Sunday, January 27, 2013

“Downton Abbey’s” Back

When last Sunday’s episode ended, it seemed that it’d only just begun. How did fifty + minutes fly like that? Again, there’s food for novelist thought here.

·         Rich characters. An impractical earl, a questionably charming new footman, and a morally impeccable convict defy every stereotype. These characters—and all characters—emotionally engage us by transcending type. In this episode, every character, however minor, is both individual and representative, both specific and universal. That’s every storyteller’s goal.

·         Interwoven subplots. Each character’s tribulations must impinge on every other character’s. This weaves not a series of brief, tangentially related stories but one gorgeously unified tapestry with no visible evidence of the separate threads that produced it.

·         Moral dilemma. This has driven story since the origin of the form. The classic conflict is a character passionately loving someone with a different ethical code. Whether the moral center is how to run the estate, maintain honor, or treat the employees, there’s genuine trouble if the beloved does not agree. This is in fact the very worst trouble of all, because how can the protagonist choose between love and morality. What terrible trouble! And trouble drives stories. Otherwise, there’s no point in telling them.

·         Cultural upheaval. Context for individual dilemma not only adds a layer of texture but deepens understanding of the characters inhabiting a world. No one ever lives in a vacuum. Culture impinges on everyone—and always has.

Novelists can find much to gnaw on in the unfolding of this story—not to mention the bliss of following “Downton Abbey’s” characters through the twists and turns of their lives.

Tip: Train yourself to study the machinery of story in everything you watch and read.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Not at All yet Completely New

At a Mount Holyoke College commencement speech, Pulitzer Prize winner Anna Quindlen warned that “Every story has already been told. Once you’ve read ‘Anna Karenina,’ ‘Bleak House,’ ‘The Sound and the Fury,’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and ‘A Wrinkle in Time,’ you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel.” Now that’s discouraging! But then she added this: “Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had.”

How true. And it isn’t just that each writer has an individual voice. Unless that voice captivates—and instantly—then we’ve heard it before, and it’s yesterday’s news.

Writing about death, dragons, and denial? Nothing new there. But watch what D. L. Burnett does in this passage from “In the Kingdom of the Dragons”:

“Death wasn’t as easy as Gaspotine the Dark expected. He tried denying it, choosing to believe this a fever-induced nightmare. Or perhaps he’d stayed in the Continuum too long and exhausted his flesh. Shortly he’d return to his Cavern of Diamonds, strong and virile.

The Niede, a primordial instinct like hunger and thirst but ninety-three times worse, demanded his spirit rejoin his body. He tried again and again until he’d lost half his mist.
He must really be dead.

Gaspotine thrashed his tail. The tip flew off. Shocked, he froze. These deteriorations had never happened before. But then he’d never died before, either.

Code decreed another Dragon must devour his remains, easing his spirit’s permanent transition into the Continuum, preventing him from returning to dead flesh. Tallasha the Resplendent had done that, but without diminishing the Niede.

Dragons shouldn’t die, especially the greatest current rider, Gaspotine the Dark.”

By creating a new world for us, Burnett offers insight into our own world. Imagine a Continuum where we survive after we’ve died, where we can ride silver waves and see the future. Imagine the lifeless body struggling to merge with the surviving spirit. Imagine feeling yourself too powerful—too special—for death to claim?

These are a dragon’s feelings. But how many humans have experienced them? More than empathy entices here (and empathy for dragons is pretty special): It’s the voice. Snappy sentences set off long ones; strong verbs like “thrashed,” “flew,” “froze,” and “devour” propel this forward.

The other strength here is harnessing the external to convey feelings. This wouldn’t work if Gaspotine whined about weakness, frustration, and anger. Instead, Burnett supplies the concreteness of “fever,” “Diamonds,” “hunger,” “thirst,” and the specificity of “ninety-three.” Those images lay a foundation for the shocking cannibalism of the Code and grip of “the Niede.” Burnett’s voice creates this new world—and our empathy for this tormented dragon.

Tip: It’s not necessarily your job to offer something “new.” It’s your job to use your voice to make whatever you describe feel completely new.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Full or Frantic?

 Like many Americans and Brits, last Sunday I tuned in to “Downton Abbey” with anticipatory pleasure. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it. But I also sensed two issues I’d never noticed before, both relevant to the craft of the novel.

The first is self-consciousness. Who knows what the writers or cast actually think, but it almost seems as if concern about rivaling past performance swallowed the freshness and vitality of past seasons. This kind of pressure often surfaces when you let yourself worry if you’ll ever outdo the success of the last great season, scene, or sentence.

Once you enter “worry” mode, you might just decide that the solution is to add more. More of what? Why not everything? This can generate a deluge of detail, sub-plots, minor characters, imagery—everything but the kitchen sink, and if you’re desperate enough, maybe that, too. Here’s the danger:

Tip: Blurred focus makes for perilous pace.

That’s true not only for scenes but also individual sentences. The too-much-of-everything
syndrome can generate a painful irony: Clutter feels simultaneously frantic and tedious, hectic and monotonous. How do you solve this?

·         Remind yourself that for most writers, early drafts don’t start out great. But if they’ve been great before, they will be again. Then you’ll have the confidence to streamline.

·         Streamline not by offering tons of everything, but one or two or maybe three additions that really work, whether it’s a detail, sub-plot, image, or clause.

·         Emphasize what matters. That sounds easy, but if you want readers to grasp significance, you must first identify it yourself. That can be less obvious than you imagine.

·         Finally, offer an uncluttered view of what you want readers to see. That means you’ll have to cut. And that’s okay. Because “Downton Abbey” acquired the fame it enjoys by doing lots of things right. That means it’s highly likely that it will do most things right again. Guess what? So will you.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Resuming the Routine

“I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired to write at 9 o’clock every morning.” ~Peter De Vries

Right now the media are bursting with resolution tips. Naturally. If your resolutions are worth anything, it’s tough to keep them, particularly following the holidays. During this time most of us—in every way—have been less rather than more disciplined than usual. But before you throw up your hands in abject despair about writing at least as well or much, give yourself a break, then a push, in as quick succession as possible.

Vacations, wonderful as they are, always make the first day back to work taxing. It’s not just that you have to catch up; you have to remind your mind how to do this, much the way you remind your muscles what to do if you’ve been deprived of exercise for a while. The good news is that eventually you do the work, reclaim your mind, restore your muscles.

Writing’s the same, and a few reminders may help you recapture your routines more quickly and comfortably.

·         Don’t fight.
The harder you are on yourself, then the longer it will take.

·         Don’t demand more until you catch up.
If you ran a mile every day before, you can’t run five miles if you didn’t run at all for three whole weeks.

·         Do fastidiously record all the great ideas you encountered when not thinking about your writing at all.
These can be the deepest, most exciting ones. Take advantage.

·         Do remind yourself that you created your own routine.
It can feel challenging, tedious or both, but it also comforts. You developed this practice because it works for you—and it will again.

·         Do accept that routine matters.
A large percentage of writing quotes remind that the more you treat writing like any other “job,” the better and more productive you’ll be. Here’s Harlan Ellison: “Anyone can become a writer. The trick is staying a writer.”

Tip: The writers who get farthest fastest set goals, and, with needed adjustments, they keep them.