Sunday, May 26, 2013

Commemorating Novelists

Memorial Day is a three-day weekend, a celebration of summer, and a much-deserved respite. But it’s important to remember to remember—commemorating and expressing gratitude. For writers, a nice way to reflect is T.S. Eliot’s quote about our literary ancestors:  “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

We know them. They influence us, whether we acknowledge it or not, so we probably ought to. Every story is different, of course: Your own voice, scenario, nuance on classic character roles. But where would your characters be without Mark Twain’s Jim? Where would your scenario be without Hawthorne’s cruel and gorgeous scarlet letter? Novelists have always reflected and changed their world—and all of them helped create yours.

To acknowledge just a few giants, start with Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse, on the universality of human emotion:

“It was love, she thought, love that never clutched its object; but, like the love which mathematicians bear their symbols, or poets their phrases, was meant to be spread over the world and become part of human gain. The world by all means should have shared it, could Mr. Bankes have said why that woman pleased him so; why the sight of her reading a fairy tale to her boy had upon him precisely the same effect as the solution of a scientific problem.”

 Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness lets us glimpse the dark places of the world—and inside our selves:

Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances. On silvery sandbanks hippos and alligators sunned themselves side by side. The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away in another existence perhaps. There were moments when one’s past came back to one, as it will sometimes when you have not a moment to spare to yourself; but it came in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence. And this stillness of life did not in the least resemble a peace. It was the stillness of an implacable force brooding over an inscrutable intention. It looked at you with a vengeful aspect.”

Or Jane Austen, from Persuasion, on our man’s world:

“’I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.’

‘Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.’” 

In The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene reflects on the human capacity to give and love—and what that costs: “If one knew, [Scobie] wondered, the facts, would one have to pity even the planets? If one reached what they called the heart of the matter?” 

Herman Melville’s ending to Moby Dick evokes the loneliness of the long-distance everyone: “On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.”

Maybe your memory of Ishmael isn’t that we’re all lost at sea but that someone made you read the thing. Maybe you’d rather have skipped it. Doesn’t matter. These aren’t just books we’ve read (or pretended to). These stories shape what we are—and therefore what we write, or aspire to. What novelist could hope for a better memorial?

Tip: Read widely in contemporary fiction—in your own genre. But never forget those who made your genre what it is.

Science fiction started with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the mystery story with Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Pay attention to what brought you to your own story. Who knows what you might start?

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Fire and Ice in Fiction

Zeal and discipline. Spontaneity and rigor. In the preface to Lyrical Ballads, William Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”  That applies to lots more than poetry. Unrestrained passion followed by meticulous craft describes not only all writing, but probably all art.

The trick lies in the definitions of “passion” and “craft." In a well-known quotation from Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott claims that the only way she “can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.”

Perhaps. But the problem with writing “crap” is how hard, not to mention discouraging, it is to write past it later on. Besides, quite a substantial gap exists between the stench of dung and the flame of creativity. Maybe Lamott meant that first drafts must emerge impulsively. By all means. Better, though, write not because you have a deadline or think you should or hope to make lots of money. Write because you have to, because you have no choice. Fire like that usually ignites fire in whoever reads what you wrote.

But fire rarely accomplishes the whole deal. Yes, many of the most glorious lines are born without labor pains, like Aphrodite arising from the seafoam. But every serious writer knows that you’ve got to manage all those other lines. As Ernest Hemingway said about revising the ending of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times, it’s about “getting the words right.” Or, as Joseph Pulitzer put it, “these ten or twenty lines might readily represent a whole day’s hard work in the way of concentrated, intense thinking and revision, polish of style, weighing of words.” And here’s Elmore Leonard on the climax: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Tip: There’s something magical about translating passion into language, then translating passionate language into words so startlingly clear and vivid that they sound effortless.

Except the sensation of effortlessness, like a fabulous musical comedy or garden or quiche or basketball game demands enormous effort. It just doesn’t show.

Are there strategies for accomplishing "emotion" + "tranquility"? For the fire:

·         Neither censor too much nor little.
·         Don’t try to sound like anyone but you.
·         Run a little wild: flirt, giggle, tease, endanger, glorify.
·         Take risks: pick a dangerous, glamorous, unlikely possibility. Follow it.

For the ice:

·         Be patient. Excellence is a slow uphill climb.
·         Be rigorous. Don’t talk yourself out of what you know you ought to fix.
·         Be aware of the rules. It’s great to break them, but only intentionally.
·         Be confident. If you want this badly enough, you can earn it.

Don’t let the ice douse the fire. Use it to temper the right amount of light and heat.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Novelist’s Neglected Child

The middle child syndrome is prevalent enough to earn entry in the Urban Dictionary.  Dr. Touraj Shafai defines this as a child “not getting enough attention and love because the parents are busy and providing more attention and care to the oldest and the youngest children.”

Does this reflect how novelists sometimes view their work? “I’m busily revising my opening till it’s practically perfect,” one writer tells another. “The end is what turns me on” is the reply. “Fireworks! Transformed characters! Completed arcs!” Many novelists revel in either the inciting incident or the climax, neglecting the middle brainchild.

It could be that the middle drags along, lacking direction, constantly rambling about the past, and describing everything while doing very little. Your listless one can evoke exhausted listlessness in its originator. Yes, the middle is the difficult position, and difficult is usually the least loved.  The middle offspring faces:

·         Sluggishness.
·         Redundancy.
·         Arrested development.
·         Obsession with the past.
·         Stagnation.
·         Precocious urge to figure out and solve everything—instantly.

No wonder the novelist wants to concentrate on the thrilling potential of the youngster or urbane sophistication of the one beautifully grown.  But like a good parent, a good novelist loves all three offspring, and as equally as possible.

There’s hope—plenty of it, actually, for the middle, the one raising those offspring, and those encountering them in a book that works from start to finish.

Tip: The middle is where all the fun happens.

You can bring out the best in your under-appreciated middle with:

v  Defeat.

Are you coddling the middle of your novel like a sensitive child? If so, stop.  Make trouble. Trap. Corner. Ravage your characters. They might object, but your readers never will.

v  Motivation.

Which events and pressures cause the protagonist to change and grow?

v  Foreshadowing.

How can you hint—neither invisibly nor obviously—what’s ahead?

v  Surprise.

Is the middle one a little obstreperous? If not, time to encourage that. After all, psychologists are divided over whether it’s a desirable or difficult position to hold. Go for desirable.

v  Resonance.

How can the middle integrate what precedes with what follows? Echoes are great fun. Let readers enjoy them.

v  Insight.

Isn’t the fun of the novel the journey rather than the arrival? That’s where this child really shines. Take advantage.

Love the beginning, middle, and end equally—and your readers will, too.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Good Guy, the Bad Guy, and the Opening

The average novel reader wants the protagonist to offer above-average appeal—instantly. The antagonist can be more leisurely. Unless the character evokes a big, fat yawn or shrug, you have more time to build in complication. But how do you get the protagonist to compel readers right away?

·         Raise the stakes.
Make whatever the character must gain or transcend mightily important.
·         Make us believe—absolutely—in the value of those stakes.
Ideally, the stakes aren’t just personal but also moral and social.
·         Incorporate vulnerability.
Male or female, this is a hero—but one cursed with an Achilles Heel.
·         Promote empathy.
Readers care most about protagonists who remind them of themselves.
·         Give your protagonist a fighting chance.
Why risk life or limb if there’s no hope of saving the drowning baby, the dying country, the vanishing world? If your hero can hope, so can we.

Once your protagonist begins the journey of dreadful choices resulting in personal growth, you can simultaneously develop protagonist and antagonist as they impinge on each other. How do you make your bad guy terribly, terribly bad, yet not exclusively so?

·         Even the stakes.
If we already know that the antagonist must or can’t win, why read the story?
·         Share the antagonist’s version of truth and justice.
Help us believe this interpretation, however wrong it obviously seems.
·         Humanize the antagonist.
Does he contemplate murder yet always produce a Mother’s Day card? Is he your own version of “Mad Men’s” disgusting yet intriguing Don Draper?
·         Sprinkle in a smattering of backstory.
If you had as rough a deal as your antagonist, maybe you’d tell that story also?
·         Make the antagonist mirror us.
Help us see, understand, and better accept our own foibles.
Tip: Make your protagonist instantly appealing and your antagonist potentially complex.