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.