Sunday, April 28, 2013

To Haunt: Novels that Last Forever

“Haunt” displays an intriguing variety of meanings, especially when applied to novels. It’s a “hangout”—a place where the minds of novelist, readers and characters meet. The word also means “preoccupy”—to take hold of you in a positive way. Other definitions include “revisit,” as in repeatedly reappearing or to “inhabit,” as in permanently entering your mind, even soul. In contrast, there’s to “plague,” making you notice, remember, or understand what you’d rather ignore. The really good novels stay with you both for what you love and what you reluctantly understand or accept that you didn’t before.

What makes a novel haunt? It’s not the plot. Those details quickly disappear. What lingers?

·         Characters more gripping, complex and poignant than anyone you know.
·         Emotions real and familiar, yet startling in their complexity.
·         Ideas that you always knew but didn’t know you did.

Most novelists keep a mental list of the novels that haunted them. My most recent addition is Andrew Winer’s “The Marriage Artist,” the most haunting novel I’ve read since Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding.”

Why does Winer’s novel haunt?

Characters: Dysfunctional and deeply flawed, yet empathetic.

Plot Intertwining: The fate of Jews in 1928 Vienna and the contemporary N.Y. art scene.

Symbolism: The graphic imagery that gives the novel its title.

Insight: Big issues, like religion, terror, marriage, art, jealousy, compulsion. 

Secrets: Dispensed with exactly the right amount of detail at the exactly right moments.

Texture: As reviewer Betsey Van Horn put it, “Saul Bellow meets Stephen King.”

Your details will obviously differ completely. But whether or not you read this novel, you can use similar characterization, plot, and other techniques to make your own novel haunt.

Where do you start? Try visualizing three or four of your favorite novels. What do you remember? Why do you remember it? Decide what’s memorable about your own novel. Change, add, or enrich as needed.

Tip: Identify the aspect of your novel that readers will never forget. Remember not to forget it while writing and revising.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

It’s Spring: Take a Risk!

Stick your head through the dirt and you could get frosted. Open fragile petals to blazing sunlight, and you could get burnt. Scenes are similar; it feels safer to proceed cautiously. Few would mind year after year of early, sunny rebirth with just the right amount of rain (preferably at night). But if every scene feels the same, then—every scene feels the same!

The problem starts with structure. Scenes usually begin with a hook and a location. Soon after, the scene goal is introduced. The characters grapple with that for a bit, the tension rises, and then at some intriguingly unresolved moment, there’s another hook to launch the next scene.

Perhaps you’ll argue that everyone does it this way every time because there’s no other way to do it. Maybe. Maybe not?

Tip:  Unless your scenes suggest varied goals, rhythms, and patterns, then a sense of redundancy will diminish your novel as a whole.

It’s spring, time to prune, clean out old habits, dress up old plantings, and seed something new. Apply the following strategies to your scenes. Not all of them will work every time, and some will take effort to engineer, especially at first. But this is a great time to experiment, when it feels as if the air itself is warm and moist with energy.

v  If you always start with a hook about immediate psychological threat, how about replacing that with a hook about the environment? Something breaks down, as things constantly do. Maybe the weather’s about to change or the old furnace about to give out. Look for new ways to begin.

v  If you always start with a hook about physical threat, what if the danger is psychological instead? Or the reverse.

v  If most of your scenes begin outside or inside, switch that. If many of your scenes begin with someone en route, start with them already there.

v  If you always give your protagonist a new worry as the scene closes, try making your protagonist happy and cheerful but clueing readers in on what a false, false hope this is.

v  If you always resolve each scene, stop before the end. Begin a new chapter in medias res with an interrupted scene.

v  Or keep readers wondering how—and if—they ever resolved that issue.

v  If you always present the setting and then the hook, try the opposite order. Better yet, integrate setting and hook into a single sentence—but not every time.

Play with the goal of doing one thing in a truly different way—for each scene. This not only vitalizes scenes but forces you to probe beneath the surface. That’ll provide a bountiful harvest in ways you haven’t even imagined yet.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Right Through It; Write Through It

Every writer knows about those trouble spots, resembling a stain on your best jacket. No matter how you struggle, it’s still right there, usually in the forefront, where it’s the first thing anyone sees. You have options for fixing the jacket: Replace it, dye it, take it to the cleaner’s.

You have options for refurbishing  your novel, also. Sometimes you can’t write the sentence, describe the character, or articulate that bit of backstory because…you don’t actually need to. That’s when you should draw your pen, pencil, or cursor right through it. How can you tell if that’s smart thinking? These questions might help.

1.      What does the scene lose if I omit this detail, description, or character?
2.      What does the novel lose if I just omit this scene?
3.      Is my point here so obvious that I can’t find a new way to frame it?
4.      Is my point here so convoluted that I can’t find a smooth way to express it?
5.      Is the issue that I don’t know what the heck I want to say?

The first four questions often suggest the “right through it” approach. The last one, though, begs for the “write through it” approach.

Let’s say you decide that you would cheat your readers by omitting that detail, sentence, or scene. But maybe you’ve already struggled until you doubt there’s enough chocolate in the world to fix those words or your frustration over them. The trick is tricking yourself into fresh strategies and restored energy (it can be a renewable resource). Here’s a bag of tricks.

ü  Command yourself to rework this passage for fifteen minutes.
ü  Forbid yourself to revise this section for more than fifteen minutes. (No cheating.)
ü  Fix one thing bothering you: the verb, the image, even the punctuation.
ü  Fiddle with this section for five minutes at the start or end of each writing session.
ü  Change the point of view. (Just for fun.)
ü  Change the character motivation. (Potentially even more fun.)
ü  Think about what you want to say every night for a minute before falling asleep. One morning you’ll awake knowing what you wanted to say and how to say it.

Tip: You’ll write happier by differentiating “right through it” from “write through it.”

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Look at Me!!!!!!

A friend asked me to look over her realtor’s listing of her house. The EXCITING copy I read offered exclamation point after exclamation point! New listing! Priced to sell! Cute! Quaint! Comfy! Just what you’re looking for!

Perhaps. But I’d rather be shown the reasons why it’s just what I’m looking for. Specify that, and you can omit all the in-your-face manipulation, which won’t convince me, anyhow. Exclamation points, caps, and even some instances of italics are like SHOUTING IN THE READER’S FACE! And, as the always understated F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.” How funny can that be?

Exclamation points are symptomatic of a larger problem. How much do you trust your reader? How much do you trust your own words? If you mistakenly believe you feel that trust, or hope that grinding your teeth hard enough will make it so, all is lost! You’ll state. You’ll tell. You’ll bludgeon. You’ll smear your scenes with abstractions.

Don’t reduce emotion to vague abstractions like “anguish,” “terror,” or “ardor.”
Don’t tell us what to think. You won’t convince us, just annoy us.
Don’t think that describing character emotions helps readers feel them. That’s just another way of saying “Quaint! Comfy! Just what you’re looking for!”

Do imply. The best clues are the ones readers just barely absorb.
Do offer imagery. If we can see, hear, taste, smell, or touch it, that’s when readers experience the scene right along with the characters.
Do understate. The more tragic and dramatic the emotion, then the more quietly you should whisper when conveying it.

If you don’t trust your readers and your novel, the best way to address that is to revise until you feel good about what you’ve written. Real evidence on the page helps you relinquish control to offer readers the inference they prefer. Yes, this involves the risk that they might miss something you long to share.  But it’s always better not to make your point than to pummel readers with it.

Tip: Unless there’s a fire (!) or someone needs help (!), not a bad idea to pretend that exclamation points and other intrusive gimmicks don’t even exist.