Sunday, December 29, 2013

New, New, New, New, New

We’re starting a new year, which arrives with a flurry of resolutions, hopes, and dreams about a new start. Nu? What have you done to make your novel “new” lately? If you haven’t, perhaps you’d like to. Because our word for the long narrative comes from the Latin “novellus,” meaning, of course, “new.”

A novel that does nothing new is last year’s news. While it’s truer than ever that “there is nothing new under the sun,” it’s your job to make your novel feel new. These strategies might get you started.

~ Opening.
Link the setting and atmosphere to the dilemma, and any location or conflict becomes original.

~ Plot
Dig deep. As Don Maass frequently reminds, the first nine twists you generate will most likely lack the punch of the ones you brainstorm following that.

~ Character
Whore with a heart of gold? Quarterback who wants to make it big so he can save his family? Whores and quarterbacks—why not. Stereotypical ones? Uh, uh. Make one major change, be it status, dreams, occupation, even gender. Shake things up.

~ Syntax
Sentence structure is important and it’s not necessarily instinctive and English teachers aren’t the only ones who loathe run-ons and so you should get out of the rut. Vary. Change patterns. Transcend habits, even if that requires conscious, concerted effort.

~ Imagery
Roses are red. Skies are blue. Tears equal sad. Spring equals happy. Roses come in a rainbow of colors, as do skies. And character tears can make readers quite sad—for the wrong reason. Can’t find anything new for your scene? Turn it upside down. Probe its core. That’s where the imagery you need is hiding.

~ Climax.
If readers have expected a set scene for a couple hundred pages, don’t rob them of that pleasure. Still, satisfaction blends the predictable with the startling. One perfect detail will get the job done. Again, the secret is discarding the first dozen or so possibilities. The great ones come from thinking long and hard enough.

Tip: Resolve to find ways to make your novel “new” in this new year.

Have a happy one.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Musing on Sylvia Gilbertson's "The Muse"

Writing about art takes chutzpah. Synesthesia—the sound of sculpture, the words for the music—is even less easily experienced than articulated. And a novel about art must convey the beauty and mystery it chases. That’s what Sylvia Gilbertson’s The Muse pulls off.

“ love with the loneliness of night” at a very young age, Ada “slipped into the hallway to draw Christmas trees, flying cats, birds with long purple feathers, herself like some foreign orange flame bolting off the edge of the paper.”

But by the time Ada reaches Italy to study the great masters, her imitation of them has transformed her into an imitation of herself. She hadn’t noticed, so she's shocked when her professoressa warns: “’Child,’ she said. ‘I offer you the words of Paul Gauguin. L’art est la plagiat ou la révolution. Do you understand? Art is either plagiarism or revolution.’”

Conventionality—too much pedestrian comfort—is the enemy, at least for Ada. She needs someone to light her fire. This turns out to be the leonine Michel. In his presence, she sees how “The tree trunks sharpened, flattened, and became two-dimensional, as if painted onto a giant canvas installation in some avant-garde outdoor museum.”

Like any good muse, Michel not only inspires; he teaches her to see that "the silvery bark was still smooth and taut, rippling like Michelangelo’s strong and slinky forearms and thighs. The dappled sunlight spattered them with mottled shadows that drew out their grain, their resplendent curves. They were as hard and beautiful as sex."

Michel incites Ada’s personal revolution—reclaiming the self she traded in for easier choices:

"She rolled off the bed and lay naked on the floor. The cool tiles pressed against her buttocks and the backs of her thighs, but her forehead still burned. She flung her arms up and closed her eyes. The voluptuous orange sound was bearing down on her. Then she could see it next to her, the gleaming black shape of a piano leg looming out of the color. The squirming source of music above her. A cosmic web revealed. And the world tilted."

Gilbertson fuses tradition with originality, archetype with individuality, and art with sex. It all adds up to a romp through Italy, sensuality, and the magic a muse can make.

Tip: Probe beneath the surface for the hidden connections that take novels beyond the pleasurable to the eye-opening.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Goldilocks and the Novelist’s Perspective

Figuring out what your reader needs can resemble being lost in a deep, dangerous forest, where every possibility seems overwhelmingly excessive or inadequate. No, you’re not hunting a bowl of porridge. But if you need to describe one, how can you know what’s neither too much nor too little but just right?

One of the wisest and most appealing dads from all literature had an answer. Atticus Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird advised going outside yourself: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

That’s no easier to accomplish writing fiction than outside it. Still, objective diagnosis might just help you “climb inside.”

Novelists tend to focus on plot and language. While both are crucial, neither gets you “inside” anyone. These elements might.

~ External and internal detail.
Most writers lean on one or the other, but readers need both. To fulfill that need, consciously evaluate whether every scene offers inner and outer worlds.

~ Immediacy from the character and guidance from the narrator.
Context—in the right amount and at the right moments—lets readers experience the greatest possible appreciation of the conflict.

~ Distance and proximity.
Readers love close-ups of characters, but those close-ups become most meaningful when readers see both character dilemma and the impact that the outside world exerts on it.

Although these tools help you diagnose, you’ll still wonder if there’s a surfeit of psychoanalysis or setting—whether this detail makes the scene vivid or clutters it.  You’ll still need readers to help you, probably more than one of them and definitely ones with no agenda. Beware input from those who love you or your genre to pieces or envy you enough to contemplate tearing you to pieces.

Start, though, with imagining the world from under the reader’s “skin.” Then you’ll have your eye on a balance of those complex ingredients that make every novel more than the sum of its parts.

After all, Goldilocks is a kind of magic, an improbable tale of anthropomorphic bears who still resonate after all this time. The dream of balance both underlies that magic and helps create it. Balance the frequently ignored elements of fiction and you, too, can make magic by creating a world so real and welcoming that no one ever wants to leave. Because it’s “just right.”

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Wink at Alison Anderson’s "Darwin’s Wink"

Molly Giles, author of Iron Shoes and other fiction, described Anderson’s novel as “A love story, a war story, an ecological adventure, a biological poem, and a treatise on the fragility of life—Darwin’s Wink has it all..... Like the elusive, bejeweled mourning bird it celebrates, this book will waken its readers to unexpected wonders.”

Anderson’s novel is indeed exquisite, with wonderful tension in terms of danger as well as philosophy and morality. Yet not plot but idiosyncratic character and theme drive its momentum. That isn’t a recipe for everyone, and most writers are better off using quotation marks though not italics (especially inconsistent ones).

Still, this book offers numerous lessons, both Darwinian and otherwise, to every writer.

~ Omniscient point of view.
Anderson clearly but gracefully shifts perspective. This is difficult to execute, and she models both how to do it and why it’s worth the struggle.

~ Characterization.
Writers are often drawn to unappealing characters but then stuck with fiction that turns readers off. The blend of vulnerability and chutzpah that infuses all of Anderson’s characters is among the best strategies for counteracting the malaise of wounded characters.

~ Dialogue
With or without quotation marks, it’s tricky to have characters argue philosophy and sound both convincing and intriguing. This novel does that over and over.

~ Originality
Too many novels feel as you’ve already read something just like this. Here, though, the island is not only a place where you’ve never been, inhabited by people (and  birds) you’ve probably never even imagined, yet somehow evocative of the best fiction about islands, scientists, quests, dreams, and biology. Startling yet familiar. What could be better?

~ Plot as microcosm of theme.
These characters struggle with compassion versus necessity. How does being a human animal differ from being another animal? Should only the fittest survive?

Tip: Become a “fitter” writer by scrutinizing novels that epitomize your goals for your own.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thanks for This Gift

Think of all those grim quotes about writing and writers: Don’t do it unless you must. While envying everyone better or luckier, you’ll bleed behind that lonely typewriter. Besides, you’ll still need a “real” job, not to mention confronting agents, audiences, critics, and the ever present: “When are you going to finish that book?” Given all that gloom, since it’s not usually the money, just what do we get from being writers?

~ Energy.
Writers perpetually listen, watch, wonder, recall, and speculate. Their minds are ever active, snapping up images, ideas, possibilities. What a romantic way to move through the world.

~ Patience.
Writing well, like doing anything else well, requires practice, hard work, and lots of time. With everyone in such a rush and so distracted, isn’t it great to have one thing absorbing enough to make time disappear?

~ Discipline.
Most writers care deeply about craft. They seek not just publication and compensation but critique and continuous growth. They work hard. They revise, edit, and revise a little more. They get to feel great about what they do because of the care they take.

~ Euphoria.
Sure, on lots of days you painfully struggle to meet a public or personal deadline. But sometimes, the writing glides or sizzles, producing a feeling that rivals anything you’ve ever experienced (including you know what).

If you could wish away your love of writing or your talent for it, would you honestly go for it? Of course not, because writers do it better.

Tip: Pause. Breathe deep. Remember why you feel lucky to be a writer. Because you are.