Thursday, January 23, 2014

Fiction and Figure Skating?

Perhaps. Unrelated as these seem, they’re alike in capacity to achieve excellence via more than one path. Skaters can rack up points for athleticism or artistry, while writers can magnetize readers with suspense, aesthetics, or other gifts.

If your aesthetics are glorious enough, you might get to compete in the Olympics even if other guys jump higher, quicker, more often, and with additional rotations. Put another way, you can make a few mistakes in an ambitious program or execute a less ambitious program with near-perfect exquisiteness. As a writer, you can have an ambitious scenario that leaves some room for weaknesses, or something simpler that you deliver perfectly.

Tip: If you’re great enough at one thing, you might not have to be great at everything.

This doesn’t mean that you should disregard your weaknesses (c’mon, you know what they are). Nor is it permission rationalize about those few painfully clumsy sentences or pages painfully free of tension (at least on the characters’ part).

It does mean that assessing your strengths and weakness will take you far—maybe all the way to the “gold,” whether skating or writing.

~ Say you want to start with your strengths. You’ll need detailed description. Picture the person who most loves your writing. If that’s not you, it might be your writing partner, mentor, spouse, or friend. From the perspective of this admirer, compose a short blurb raving about attributes. Don’t hold back! Such an original, charming, yet authentic voice. Such mastery of the long, flowing, embedded sentence. Such understanding of human psychology—not only of motivation but secrets, desires, and impetus for change.

~ Want to start with your weaknesses? A list will do; many writers excel at despising weaknesses rather than extolling strengths. Admit what you don’t like: parts of the plot are contrived; you start lots of scenes the same way; the dialogue goes on too long, or appreciating and adoring those present participles can prove annoying and maddening. Make a column of weaknesses. Match each one with an asset. You don’t get to quit until the number of strengths equals the number of tiny or terrible troubles. Play fair.

Writing is hard. On rough days some might compare it to Olympic competition. To keep going, you have to believe in yourself and your words. Being perfect is harder still. Isn’t it fabulous to know that you needn’t be perfect or excel at every single thing?  There’s more than one way to excellence. Athleticism or artistry—your choice.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The “I” of the Beholder

Since its inception, fiction has invited readers to see more deeply and differently. In Don Quixote, Cervantes gently asked what we mean by “romance,” while Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones questioned class and education.  Still, not all readers want their eyes opened, and even if they do, the same approach won’t work for every pair of eyes. No problem.

Tip: Not every novel will reach every novel reader.

This seems absurdly obvious. It’s not. We expect our loved ones to love the novels we love. If our friends dislike not just the great read we recently finished but our very own novel, it can feel considerably more depressing. That’s understandable. Also ever so slightly irrational. Here’s why.

Readers have diverse expectations.

 * Don't assume that all smart or sophisticated or educated people prefer “x” over “y.”
 * Do accept that  “Different strokes for different folks” isn’t just an idiom. It’s a reality.

Writers have diverse goals.

 * Don't presume that your novel will “work” for every single reader.
 * Do know your audience. Expand it without alienating your genuine audience.

Critique group members, like any group of readers, have diverse skills and tastes.

 * Don't quit your group or ignore the advice of those outside your “real” audience, or keep repeating, “I
    never read this genre, but your book seems to be…”
 * Do believe that every reader can be useful. Sift feedback rather than blindly obeying or wildly discarding.
    Critique objectively. Your group deserves that.

However diverse, all those different beholders share some things in common:

            All novel readers like suspense—motivation to keep turning pages.
            All novel readers like credible, intriguing characters.
            All novel readers like good writing.
            All novel readers like writers who consider audience and revise accordingly.
            All novel readers like the sensation that someone wrote this just for them.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Who Decides What’s Funny?

And for how long? On December 17, 1877, at a banquet celebrating the poet Whittier’s 70th birthday, Mark Twain applied his famous humor to four of the most revered “littery men” of the time: Emerson, Holmes, Longfellow, and Whittier. Today, Twain is by far the most beloved of that group. But at the time, newspapers derided the speech as in “exceedingly bad taste, and… he ought to have known better.”

The misstep dogged him. It affected book sales, may have motivated his departure for Europe, and definitely resulted in shame, apology, and—this is Mark Twain, after all—a recantation of the apology.

And all without the Web. Mark Twain’s speech, intended for playful humor and certainly not to shame anyone, raises two questions pertinent to contemporary writers.

What if you think it’s funny, but your audience doesn’t?
What if you change your mind later?

Tip: The best way to ward off future regret is to think before speaking or publishing.


This is tricky. If you’re a mainstream or literary novelist who adores adventure, you might want to ponder long and hard about identifying your readers. How do you attract the largest readership without extending so far into the periphery that you annoy/insult/drive off your real audience? Novelists rarely, if ever, enjoy the luxury of focus groups. You’ll have to guess. But do that shrewdly. If you want Knopf or Little, Brown to consider you, don’t alienate them by adding even a smidgen of what some might consider “exceedingly bad taste.”


You might outgrow anything sophomoric or cute or questionable that you once considered hilarious. What entertains us at thirty is often less amusing at sixty. But post it and—you can’t take it back.

That might lose you an agent or contract. Of course it might not. Why is writing always a matter of weighing choices? Why must you balance the electricity of risk against the hazard of accidentally starting a fire? You want to be original. You want to be energetic. You don’t want to offend those you hope to amuse or impress. So pretend you really do have a focus group. And listen—carefully and without rationalization—to what you imagine its members would say.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

The Language of Rapture, the Rapture of Language

People usually associate “rapture” less with ascension into heaven than the experience of heaven here on earth. This often relates to romantic rather than spiritual passion. According to A.E. Housman, “If truth in hearts that perish/Could move the powers on high/I think the love I bear you/Should make you not to die.” That’s a whole lot of emotion in not very many mostly one-syllable words.

In Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte is less understated. But the expression of Catherine’s love for Heathcliff could make anyone yearn to reject the fiancé and instead become a ghost inhabiting the beloved for eternity: “he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.”

Words might seem less rapturous than other art forms, because language affects daily life in ways that sculpture or sonatas don’t. But as Diane Setterfield puts it in The Thirteenth Tale, “There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.”

And while poets possess many crafty devices not entirely available to prose writers, novelists possess a very large bag of rapturous tricks. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is about love between friends, between humans and animals, and between spouses: “I stroke her lightly, memorizing her body. I want her to melt into me, like butter on toast. I want to absorb her and walk around for the rest of my days with her encased in my skin. I lie motionless, savoring the feeling of her body against mine. I’m afraid to breathe in case I break the spell.” 

But rapture in language is neither mainly about love nor exclusively from poetry. Any genre can capture rapture, whether romance, passion, spirituality, philosophy, or morality. Here’s a beginning by Neil Gaiman from Anansi Boys: “The great beasts were sung into existence, after the Singer had done with the planets and the hills and the trees and the oceans and the lesser beasts. The cliffs that bound existence were sung, and the hunting grounds, and the dark.”

Tip: To find the words to express rapture, you must first visualize rapture in your novel’s world.

That’s what novels can do to readers—for decades, for centuries. However weightless, words originate magic. As Shakespeare observed, “If this be error, and upon me prov’d/I never writ nor no man ever loved.”