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.