the dead smelt washed up in the many little crevasses.

The rock so captivates Evangeline that she nearly misses the sign describing it. Now it’s all clear. Silurian dolomite, from 440 – 350 million years ago, the sign explains—and rare on the Lake Michigan shore. She got that part right. Dreamily, she walks on, curling her toes around bedrock, mind fixated on the ice age, the glacier’s slow slide, the corals and maybe trilobites that formerly thrived in the warm sea that once flowed here. Her reverie’s so deep that she nearly misses the slab where you can see the tiny whorls the coral made. Finally, a fossil—a whole tablet of them. She’s made sense of the landscape. What more could she ask?

What more could a reader ask? Consider the elements of Evangeline’s journey:

~ Setting: Both gorgeous and captivating.
~ Conflict: Why does this differ from the rest?
~ Distraction: Is my eye on what’s important?
~ Momentum: Will I ever solve this?
~ Clue: This is what you’ve been looking at.
~ Ah-Ha Moment: The fun of finding the last piece for the puzzle you’ve played with.

Evangeline’s journey is the basic journey every novel reader experiences. Even if the protagonist lives centuries, even planets away from this search for fossils, each shares hunger for new adventures, and, ultimately, for clarity. Readers want that, too, and it’s so easy to make your reader’s happiness rival Evangeline’s. Here’s all you need:

·         Intrigue with premises, possibly false.
·         Breed hypotheses, possibly true.
·         Plant clues, for both protagonist and reader.
·         Make the protagonist heroic yet vulnerable.
·         Make the reader both worry over and feel confident about the protagonist.
·         Tempt with side trips and false alarms.
·         Increase the level of difficulty, for both protagonist and reader.
·         Mislead. Just enough so it’s not cheating.
·         Provide the missing evidence.

Tip: Not every novel’s about fossils. But every novel’s about finding mysterious, half-hidden treasures. Make the fictional journey an adventure, not just for the protagonist, but for the reader.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

“Hamlet” and the Concept of Story

If you can possibly see American Players Theater’s superb version of Hamlet or any other version, go for it. Why would today’s novelists care? Because this isn’t just a psychoanalysis of a neurotic guy or a righting of the moral order (“The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!”). Shakespeare tackles the nature of storytelling itself.

The play cleverly opens with someone other than Hamlet confirming the validity of his murdered father’s ghost. We know the ghost is “real.” But only Hamlet hears the instruction to wreak revenge, and “there’s the rub.” Does the ghost seek justice, or does it ascend from hell to doom Hamlet’s soul? In other words, how do we know what’s true?

The entire play flirts with this. Hamlet looks to theatre for the answer. He’ll study the king’s response to a dramatization of the ghost’s version of events: “The play’s the thing,/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

To gather information, Hamlet feigns madness. Yet even Ophelia’s ridiculous dad (Polonious) says of Hamlet, “this be madness, yet there is method in‘t.” Method indeed. Hamlet’s step-father (Claudius) freaks at the re-enactment of how he poisoned his brother to steal throne and queen. It’s a lot more convincing than mere “Words, words, words.”

But when Hamlet unwittingly kills his “girlfriend” Ophelia’s father, she goes quite literally mad. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Now Hamlet’s supposed friends become enemies, and enemies (like Ophelia’s vengeful brother) become friends. Treacherous Claudius convicts himself, leading directly to “The rest is silence.” The play concludes with nearly every character dead, and only Hamlet’s loyal friend Horatio left to fulfill Hamlet’s last request: “Tell my story.”

This tragedy transcends one story to capture the power of storytelling itself—an art so persuasive that Plato wanted to drive all storytellers from the city. As a novelist, you’re a storyteller, and whatever genre you write in, this play teaches some new old tricks.

~ Convince us. (Shakespeare uses a ghost to prove that Hamlet isn’t mad.)

~ Tease us. (The ghost is tangible. But is its message real?)

~ Play us. (Hamlet refuses to be played on like an instrument. But in the end, he, too, is dead, as we both did and didn’t expect.)

~ Entertain us. (Even in this tragedy, there’s flirtation, sensuality, and both wry and broad humor. Tragedy needs humor; humor needs edge.)

~ Persuade us. (As Hamlet puts it, “More matter with less art.” Focus on the substance, not just the style.)

~ Move us. (The uncertainty, pain, vulnerability, and courage—Hamlet is all of us.)

Tip: As Cole Porter put it, “Brush up your Shakespeare.” You won’t be sorry.