Sunday, December 28, 2014

Post-Holiday Gifts for Readers and Writers

No wrapping required, and most novel readers or writers want these goodies:

For the reader who wants to have everything:

Give readers tension and momentum.
Page-turners are fun. No matter how elevated the subject, readers read novels for fun. Slogging through backstory, wordiness, or redundant scenes better summarized rarely produces much fun.

Give readers originality.
Stock characters, situations, language, or outcome can, but shouldn’t be, comical.

Give readers a full-blown escape from reality.
Most of us read novels to avoid paying bills, sorting the laundry, or turning out the light and wondering if sleep will come easily tonight. Protect your readers from their own reality, which intrudes with even a second of implausibility, familiarity, boredom, silliness, grossness. Instead? Supply what readers came for: a trip into a world you created just for them.

For the writer who has everything:

Which writer is this? Every novelist I know wants to be better at handling plot or metaphors, suffers from blockage or excess, and frets over adoring or loathing revision. The one thing writers agree on is never having enough time.

Give yourself time.
That doesn’t mean texting, gaming, or alphabetizing cd’s to avoid starting the next chapter. Nor does it mean interminably rewriting the opening chapters to avoid what’s next. But agonizing about time drains energy, stifles soul, and—wastes time.

Give yourself honesty.
Why completely depend on your writing partner or critique group to point out what isn’t working? You won’t always know; that’s what critique is for. But often you do know. When you do? Listen. Put your energy into revising--not rationalizing.

Give yourself stimulation.
Daydream. Relish sensory experiences. Plunge into the world of your fiction, even if that means researching, watching related movies, exploring dead ends.

Give yourself tenderness.
As Robert Browning put it, high standards help us reach for heaven. But do your standards set you up for failure? Discipline is great, but unrealistic goals demolish creativity. If writing just makes you unhappy, why bother?

Tip: Be good to your readers. Be good to yourself.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Only a Click Away

Tip: The better you see, then the better your readers will.
Sit in a public place and observe the people with their phones. Don’t whip out your own and start photographing or texting. Don’t call or email anyone about what you see. Resist that temptation. Obsession, maybe? Just watch. Remember that?
A smart phone lets you see with a camera instead of only with your eyes. The views differ radically. Once you frame the world to fit a rectangle or panorama, you’ve changed it, however slightly.  And that affects your readers more than slightly.
Good novels create a reality that’s sharper, acuter, and more “real” than reality itself. Can video, slo-mo, burst, or series of clicks capture the fullness and intensity of the entire world? What camera can compete with the five senses plus the human imagination?
Well over a century back, Ralph Waldo Emerson understood this. “Each and All” mourns the fact that snippets and souvenirs can’t reproduce the forest or seashore:

I fetched my sea-born treasures home;
But the poor, unsightly, noisome things
Had left their beauty on the shore,
With the sun, and the sand, and the wild uproar.

Is photography depriving you of what Emerson calls “the perfect whole”? If so, that deprives your readers, as well. Perhaps a bit of sensory immersion would help.

Put down your phone. Disconnect yourself from everything except the physical world around you. Take a moment to touch, hear, see, smell, maybe taste. In this scene…

What’s most beautiful?
What’s ugliest?
What’s most intriguing?
What contains potential danger?
What contains potential pleasure?
How would you make someone care about the least interesting detail here?
How would you make someone care about the least empathetic person here?
What astonishes you?
What’s a metaphor to describe “the perfect whole”?

Don’t give up until you have a good answer for each question.

What Ezra Pound called making it “new” is less about seeing something different than finding what’s different in the presumably ordinary. It’s more comfortable to reach for the exotic. But if you’re a writer, originality is your job. Take it all in so your readers can. According to Kurt Heinzelman in “Make it new: The Rise of an Idea,” the writer’s task is renewing via a “return to origins.” Where do you find that? Many things originate in the external world—and at least sometimes you need to view them without the frame a camera imposes.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Candles and Creativity

It’s almost Chanukah, the holiday celebrating light lasting not while the fuel holds out but while light’s needed. How apt to revere that when nights are long, days short, and creativity can feel diminished, if not spent. During these short days, keep lighting candles—religiously or otherwise. Because creativity isn’t an external thing dependent on season or sunlight. The source of your creativity is inside you.

All of us start out so well; we’re curious, unafraid of new things, unembarrassed by failure, open to ideas, ecstatic over inventing how to talk and see and touch. Risk thrills us. But then life can interfere. Envy, shame, and fear exert their ugly power. We learn there are wrong answers. We stop seeing the world as exotic. Haven’t we read about it, heard about it, seen it all before? No! We haven’t.

Creativity meshes all the plausible possibilities out there, bringing the depths to the surface so insightfully and originally that only you could capture what you found. Innovation gave us Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Joyce’s Ulysses. And so on.

Maybe the pilot light for your creativity always flickers, never does, or is sensitive to cold, wind, darkness. Maybe you’re already asking the right questions. If not, try these.

~ Does your creativity work best if you push yourself, or relax?
“Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.” ―Ray Bradbury

~ How do you generate new plots, images, scenes?
“Creativity is merely a plus name for regular activity. Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better.” ― John Updike

~ Ever try to mesh two seemingly incompatible ideas?
“Artistic temperament sometimes seems a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling.” ― Madeleine L’Engle

How many artistic risks are you willing to take?
“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” ― Oscar Wilde

Are you still discovering?
“The thing is to become a master and in your old age to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing. ” ― Ernest Hemingway

Are you waiting or hoarding?
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” ― Maya Angelou

Tip: Are your literal or  metaphorical candles lit? You already have all the matches you need.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Windows into the Story World

In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall  reports that “the psychologists Melanie Green and Timothy Brock…argue that entering fictional worlds ‘radically alters the way information is processed.’ Green and Brock’s research shows that the more absorbed readers are in a story, the more the story changes them.” 

What does this suggest? Every story, from Rumpelstiltskin’s failed strategy to Elizabeth Bennet marrying Fitzwilliam Darcy, changes beliefs because readers look through a window into the characters’ lives. Readers look through those windows willingly, and the windows control the view.

Even when the same author created the characters and windows, no two sets of windows are identical. Some windows are so intensely rose-colored that certain readers instantly draw the blinds. Other windows are thickly draped. What’s on the other side seems bathed in gloom or dusk. Readers might not see what’s going on—or might dislike what they’re able to make out.

Stained glass fragments compose some of the least reader-friendly windows. Can you picture the writer inserting one glittering piece after another, progressing ever so slowly, perhaps removing a chip of red that clashes with the burgundy, maybe deciding that a pattern repeats too often or ends too abruptly. It becomes all about the stained glass.

This kind of tinkering with individual pieces often creates a window of breathtaking majesty. But if the window’s beauty obstructs the view of the characters behind the glass, what’s the point?

In “Why I Write” (1946), George Orwell said that “it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.”

This offers significant insight into the complex relationship between the writer, readers, and the writer’s characters: the significant connection is between the reader and the characters—not the reader and the writer.

If you’d rather design stained glass windows than admire them in holy buildings, fiction might be the wrong vehicle for your ideas. Because it’s perhaps fair to argue that the relationship between readers and characters verges on the holy.  

After all, this is why readers entranced by fiction are so susceptible to its ideas. It’s why writers are asked to “show,” not “tell.” It’s why the best novelists willingly sacrifice so much—including ego—for the sake of story. Story is not about the writer or the writer’s exquisite sentences. The story is about—the story.

The windows your readers look through control their experience. Absolutely clear windows might seem closer to film than fiction, while distracting stained glass—however glorious—interferes with what the audience came to receive. But stained glass that colors and adds depth to the scenes behind it? It doesn’t get better than that.

Tip: Story is about characters and our concern for them; all the rest is window-dressing.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Novelists Givingthanks

Writers face numerous obstacles, fears, and envies. Other writers write better. There’s never enough time. The publishing industry seems more geared to trends and profits than to originality or quality. Getting an agent feels like a Herculean task—and that precedes publication, then marketing. After all that, very few any of us get to quit our day jobs. And, finally, why is it so slow-going? Such hard work? But that’s only part of the picture.

Now that many writers have enjoyed a day off and an excuse to overeat, this seems a fine time to extol the other side of being a writer. How about what D. L. Burnett (In the Kingdom of Dragons) calls being “in the zone.” That euphoria is tantamount to making love to your ideas—and having your own words love you back. Nothing quite like it.

The blessings don’t end there. Today’s writers can edit on a laptop, research on the web, self-publish, and enjoy a plethora of courses, craft books, and critique groups. If not every one of those is good, the great ones are superb. That helps writers become superb.

Writers are also lucky to have …

…a means of probing truth: “The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.” ― Anais Nin
…an excuse for eavesdropping and gossiping: “The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer, you see―every scrap, even the longest and most boring of luncheon parties.” ― Graham Greene
…a blueprint for hidden connections:  “Storytelling is ultimately a creative act of pattern recognition. Through characters, plot and setting, a writer creates places where previously invisible truths become visible. Or the storyteller posits a series of dots that the reader can connect.” ― Douglas Coupland
…a way to procure your favorite novel: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” ― Toni Morrison
…a means of coping with pain: “A wounded deer leaps the highest.” ― Emily Dickinson
a way to create your own world: “The odd thing about being a writer is you do tend to lose yourself in your books. Sometimes it seems like real life is flickering by and you’re hardly a part of it. You remember the events in your books better than you remember the events that actually took place when you were writing them.” ― George R. R. Martin
…a justification for occasional anti-social behavior: “Being lonely is not a bad thing for a writer. ― Chuck Palahniuk
…a source of energy: “I don’t need an alarm clock. My ideas wake me.” ― Ray Bradbury
…a chance to reach strangers across time and space:  “A writer is, after all, only half his book. The other half is the reader and from the reader the writer learns.  ― L. Travers
…a way to change the future: “catch the imagination of young people, and plant a seed that will flower and come to fruition.” ― Isaac Asimov
…a shot at eternity: “Writers live twice.” — Natalie Goldberg

Tip: “If you wish to be a writer, write.” ― Epictetus

Every day could be Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

What You Call It

Changes in the publishing industry have squeezed novels into painful categories, not just suspense, but romantic suspense, not just mystery, but cozy. Is the world or how novelists view it really so narrow? If publishing’s so difficult anyway, would novelists be better off ignoring those tidy genres? Even if agents are uncertain where a novel fits?

Because many readers crave not just entertainment and intrigue but “What do I now know or think that I didn’t before?” Of course if you spell out all your beliefs, then nonfiction—perhaps blogging—might be the best bet. Because the power of fiction springs from plot’s capacity to change beliefs by firing the imagination.

Tip: A big, thrilling plot can express anything you want. Who cares what it’s called!

Face of our Father, by G. Egore Pitir, isn’t clearly thriller or literary novel, neither all action nor all psychology. It plunges into tough questions. Should good people always be rewarded and bad punished? Do we even know what we mean by “good,” “bad,” “reward,” “punishment”? How terrorists are made?

The Americans apologized. Collateral damage, they called her. By nightfall she was buried. And to this day, it was not the lowering into the ground, nor the shovelfuls of dirt falling on her body, nor the parting prayers, but the ululations of the women, the terrible and glorious wailing of tongues, that never let him rest.

Is murder ever justifiable? Additional “facts” from Pitir’s fiction:

He would reach America. See her cities in ruins. Fields barren, People in tears. Their tall proud Lady crumbled to her knees and ravaged, a headless torso holding a dark torch. He would bring Americans the constant fear of death. He would bring them Afghanistan.

Readers learn that “This was jihad…everyone rushing toward the fire of battle, everyone flaring with passion, everyone’s life so brief.” Americans might know less than we think:

Reaching up, she lowered the burqa’s grille over her face. Felt its comfort and strength. Behind the grille her body seemed to fade away. Breasts, hips and curves vanished, leaving only mind. Angie was no longer body, she was spirit. No one could hurt her beneath the grille. Beneath the grille, she was love, she was mother.

The American woman who tries on this burqa has betrayed her husband. How often can a couple betray each other and remain a couple? What unmakes a terrorist? A marriage? Readers get to wonder if redemption is possible. Which matters more: Justice? Honor? Love?

The bigger the questions, the bigger the shoulders a plot needs. Face of our Father is a broad-shouldered novel of terrorism, computer hackers, torture, betrayal, and adulterous love interwoven with envy, adoration, greed, compassion, and, yes, forgiveness.

Few of us willingly face this father’s face. But ignoring fact or fiction doesn’t change reality. Whatever you call this novel, reading it might might make you consider realities no one wants to face—even inspire you to transcend some assumptions and niches yourself.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Plot and Its Delivery

Novels with great plots often succeed despite weak writing. Great plots generate movies and TV series, so cash flow follows. Sound great, right?  Yet unless your plot is extraordinary or your novel merely a draft for a screenplay, you might want to pay attention to the plot’s delivery. Lots of attention.

These elements can make adequate plots good and good plots great:

One-dimensional characters never live, so their fate never matters much.

ü  Do you reveal your characters through action and dialogue, instead of through thoughts (potentially tedious) or commentary (potentially irritating)?
ü  Do your characters exhibit both consistency and complexity, as real people do?

~ Narrator/character balance.
Readers need the context only narrators can provide (summary of time, change of scene, exploration of complex motivation) in addition to the immediacy only characters present.

ü  Do you make use of both your narrator and characters?
ü  Do you put meaty, exciting events in scene using your characters?
ü  Does the narrator quickly and attractively deliver the logistics and background that are fun to write but deadly to read?

~ Supportive detail.
In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway made two points about description: “The first is that the writer must deal in sense detail. The second is that these must be details ‘that matter.’” In other words, the best details involve one of the five senses, but that’s not enough. The detail must point toward what you what readers to see, hear, etc.

ü  Do your details ever distract from the story?
ü  Are all your details both concrete and significant?
ü  Do you amass catalogues of details because you haven’t found the one you need?

~ Texture.
Memorable novels offer something beyond familiar characters enacting a familiar plot, however competently that’s executed.

ü  Does your novel encourage readers to reach their own conclusions?
ü  Do you intertwine theme with plot?
ü  Does your story allude to concepts and conditions larger than itself?

~ Beauty.
Our world is an efficient and hasty one. Many readers don’t care about graceful sentences, and many writers feel that polishing sentences wastes time. Yet writers remain responsible for their writing.

ü  Do you want to write swiftly or beautifully?
ü  Wouldn’t you love readers exclaiming, “Wow—that’s gorgeous”?

Tip: if you polish both plot and delivery, you could earn both Pulitzer and film option.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Moral of the Story

Do stories deliver morals, or is story itself—at its very core—a dramatization of morality? Is story in fact the human method for articulating and sustaining beliefs? After all, in The Storytelling Animal Jonathan Gottschall points out:

people are willing to imagine almost anything in a story: that wolves can blow down houses; that a man can become a vile cockroach in his sleep (Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis); that donkeys can fly, speak and sing R&B songs (Shrek), that “a dead-but-living fatherless god-man [Jesus] has the super-powers to grant utopian immortality”; that a white whale might really be evil incarnate; that time travelers can visit the past, kill a butterfly, and lay the future waste (Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”).
            I should say that people are willing to imagine almost anything. This flexibility does not extend to the moral realm. Shrewd thinkers going back as far as the philosopher David Hume have noted a tendency toward “imaginative resistance”: we won’t go along if someone tries to tell us that bad is good, and good is bad.

Gottschall goes on to observe that “Story runs on poetic justice, or at least on our hopes for it” and cites others who agree. As John Gardner puts it, fiction “is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.”

Since 1021 (The Tale of Genji), novelists have possessed a powerful opportunity, to use as weapon, tool, propaganda device, or source of social good. But has fiction remained a moral force, or does that notion seem antiquated as reading books printed on paper?

Probably both. People, including novel readers, are less susceptible to didactic preaching than they presumably were when Samuel Richardson rewarded chastity in Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) or Henry Fielding lauded lofty ideals (instead of promiscuity) in The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling (1749). Today’s readers enjoy a spoonful of voice, plot, and originality to help the morality go down.

Yet in every genre, novel readers still crave moral questions. Will she overcome her snootiness in order to deserve the man she loves? Will squandering earth’s resources yield the fate of The Dead Planet? Will the self-important detectives ignore the lady who gobbles mysteries, collects stray cats, and is the only one who can solve the crime?

Consider the moral center of your own novel. Can you enrich it?

  • Does your novel have a layer or texture beyond the entertainment component?
  • Does the plot somehow illuminate human psychology or society?
  • If the novel ends happily, did the protagonist change enough to deserve that?
  • Do you ever resort to oversimplified solutions for resolving moral conflict?
  • Do you polarize good versus evil, or reflect the gray area between them?
  • Do you free readers to reach their own conclusions about your story?
  • If you could leave your readers with just one thought when they finish your novel, what would that be? Does your plot convey that?
Tip: Memorable novels are equal parts fun and poetic justice.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Transformation of, by, and for the Novel

Many of us write novels because there’s truth we want to express, an ideal we want our characters to portray. We may even hope to promote change. Yet those truths and ideals raise the question of whether books exert any substantial and lasting power.

Some argue that they do. When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he purportedly said,  “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this Great War?” Lincoln was right about so many things. But maybe not about this. Can fiction really change thoughts,  beliefs, politics, or lives? How much influence do books really have?

English profs read many novels. Yet lit majors aren’t necessarily more moral or compassionate or better-adjusted than anyone else. Does this suggest that every insight evaporates once the eyes scan “The End?” Transformation is elusive. It’s mysterious. You can’t measure it empirically—which doesn’t prove that it never happens.

Lots of people retain faith in the capacity of “art” to transform, to change what we do or how we feel. The local paper here listed a speech by Favianna Rodriguez called “How Art Can Shift Politics and Stop Rape Culture.” Elton John reminds us that “When all hope is gone/Sad songs say so much.”

At its best, art is universal because it probes the very deepest places in the human mind, the terrain where differences of culture, gender, race, or worldview dissipate. Deep inside there, most of us are remarkably similar—and have remained so for centuries. That’s why Shakespeare and Poe, Bach and Beethoven, Austen and the Bronte sisters still work.

For the novelist, the capacity to transform might begin with the perception of everyday reality. If your vision lets you detect the thrillingly extraordinary in the tediously ordinary, then you’re on your way to building a world, shaping a set of characters, and planning a series of events more credible and causal than life itself.

If the events you introduce transform your characters in a believable way, you’ve opened the door to transforming readers. After all, hasn’t fiction been doing that what since it was born?

Say you do transform a reader. Even before the novel ends, this person truly identifies with your characters—sees them as fellow humans rather than stick figures, empathizes with their plight. As the book closes, this reader feels that maybe X needn’t hate Y, that sharing with Y would feel good, that reaching out to Y might be possible.

If this represents true transformation, how long will it last? Hard to say. But if your book, however briefly, makes just one reader wiser, gentler, more generous or compassionate , isn’t that worth a great deal? No matter how long it lasts? Or doesn’t?

Even if your book is only one grain on the beach, one droplet of a single wave, over time, a lot of grains or droplets can produce major change. It takes a long, long time to build a mountain. It can take a long, long time to tear one down. Perhaps the transformation of readers—on our own time scale—is similar. Such patience doesn’t come easily when our beliefs are strong. But perhaps we need faith in time, in readers. In art.

Tip: Open yourself to transformation, and you’ll never know how much you affect someone you’ve never met.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Novelist and “Their” “Grammer” (sic)

Not to be fractious, but isn’t grammar even more trivial than fractions? After all, fractions help you cope with 3/8 teaspoon of baking soda when doubling or halving your muffin recipe. Far more practical than cringing over offering guests less or fewer muffins. Readers are a novelist’s guests, and many simply couldn’t (or the inaccurate “could”?) care less. For many people, grammar evokes the nightmarish high school memory of diagramming sentences.

Admittedly, diagramming sentence won’t polish your prose. Still, the impracticality of that exercise doesn’t justify discarding the elegant system that grammar represents. Even if diagramming sentences won’t improve your novel, grammar certainly might.

Here’s why.

~Perfect pitch.

Some folks lack it with language, just as others do with music. You wouldn’t inflict your off-key singing on a bunch of strangers, would you? Between “you and I” (sic!), consider protecting your readers from sounds that make them cringe. If the reader’s cringing, the reading’s not much fun.

~ Hierarchy.

Subordinate (“however, “but,” “if,” etc.) or coordinate (“and,” “also,” etc.) words indicate significance. Seemingly trivial word choices convey that some things are equal and others not. Intentionally or not, the clauses you create express relationships—including run-on sentences. Subordination captures causality at the sentence level: if the protagonist does this, then that happens. Doesn’t that deserve your attention? And your reader’s?

~ Syntax.

Grammar sensitizes you to what your sentence underscores. Aside from distance and wordiness, the real problem with passive voice is misplaced emphasis. If the bat is used by the girl, don’t you imply that the bat matters more than she does? Relationships between words (grammar!) accentuate or minimize. Noticing parts of speech encourages greater reliance on verbs instead of (yikes!) modifying everything with (sad) adjectives or adverbs (sadly).

~ Parallelism.

Though part of syntax, this construction deserves separate mention. Grammar reveals whether you’ve missed an opportunity to connect, echo, and create unforgettable patterns. After all, what if Lincoln had said, “The government that represents the people, which is the one they help to run and is thus capable of giving them what is needed… “shall not perish from the earth.”

Tip: Here’s a secret. Grammar is exactly as important as it’s cracked up to be.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Beauty and the Best

America’s literary giants had plenty to say on the subject. Romantic Edgar Allan Poe asserted that “Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears.” Who could argue with that? Or with Ralph Waldo Emerson observing that “Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art.”

It’s no newsflash that interpretations of “beauty” or “art” vary widely. In fiction, though, beauty comes from characterization, from causality, from imagery and rhythmic syntax.

~ Characterization.

The more rapidly and insightfully you can develop a character, then the more exquisite the impact. In Ten Little Indians, Sherman Alexie does it in one sentence: “She wanted to be buried in a coffin filled with used paperbacks. ”

*** Are you gathering examples of characterization that strike you as particularly  concise and true? Are you seeking ways to accomplish this yourself?

~ Causality.

Jane Austen’s novels end happily because the characters mature enough to earn their happiness. Darcy overcomes pride and Elizabeth overcomes prejudice because neither can bear to lose the other.

***Are you noticing examples of causality? Does causality drive your own novel? Shouldn't it?

~ Imagery.

The best imagery works both literally and symbolically. It infuses the trivial with significance; it makes the ordinary extra-ordinary, but without calling attention to itself, like this example from Bernard Malamud’s The Natural:

Roy Hobbs pawed at the glass before thinking to prick a match with his thumbnail and hold the spurting flame to his cupped palm close to the lower berth window, but by then he had figured it was a tunnel they were passing through and was no longer surprised at the bright sight of himself holding a yellow light over his head, peering back in.

*** Do you catch yourself using three or four or five images? Does this suggest vague awareness that you haven’t found the right one?

~ Syntax.

Rhythm and emphasis can transform prose into poetry in prose. Like this: “People hide their truest nature. I understood that; I even applauded it. What sort of world would it be if people bled all over the sidewalks, if they wept under trees, smacked whomever they despised, kissed strangers, revealed themselves?” ― Alice Hoffman, The Ice Queen

*** Are you rationalizing sentences that don’t quite sound right? Are you aware that either craft or psychological obstacles often originate such sentences?

Tip: Savor beautiful writing. Collect it. Isn’t that the start to your own beautiful writing?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Chicken Soup for the Pen

 Fiction writing can be a rough ride. You have no musicians to rehearse the symphony with or actors to make you grin and blush. Worse, you face an absurdly competitive market, not to mention your own super-secret fears that you should already have a book, an agent, a better draft, a more productive schedule, a less effective set of rationalizations, or whatever bums you out.  Maybe you need some sort of retreat?

Writing retreats happen in exotic places (Maui tops the list) or pedestrian ones (your local coffee shop). Retreats can involve coaching and critique or simply an escape from grass needing mowing, kids wanting feeding, or bills awaiting payment. Every so often, you need the metaphorical chicken soup as much as the critique. One balances the other.

The best retreats feed both mind and soul. This means that the menu must include some beauty, some spirituality, and at least a little awe. In fact, the power of an imposing environment can prove surprisingly useful in balancing a writer’s mind.

~ Humility.
     In 2014, it takes gumption to write fiction. Competition is fierce and reward scant. You need a healthy ego to write anything at all. But you also need a healthy reminder that unspoiled nature is so vast and incomprehensible that you’re like one grain of sand. That makes you feel so small. And that reminds you that you’re part of something huge. How much can one rejection or one missed writing afternoon really matter? The best writers combine confidence with perspective.

~ Faith.
     It’s discouraging to struggle with the same paragraph, have your critiquers request yet-another revision, receive one more rejection, or simply feel that no matter no long you sit before your laptop, the magic isn’t going to happen. That’s when an infusion of beauty can restore morale. This might be mountain snow reflected in a lake, a sliver of moon, or even a crimson leaf. Such things remind you that awful as it might seem right now, tomorrow’s another day. You’ll want to get up. You’ll want to write. You won’t be able to stop yourself.

~ Inspiration.
     Every writer achieves this differently. Maybe it starts with the characters. Perhaps the themes. Annie Proulx says it’s always the setting for her. No matter how disciplined you are, how open to plot, metaphor, or psychological insight, the realities of working, flossing, commuting, and clearing the kitchen can demolish energy and originality in insidious ways. Every so often you need something so glorious that it steals your breath. When you can breathe again, you’re ready to write.

Isn’t it wonderful that the internet, the burgeoning interest in creative writing, and the numerous credit and non-credit options out there mean that you needn’t write all by yourself all the time?

Tip: Find yourself hosts as generous and thoughtful as Patti and George who graciously sponsored a mountain miracle for writers.

Treat yourself to a writing retreat.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Muddy Waters

Clear as mud. Don’t muddy the waters. Still waters run deep. The number of expressions fretting about clarity suggests deep concern, if not absolute obsession. How clear is clear enough? That’s not just a general issue; it’s a major writing one. How much “mud” will readers tolerate? How clear is so obvious that all the fun’s gone? Without polling everyone, how could you possibly decide? Here’s a little bleach for that cloudy water.

~ Audience.

Identify whom you’re writing for. One gal’s transparency is another gal’s sun-in-your-eyes. One guy’s drone statistics is another guy’s droning on and on. The more precisely you can pinpoint the kind of people you hope will read your novel, then the more precisely you can pinpoint what will please them. Do they like an absolutely firm foundation—with everything laid out? Or would they enjoy a little ambiguity? At what point does mysterious become confusing—and thus boring.

Assess clarity in fiction that resembles yours. What do they leave out? What do they spell out? Do this repeatedly, and you’ve begun charting a course.

~ Context.

We play guessing games because guessing’s fun. It’s not fun, though, if readers must guess how these sentences connect, how we got from there to here, where the characters live, how old they are, and what could possibly motivate them to behave this way. Think journalism: “why” must follow “who,” “what,” “where,” and “when.” Nor do you get to ignore those essentials. Just don’t bury the good parts beneath logistics.

No one likes being lost. Readers struggling with context can’t infer concept.

~ Concept.

Many readers enjoy inferring ideas, emotions, and themes. These readers want enough well-placed clues—and then? The freedom to reach their own conclusions. Taste exerts enormous power here. You’ll find readers at both extremes: those who don’t mind a bit of “telling” for clarity and those who mind even a nip of “telling”—no matter how much it clarifies.

Differentiate the details readers can’t possibly infer from those that certain readers want to discover for themselves. If you still can’t decide, aim for a point midway between obscure and belabored.

Use the fiction you read and feedback from those who critique your work to develop an ear for when to be clear, when to be slightly cryptic.

Tip: The writer should help the reader focus—and the right amount of clarity accomplishes just that.

Sunday, September 28, 2014


It’s like a dirty word. You’re stuck in here—trying to write when you don’t feel like it because of rain, or heat, or blizzard. You’ve got a deadline, which means you’ve stuck working on this until it’s done. Worst of all? You’re just stuck. Totally. Halfway through the novel. Surely someone knows what’s next. Just not you. Or you know exactly what’s next. But you can’t write it!

“Stuck” seems less synonymous with “fixed, “fastened,” or “infatuated” than with “baffled,” “stumped,” even “paralyzed.” Yet like many things in life, the real meaning of “stuck” depends on perspective. No one wants to be “stuck” doing everything because your spouse is out of commission. It’s a sign of true love, but nevertheless exhausting. But “stuck” with your writing? If you’re a serious writer, couldn’t that go either way?

~ Psychologically “stuck”

So many things can cause this. A rejection slip. A pal’s success. (You’re delighted! But still…) An upset stomach. Eight days of clouds. Ten hours of lower back pain. Sometimes you just can’t make yourself write. And sometimes that’s just as it should be.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS: Take a break. Get renewed. Try a different project (though don’t let that become a long-term distraction). Journal. Garden. Mess around on Facebook. Play basketball. Just don’t wait too long. Set a limit—in advance. Stick to it, or you’ll really be stuck.

~ Logistically “stuck”

Perhaps you instinctively realize that you’re headed in the wrong direction. Maybe you’re not consciously aware of this, but part of you knows you don’t want to go there. Or there’s this nagging sense that what you thought would follow hasn’t been set up. It makes no sense. Perhaps you bored? If so, your readers will be, too.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS: Brainstorm different directions. Go wild. Alternatively, set up causality—even if that means backtracking. Raise the stakes. Cut unnecessary material. Deepen characterization. Use your narrator to explain whatever context readers need.

~ Creatively “stuck”

Sometimes you don’t feel like writing because you have no idea what happens next or why or how to make it sizzle.  You’ve lost heart.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS: Return to your characters. They’re home base. The characters are why you’re writing it and why readers will read it. Hang out those characters. Remember why they intrigue you. Maybe “Take Your Characters to Dinner.” Isolating them from the predictable plot is among the best ways to generate exciting possibilities.

Tip: Why not get “stuck” on the idea of finishing and revising your novel—no matter what—because you care about it so much.

It’s all how you look at it.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Test of Time

A recent performance of Romeo and Juliet at American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wisconsin, confirms that Shakespeare remains as alive and well-loved as ever. Even the famous balcony scene, which could well feel like the most painful of clichés, still captures how the world feels when you’re first in love, with the moon too inconstant for a vow, and goodnight evoking a taste of death. All that stands the test of time.

This early play (1595—a decade before King Lear) blends romance, slapstick, violence, and wit. Each lover undergoes a developmental arc during the brief span between love at first sight and untimely death. Their tragedy affects not only friends and family, but all Verona—and everyone who’s encountered not only the play’s beauty, but its meaning.

Romeo and Juliet accomplishes this not just by lacing tragedy with comedy. Or with quicksilver action proving that major events—pressure points—change people so there’s no turning back. The play’s great strength is its capacity to reveal real people with real emotions, who remain utterly relevant even though we no longer brandish swords and have cellphones to get messages safely through. The play’s great strength is its continuing relevance.

In Good Prose, Pulitzer-Prize winner Tracy Kidder observes that “Revelation, someone’s learning something, is what transforms event into story. Without revelation, a story of high excitement leaves us asking, ‘Is that all?’”

No work can stand the test of time if readers wonder whether “That’s all.” Nor is this a genre issue. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is an early romance, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is science fiction, and Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger is magical realism.
What makes a work stand the test of time? How can your novel have a shot at achieving that?
~ Landscape.

A novel needs characters that inhabit a very particular environment. Readers must be able to enter it, too, and this world must control what characters dream and whether those dreams can come true.

~ Innovation.

Does the novel offer a spin, idea, location, or dilemma distinct from everyone else’s?         Does it possess something only you can offer?

~ Impassioned emotion.

Do the characters evoke at least as much compassion, irritation, or delight as real people? Do readers experience strong feeling about the characters?

~ Texture.

Does the novel have sufficient substance that one could reread it and reach different insights? Will no two readers interpret it identically?

Tip: It’s not a matter of what you write about, but how you write it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Compassion and Characterization

People admire compassion. We love stories of other mammals protecting their offspring—and ours. We’re all for compassion, though sometimes more theoretically than literally. And this reality impacts both the characters we create and reader response to the characters we create.

For example, evaluate your feelings for this character from Emma Straub’s The Vacationers: “Franny always wanted to carry in the most impressive-looking dish, no matter that everyone knew she’d cooked everything on the table.”

The sentence probably doesn’t encourage you to like her much. But what if, after thirty-five years of marriage, her husband just slept with a twenty-three year old? And, worse, that it’s common knowledge in her circle and at his former job? Our response changes, because no one’s immune to betrayal, vulnerability, the nightmare of public humiliation.

Characters aren’t just what they do, but also why they do it. In Ian McEwan’s Solar, protagonist Michael Beard gets divorced five times, has endless affairs (simultaneously), lies about his politics, steals research, and frames his wife’s boyfriend for murder.

There’s no one to love in this novel, yet it works from beginning to end. Some of that’s great writing. The rest? A little empathy for Michael Beard, who “had to have his wife back, and dared not drive her away with shouting or threats or brilliant moments of unreason. Nor was it in his nature to plead. He was frozen, he was abject, he could think of nothing else.”

When a character, however egocentric, resonates with the egocentricity each of us strives to quell, we respond not with contempt but compassion. Both inside fiction and out, we react very differently when we understand why so-and-so behaved that way. We react very differently when we have lots of information instead of merely what’s obvious.

What’s that got to do with you as a novelist?

~ Have your characters yearn, because that’s so human. But never let them whine, because that’s so annoying!

~ Include backstory not because you did your “writing homework.” Help readers understand character motivation. That’s the only reason for backstory.

~ Make your characters screw up. Then either let them save themselves or let your readers wish the characters could.

~ Play with irony. Readers enjoy predicting a particular outcome. Later? Reveal that the truth lies elsewhere.

~ Use your most private emotions. Those are everyone’s most private emotions.

Tip: Supply enough insight to surprise readers with how much compassion they feel—and for whom.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Little Writer That Could

Whether writing children’s books, fantasy, mystery, or anything else, novelists agree about one thing: Writing is hard. Gadzooks, look at all the things a writer must worry about: a hook to start and end every chapter, complex plot and deep characterization, transitions and point of view. Then you have to put it all together so it sounds as if you accomplished it effortlessly, rather than slaving over every word the way you probably did. Whether the feedback comes from a writing partner, critique group, or you yourself, the goal might feel like climbing Mt. Everest.

In “Mind the Gap” from David Jauss’s Words Overflown by Stars, Betsy Sholl, former Poet Laureate from Maine, observes that, “It only takes one little stammer, one little break in the flow, to become aware of how speech negotiates between our private consciousness and social engagement.”

Writing is hard because it communicates a unique individual vision to someone receiving it through words alone. That’s a challenge. So every time even a single word falters, it’s a metaphorical “stutter” that readers detect immediately. And if writers are any good, they, too, can hear it. Sadly, the more carefully you read, and, of course, write, the more sensitive your ears to even the faintest hint of stammer.

What’s the antidote? You could train yourself to be more careless? Read faster. Write faster. In general, worry lots less about the burden of graceful “social engagement.”

You don’t want that? Quality is your goal? If you’re certain, begin by curtailing those brutal, ugly, and self-defeating messages about what you can’t do. For many, developing patience about one’s goals and weaknesses is a tall mountain to conquer. Most folks with high standards are not only harder on themselves than they need to be, but harder than they should be for optimal productivity and creativity. “Can’t” is as dirty a word as any four-letter one out there.

Replace defeatism with a healthy dose of realistic self-analysis.  Aside from relinquishing “I can’t,” many writers consider identifying strengths quite daunting. Wit? Elegant sentences? Enthralling plot? Dynamite scenario? Write down your assets. All of them.

Now for the mountain. What’s up there? Whatever you identify as your own personal “stutter.” Inorganic plot? Stereotypical characters? Dreary syntax?  All but the weakest writers know well in advance what’s needed to conquer that mountain of difficulties. You even know what you must do to reach its peak. Your peak.

Beautiful writing emerges from a merger of talent and technique. You can sit before your computer until your butt’s sore, but unless you believe in both your talent and ability to hone it with technique, maybe fiction isn’t the mountain for you to master. The best training in the world won’t help if with every sentence you’re thinking “I’ll never make it to the top, never revise the way I want. I can’t.”

Tip: “I think I can” isn’t age-specific, and works as well for writers as for everyone else.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Scenario and “The Woman Upstairs”

The brilliance of Claire Messud’s novel, The Woman Upstairs, is taking the pain of a woman symbolically dismissed from view and using that to analyze the pain that an unnoticed person of either gender can endure. Who’s the woman upstairs, and what ticks her off?

Bertha Mason, the mysterious character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, is a potentially dangerous madwoman in the attic. Messud handles the allusion so lightly that a reader can fully appreciate the novel without noticing the reference to Rochester’s first wife. 

But Messud brings new life to Bronte’s question: Is Mason dangerous because she’s a madwoman, or because cruelty and misunderstanding have reduced her to one?

Put “the woman upstairs” in a contemporary setting, and you can reveal the psyche of a woman treated as if she lacks merit, feelings—in fact doesn’t exist. Her purpose is fulfilling the needs of everyone else, constantly putting herself last, if she counts at all. In The N.Y. Times Book Review, Barbara Kingsolver observes that “A novel’s extraordinary power is to allow a reader to take possession of the inner life of another.” Messud accomplishes precisely that.
So why did this novel fare so poorly compared with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch?  Jennifer Weiner (In Her Shoes) says, “The world doesn’t think what she’s doing is as worthy as what Tartt is doing.” But why? What’s behind the acclaim for a laborious book with a meandering plot and lots of stock characters versus an exquisitely written, deeply analytical one about individual pain representative of all human pain?
It’s all in the scenario. The Woman Upstairs attracts about as much attention as its protagonist, who tells us, “And especially now that I’ve learned that I really am invisible, I need to stop wanting to fly. I want to stop needing to fly.”  
The flight Nora Eldridge longs for is the equivalent of High Concept—the Big Idea that sells movies, books, and film options. If your scenario resembles an unnoticed person in hiding, its premise won’t help sell your book. What should you do?
Tip: Decide what really matters to you as an author.
If your heart’s in a winning scenario, you’re so lucky! But maybe your heart’s in writing something agents and critics might consider mundane. Then you must choose between writing the book you long to write or, instead, concentrating on making the sale. There’s no right or wrong answer here. However, you do need to be honest about what you choose, your rationale, and the probable consequences of your choice.
Because the truth is that the woman who wrote a brilliant novel got little recognition, and the woman who wrote one with a High Concept won a Pulitzer. The prose didn’t make the difference; the scenario did.
As Messud puts it, “When you are the woman upstairs, nobody thinks of you first.” 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

What about the Dialogue No Character Ever Speaks?

Dialogue shapes novels. There’s an unspoken dialogue between a novel and its readers that shapes the quality and impact of fiction.  In Novel Voices, Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabelais interview Siri Hustvedt, who has this to say about the dialogue that keeps us reading fiction:
The reader situates himself somewhere between the immediate here of the world in which he reads and the there of the book. He enters a state that is between himself and the voice of the book. Reading is also entering a dialogue of sorts because a book is nothing until it lives inside the reader, who makes the book come to life.

You can’t have a dialogue without both parties participating. But readers can’t do that unless some things are unsaid, some points never made. How else can readers interpret through the lens of their own memories, experiences, and appetites? Of course no one wants a novel to be an empty blackboard, awaiting the reader’s imprint. But no one wants every detail laid out, either, because that makes it impossible for readers to discover meaning for themselves.

Which factors let readers participate in the experience of fiction?

~ Plot events.

This is restricted to what the characters actually do or execute or say. What they contemplate, how they commiserate, whether they circumnavigate—all that excludes the reader, because it’s talking to rather than with.

~ Dialogue between characters.

Again, this is restricted to what the characters say rather than what they say “lazily,” “cheerfully,” “thoughtfully,” or “stormily.” Once you add adverbs or any other filter, it becomes a lecture—not a dialogue.

~ Subtext.
Pose questions that sound like questions and seemingly definitive statements that imply questions. If you like, write down exactly what the character wants to say. Afterwards, though, revise until your characters sound like real people—dropping hints, insinuating threats, and generally playing games.
~ Ambiguity.

Much as you’d like to, never, ever “tell” readers exactly what you want them to notice, believe, defy, or applaud. Drop clues. Unfurl your plot. Make your characters suffer enough to change. What will readers absorb from that? It’s up to them.
Tip: Let readers participate in the dialogue. After all, it’s why they’re there.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Taming and Training Your Voice

That’s already a contradiction. If your voice sounds caged or restrained or even as if you worked on it, it’s not working. So how can you train your voice?

You can’t proceed the way you’d attack plot or metaphor or an unfortunate addiction to adjectives. Still, you can get out of your own way, giving your voice every opportunity to come out and flash something appealing. Because voice is a bit wild—and should stay that way. But wild can also mean running amuck, and you don’t want that, either.

Here’s a start on taming and training.

1. Think about your audience—and only your audience. Nothing else.

Contrary as it may seem, the more you think about anything related to ego or how good or bad you sound or the effect you want to achieve or how many books you will (or won’t!) sell, then the more you damage your voice. Be yourself. Let yourself sound like yourself. That’s how your readers get the real thing. You can always polish. But you can’t polish what isn’t worth polishing because it isn’t real.

2. Ignore the superficial, obvious, or clichéd. What do only you see? Know? Value?

This necessitates risk. But gems are rarely scattered on the surface. They’re down deep. That’s what you—only you—can say, so you’ll have just the right words for it. The poet Muriel Rukeyser calls it “Going diving.” She’s talking about poetry, of course, but for any writer, “If you dive deep enough and have favorable winds or whatever is under the water, you come to a place where experience can be shared, and somehow there is somewhere in oneself that shares.”

3. Embrace tradition, then transcend it. Revere, but without losing individuality.

Use everything you’ve read and discovered to identify your place among your literary predecessors. Not so you can imitate them, of course, but so you can perfect the voice you developed because the authors before you made you who you are—a blend of yourself and those who made you yourself.

Where would Claire Messud be without Ralph Ellison and Charlotte Bronte, or Chad Harbach without Merman Melville, or Alice Hoffman without Emily Bronte? And that’s just the short list.

Obviously, these folks can generate their own scenarios or voices. Yet neither ideas nor the words for them spring out fully formed, like Aphrodite on the sea. Even Aphrodite came from somewhere, as do our thoughts and expression of them, which reflects both idiosyncrasy and tradition. As Cormac McCarthy put it, “The ugly fact is, books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.”

Tip: A great voice reflects the canon preceding it while striking a chord that resonates with both past and future, with both who we are and the forces—and voices—that created who we are. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

How Much Do People Want to Change?

Not much. Every New Year’s brings promises of writing more and eating less, of visiting the gym, giving or tossing items you never use, and finishing the draft. If any of those happen, it’s usually because—something happened.

Tip: Inertia is powerful. Events drive characters, people, and novels.

What about the people writing the novels? All have the best intentions. They plan to write daily, revise based on critique, research agents early on, take the necessary steps to make the dream come true. Yet somehow, potentially wonderful novels linger unfinished, unrevised, and unagented. Sometimes reality interferes. But more often, inertia does.

What gets a novelist moving? An event. Your best friend gets an agent, writes “The End,” transcends a rejection slip. Alternatively, your worst enemy gets an agent, writes “The End,” transcends a rejection slip. You’re ready to act, so don’t drift back to getting it done whenever you do. Because without another event, who knows?

Events control people—and characters—in a way that good intentions rarely can. Of events, the inciting incident is among the most provocative, seductive, and inflammatory. Whether the protagonist answers the call or vows to resist it, the world is forever changed. As Hamlet said, “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.” Like most protagonists, Hamlet knows that he’s been called to act.

That’s what the inciting incident is. Too often, though, writers assume that the inciting incident is for the reader—a hook to explode the plot with a giant bang. That, too, of course, but the inciting incident is mainly for the protagonist. Without an impetus like his father’s ghost appearing to Hamlet, the protagonist simply rails against injustice. And stays stuck.

How can a novelist combat inertia?

~ Choose your inciting incident carefully.
It needs sufficient oomph to carry your entire novel.
~ Substitute event for syndrome.
People and characters will tolerate a fair amount of dissatisfaction without taking action. But guess what? Readers won’t.
~ Clarify in your own mind (not on the page!) how you want your protagonist to change.
Is it from selfish to generous, snobbish to compassionate, or passive to proactive?
~ Eliminate inert brooding, worrying, planning, and fantasizing.
None of those remove the protagonist’s difficulties or fulfill the protagonist’s dreams. Plus it’s no fun to read.
~ Be the protagonist of your writing life.
Look for events that motivate you. Do postponed deadlines have consequences? Hmmm. If not, should they?

Ideas are glorious. But action gets things done—both inside and outside of fiction.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

"Anansi Boys": Taking Risks Because You Have a Parachute Handy

Risk creates gorgeous prose, thrilling scenarios, and memorable characters. But risk without a means of protection is merely self-destructive. Neil Gaiman’s great talent is taking wild leaps, yet always landing safely. 

The character Fat Charlie Nancy has endless troubles: his father, brother, job, fiancé, and future mother-in-law. It’s partly his fault, but mostly not. His troubles take place in a world both magical and realistic, both sensuous and scary. How many writers humanely combine mystery with wit, folklore with justice, creepy bad guys with music, mythology, and the essence of family, evil, storytelling, and silliness? It’s all here.

How’d he do it? What parachutes does he use?

~ Create a narrator who’ll let you say what you want to. It’s all about voice.
    “Each person who ever was or is or will be has a song. It isn’t a song that anybody else wrote. It has its own melody, it has its own words. Very few people get to sing their song. Most of us fear that we cannot do it justice with our voices, or that our words are too foolish or too honest, or too odd. So people live their song instead.”

~ Invigorate familiar metaphors. This can surpass creating brand-new ones.
    “Daisy looked up at him with the kind of expression that Jesus might have given someone who had just explained that he was probably allergic to bread and fishes, so could He possibly do him a quick chicken salad: there was pity in that expression, along with almost infinite compassion.”

~ Create character with dialogue. Spider and Charlie each sound unique.
    “The ties of blood,” said Spider, “are stronger than water.”
“Water’s not strong,” objected Fat Charlie.
“Stronger than vodka, then. Or volcanoes. Or, or ammonia.”

~ Characterize quickly and concisely. Go for the sentence that speaks volumes.
    “Ahh,” said Mrs. Dunwiddy. She could disapprove with just that one syllable.

~ Stay in voice when you shift time or offer transitions. Don’t freeze up.
    “Like all sentient beings, Fat Charlie had a weirdness quotient. For some days the needle had been over in the red, occasionally banging jerkily against the pin. Now the meter broke.”

~ Go a little wild. Just know where your parachutes are.
    “There was something about being in the vicinity of Grahame Coats that always made Fat Charlie (a) speak in clichés and (b) begin to daydream about huge black helicopters first opening fire upon, then dropping buckets of flaming napalm onto the offices of the Grahame Coats agency. Fat Charlie would not be in the office in those daydreams…”

Tip: Find your own parachute and take your own leaps. You can’t pull back from what you never wrote.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Listen to that Little Voice

Some therapists believe that clients already know everything they need to, requiring only a small nudge or gentle reminder to uncover what they understand but conveniently prefer to disregard. For writers also, this holds true approximately 95.68743 of the time. Or so.

Actually, that’s what feedback’s for: less to reveal mysterious, unimagined issues than to help you admit what you secretly suspected all along. So you can fix it.

Tip: Listen carefully and honestly, and you’re your own best critic.

Easier said than done. Mark Twain railed about killing his conscience. Jiminy Cricket applauded exactly the opposite. Mark Twain was the genius of the pair, but in this case the insect had the right idea. If something inside you says, “Well, that’s a hideous sentence,” or “This scene doesn’t even hint at a goal,” or “When’s the last time the protagonist worried about something,” the same command solves all of those—and a whole lot more. Listen. You’ll know what’s true. Admitting a problem is the first step toward fixing it.

Tools to Empower Your Listening

~ Surround yourself with critiquers you respect.

If you kind of know that someone doesn’t read your genre, write that well, or offer anything but negatives, you can blissfully dismiss everything they say. Don’t facilitate rationalization! But do remember that even weak critiquers occasionally offer brilliant observations. If you listen, you can get a little something from most suggestions.

~ Grant yourself a defensiveness period.

But set a time limit. Perhaps five minutes, an hour, or twenty-four of them. Then? Obey your writing conscience. It warns against clutching that overwrought verb, superfluous character, or confusion stemming from inexplicable time shifts or inconsistent details.

~ Avoid explaining—to yourself or anyone else.

Good writers usually have good reasons for the choices they make. You wanted that impossibly long sentence to set up the taut ones that follow. You wanted to review what led to the pressure point, just in case readers forgot. You wanted to introduce a sentimental memory for motivation. Theoretically, these are all good choices. That doesn’t matter! If it doesn’t work, change, fix, or omit it. Minus the arguments.

~ Conserve your energy for improving, not defending.

Are you furious because the scene that consumed an entire weekend is apparently most useful as tinder for the woodstove? Use that surge of energy to revise rather than justify.

Listening to feedback is an art. It takes humility, courage, and perseverance. But to be the best writer you can be? What a small price to pay. Don’t you think?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

To Do (or Not to Do)

A novelist who shrugs off the need for active verbs could sink in the same boat as novelist who neglects plot—and for the same reason. Events must unfold in the physical world, the emotional one, or, ideally, both. Reduce everything to syndrome or possibility or state of being, and nonfiction becomes a preferable reading and writing choice.

Examine the evolution of the verb “do.” “To do” now compiles priorities to accomplish. On the novelist list? Capture action with active verbs. Because the noun “to do” signals commotion, stew, fuss, quarrel, agitation, uproar, stir, tempest in a teapot, hurricane, squall, tumult, or storm. Fiction originates right there. As Charles Baxter said, “Hell is story friendly.”

Tip: A scene without “to do” isn’t much of a scene.

Feeling isn’t doing. Neither is worrying. Neither are sentences like: “Anne felt angry,” or “He was astonished by the amount of confusion,” or “Wandering listlessly, he got in touch with how lost he really was.” No “to do” there. No good verbs, either.

Note how verbs invigorate the opening of Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters:

She smiled, wondering how often, if ever before, the cat had felt a friendly human touch, and she was still smiling as the cat reared up on its hind legs, even as it struck her with extended claws, smiling right up to that second when it sank its teeth into the back of her left hand and hung from her flesh so that she nearly fell forward, stunned and horrified, yet conscious enough of Otto’s presence to smother the cry that arose in her throat as she jerked her hand back from that circle of barbed wire. She pushed out with her other hand, and as the sweat broke out on her forehead, as her flesh crawled and tightened, she said, “No, no, stop that!” to the cat, as if it had done nothing more than beg for food, and in the midst of her pain and dismay she was astonished to hear how cool her voice was. Then, all at once, the claws released her and flew back as though to deliver another blow, but then the cat turned-it seemed in mid-air-and sprang from the porch, disappearing into the shadowed yard below.

Verb Checklist

ü  Skip the distancing auxiliaries: “is, be, am, are, was, were, been, has, have, had, do, does, did, may, might, can, could, shall, should, will, would, must.”
ü  Snare the verb: “sweeten” instead of “add a sweetener.”
ü  Banish dead metaphors. Find another way to illuminate that idea.
ü  Replace vague abstraction with concrete verbs: prop, besiege, wither, decimate.
ü  Jazz things up. Sizzle, curtail, unravel, kvetch, and pounce.

   But jazz up every verb, and you sound demented. Add just enough to electrify—to do, to act. Verbs repair weaknesses and incite commotion. That incites great scenes.