Sunday, October 27, 2013

Beauty and the Written Word

People rarely compare novels or the sentences composing them to sonnets or cathedrals, to sculpture or symphonies. Yet the artistry is parallel—meticulous engineering that results in capacity to mesmerize. Great plots amaze: A woman proves her loyalty by each night unraveling the tapestry she’ll reweave the next day; a man dooms ship and crew because he confuses the death of a white whale with justice; a boy travels down the Mississippi fleeing “sivilization” and finds it in a runaway’s heart, or a girl discovers how many kinds of mockingbirds exist and why they deserve protection.

What makes these plots gorgeous? For a start, each says something not just important, but profoundly so—about who people are and who they might become. Each plot synthesizes behavior and thought, proving its hypothesis with events both probable and essential—each incident leading inevitably to the climax. That has the haunting power of a symphony, no?

Novels depend on plot. But the best novels contain sentences rivaling the magnificence of scenario, scene, or theme. Here’s a tiny sample.

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”  -- Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

“All he knew, really, was digging.  He dug to eat, to breathe, to live and sleep.  He dug because the earth was there beneath his feet, and men paid him to move it.  He dug because it was a sacrament, because it was honorable and holy.” -- T. Coraghessan Boyle, “The Underground Gardens”

“The aspects of his life not related to grilling now seemed like mere blips of extraneity between the poundingly recurrent moments when he ignited the mesquite and paced the deck, avoiding smoke. Shutting his eyes, he saw twisted boogers of browning meats on a grille of chrome and hellish coals. The eternal broiling, broiling of the damned.” --Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections

How do you start producing increasingly beautiful sentences?

  • Know what you want to say—something original. Important. Yours alone.
  • Listen for rhythm—in everything you read or hear. It begins with noticing.
  • Explore all five senses, and “explore” never means the first thing that leaps to mind.
  • Replace vague, distancing constructions like “There were” and “It is.” Tighten up. Get close.
  • Take risks. But take them thoughtfully.
  • Never rationalize the weaknesses you pretend not to notice in your prose. Ever.

 Tip: Aspire to beauty. You’ll never let your readers down.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Getting off the Ground

Planes taxi plenty before liftoff. Add a scheduling or weather problem, and they idle in their spot on the runway as passengers grow increasingly irritated. The passengers are stuck. Readers, however, are not.

Unless you get underway swiftly, readers might simply opt for a different journey. They don’t want to wait to hear the safety instructions or weather report at their destination. They simply want to be en route to it. Yet writers sometimes treat readers like trapped passengers.

Why not let readers feel they achieved altitude without all those preliminaries?

~ Establish what’s at stake.
Immediately. Infuse that opening trouble/conflict/problem with as much tension and emotion as you can muster--because it has to be big enough to build a book on.
~ Start with a straightforward event.
Self-explanatory incidents generate the greatest suspense. Avoid situations that necessitate lots of complicated set up.
~ Limit backstory.
Explain what you must. Stop there. As Don Maass once put it at a conference in Madison, “Once you’re 70% of the way through your novel, you can have as much backstory as you want.” Not before, though.
~ Make things move.
Not every novel includes adventure, or needs to. But contrast spilling the contents of a shopping cart with worry over some sort of trouble occurring in the supermarket. Big difference between those.
~ Add context.
But limit yourself to who, what, where, when, why. No one likes to be lost. But no one’s reading your novel to get directions, either.
~ Emphasize the physical.
Commenting on the protagonist’s problems is the equivalent of “telling.” Focus on what happens both to build scene and eliminate everything interfering with it.
~ Watch the metaphors.
Even if yours are great, don’t overwhelm at the start. The opening is a place to connect with characters and empathize with their troubles. Make that the focus.
~ Set the tone.
Don’t mislead by promising humor, sex, or adventure that never reappears after page two.

No one likes waiting.

Tip: Don’t request patience at your novel’s beginning. Instead? Just begin.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Please don’t shout!

Readers “hear” perfectly well and dislike what amounts to fiction that hollers: Bold, CAPS, italics, underlining, delineating, explaining what the scene will or did express.

Tip: Shouting is patronizing. Who appreciates patronizing?

And yet it’s rampant. Insecurity plays a major role. Consciously or not, many writers think, “I don’t write well enough to make my point, so I’ll just clarify. And in case someone reads extremely quickly, I’ll just clarify again. And slip in a bit of special formatting. How can that hurt?”

It can. Lots. Lower your voice, please. Did you ever notice how many people raise their voices with children, dogs, and English-as-a-Second-Language speakers? However inadvertent, even well-meaning, yelling comes across as insult. Its source is a different kind of mistrust—not of self but audience. Maybe they’re too young, too almost-American, or too downright canine. Yet people resent this, and perhaps even dogs feel the same way. If they don’t understand about asking to go out when they need to, yelling won’t clarify. This applies to readers, as well. Yelling isn’t more clear—just more annoying.

But don’t throw up your hands in despair or join Screechers Anonymous. A few super-serious questions might help.

~ Do you value your theme more than your plot?
That could make anyone scream, so evaluate your priorities.
~ Are you writing literary or mainstream?
Such readers are particularly quick to sniff out condescension.
~ Are you applying the speech formula to your novel?
Fiction gives you one shot, not hinting the point, making it, and then reviewing.
~ Does your scene require special effects for clarity and intensity?
If so, revise your scene. Use your words.
~ Aren’t italics or bold legitimate in some instances?
            Of course, but you’ll do better pretending no such instances exist.
~ Have you revised enough to feel good about your manuscript?
Then let it speak for itself. Please.

If you’ve ever stood in a bookstore or used book sale checking novel after novel to see which ones you want, consider why you put some back. Though cloaked in many disguises, the issue is often “Too condescending—and I get enough of that at work.”

Whispering, insinuating, suggesting, demonstrating all beat bellowing. Every time. Bury the megaphone. Unclip the microphone. Try whispering. Is there really a better way to make people lean in and listen?

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Who’s Doing the Heavy Lifting?

People read fiction for various reasons—escape, entertainment, and illumination, information, or insight. But probably not one reader would add “enduring an exhausting workout” to that list. That’s what the gym—and the job—are for.

Tip: The less hard the writer works, the harder the readers have to.

Novelists can fatigue readers with what they put in or leave out. Here’s a partial list:

  • Picturing context for the characters.
  • Transitioning between moments, places, and external/internal realms.
  • Shifting point of view.
  • Including numerous characters.
  • Assigning distracting character names.
  • Introducing ambiguous metaphors.
  • Isolating images, subplots, and themes.
  • Composing lengthy sentences with multiple phrases and clauses.

Many readers enjoy ambiguity; that isn’t on the list. Readers don’t enjoy having to guess and compute. Sometimes that’s unvoidable. Attempt to make everything clear and easy, and you could wind up sounding graceless and boring. As often applies to the craft of fiction, balance is the key. These questions help test whether you make readers cope with something they needn’t.

  • Do you ground your characters in physical space?
  • Do you avoid unnecessary shifts, especially of short duration?
  • Do you transition whenever you change time, place, point of view, etc.?
  • Do you include the smallest number of characters you can get away with?
  • Do your characters have accessible names, i.e. as close to familiar as credibly possible?
  • Do taglines help identify characters, i.e. the one with green eyes or that oversized purse?
  • Do character names start with the same letter or sound similar?
  • Does every symbolic reference make complete sense on the literal level?
  • Do you weave imagery into motifs, or recurrent patterns?
  • Does every single subplot link to the central one?
  • Are your themes tied both to the protagonist and to each other?
  • Do you divide sentences for rhythm, variety, and clarity?

 Responding to all these questions sounds like a lot of work. It sure is. Novelists are supposed to work hard so readers don’t have to. Occasionally, you’ll have no choice: The plot or theme or psychological exploration simply demands a certain amount not of obscurity, but of complexity. Just be able to honestly justify asking your readers to “work.” And never put them on duty more often than you can help.