Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Novel and the Novelist’s Emotions

Like everyone else, writers may be reluctant to wade through their deepest emotions. It’s like a swamp down there—with all the worst quagmire characteristics: rotting material, oppressive atmosphere, fetid odors—the stuff of nightmares. Maybe even the idea turns you off. Who loves swamps, or wants to revisit fear, anger, or pain? At best it puts you in a terrible mood; at worst it hurts.

But dark places can originate creativity: carnivorous plants, larger-than-life creatures, symbolism, secrets.
In Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques, Donald Maass suggests that novelists often gain the greatest impact by probing deep inside—unearthing what they’d rather forget or ignore.

Tip: You’re the best source of the depths that make your characters compelling and real.

The point isn’t self-torture, of course, but the kind of experiment that scientists like Newton have always performed. To whatever extent you can step back to notice or recall profound feeling, you might gain both perspective and stoicism. You might unearth the details that create complex characters, which in turn creates compassionate readers.

Questions to might help achieve that:

~ How would you rank this pain (or fear or lust or rage)?
Scoring helps recall other instances of intense emotion and produces more objective comparisons. This can yield specific examples and strong metaphors. Make yourself take notes so you can later round out your characters—even your minor ones.

~ What’s hidden in your personal swamp?
Perhaps there’s more envy (or competitiveness or greed or selfishness) than you usually acknowledge. But it’s okay, because you’re wearing protective garb: “This is for the writing.” That arms you against hideous imagery and noxious fumes while you dig up the traits that shape intriguing characters. Write down the details.

~ How does intense emotion affect you physically?
Note breathing changes—also your pulse, lips, shoulders, and tongue. Which of the five senses dominates? What happens to hunger, thirst, energy, even digestion? Record your observations to replace clichéd body language like turning, yawning, and shrugging.

 If life dumps you in a swamp, such exercises may feel intolerable. But if you can wade the bog for the sake of your novel and its characters, your discoveries might enrich not only your fiction, but your life.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Riding the Range

How broad is your novel’s scope?  Many delightful novels never introduce social context. But the novels that haunt us usually capture individuals within their environment.

Consider the narrow scope of these characters interacting during a water aerobics class.

Not wanting a collision, Ella said, “Um, you’re drifting into my lane.”
The woman scowled. “Why does that matter?”
“Well, it matters if you kick me,” Ella answered. Hmm. No “whoops” or better yet, “I’m sorry.” What’s with this person?
“It’s Valentine’s Day. Lighten up.”
 “But you’re not my valentine,” Ella pointed out.
After a long pause, the woman extended her hand. “My name is Ann.  I’m pleased to meet you.”
“Yeah, pleased to meet you, too.”

This conversation offers some intrigue, but without any range, because there’s no context beyond a pool. What happens if you add a detail that establishes a power imbalance? Is one of them a person of color, or a lesbian? Maybe one of these women is an attorney, the other a waitress. Does one of them have a disability?

If the two women differ, how does this affect the response to who says what? What shifts if this aerobics class is in Oregon or Mississippi, in a fancy health club or a Y, on one side of the tracks or the other?

Questions that reveal how society shapes individuals reveal social norms and biases. This invites readers to question their own expectations, assumptions, and biases. Ask readers to consider why someone’s losing, and—everyone wins.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland illustrates how background creates characters in the worlds of Calcutta, Rhode Island, and California. Beyond that, her novel explores how the attempted Naxalite revolution continued changing lives long after the Mao posters faded. Even in Lahiri’s capable hands, politics occasionally overrides plot and poetry. But that’s a worthwhile risk. Characters that represent the great forces that stymie or compel us aren’t just more credible. They’re more meaningful and memorable.

Tip: Take risks. Show us not just who your characters are, but what made them that way.

That’s the “real” stuff that novels are made of.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Born Toxic?

Jellyfish (jellies) are. They die that way, too. Try stepping on a desiccating one, or, rather—do so at your peril. Antagonists? That’s a matter of nature and nurture, and one of crucial importance to fiction. In Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Donald Maass reminds us that a multi-dimensional opponent is not only more intriguing, but “more dangerous.”

And as Robert McKee puts it in Story, “All other factors of talent, craft, and knowledge being equal, greatness is found in the writer’s treatment of the negative side.” Why? Because without a worthy antagonist, a protagonist has no compulsion to defeat inertia. The status quo seems less exhausting. Why not just …

Tip: The antagonist is the source of change—and growth—in the protagonist.

Two kinds of worthy antagonist can motivate your protagonist. The first is doomed. But your antagonist obviously needs greater complexity than a creature with only a nerve net. Maybe your antagonist yearns to be good, cursing the universe that makes some of its inhabitants unable to conquer their worst foibles.  These villains fill Shakespeare’s plays—because such antagonists offer credibility and inspire empathy.

As a novelist, it’s your job to make us grasp that level of pain. What would it be like to envy the impulse toward morality? Challenge yourself to understand that notion, so your readers can.

Other antagonists haven’t the slightest desire to change. They rationalize lust, greed, arrogance, or violence so skillfully that the audience wonders whether there’s something valid about those arguments. The compelling antagonist has mastered self-justification: “It’s absolutely okay for me to murder or starve or rape these people because I…”

It’s your job to complete that thought. The source is backstory, not on the page, but in your grasp of character. Which sociological and psychological factors formed this person? This requires viewing your antagonist as a person—not a creature.  Again, the answers probably come from your worst secrets. What stories do you tell to legitimize moments of selfishness or deceit? On a much uglier magnitude, the antagonist’s mind works the same way. The darkest, dirtiest parts of you long ago familiarized you with the storytelling that lets us do what we want instead of what we know we should. There’s a little antagonist in most of us.

Jellies come in hundreds of species. They’ve been around practically forever. Antagonists, born toxic or otherwise, are at least as old as Greek tragedy. Despite pollution, jellyfish still thrive. So do antagonists, every time you reveal what makes such individuals as real and complex as everyone else.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Seeing the Magic, Making the Magic

Say it’s winter, and you’re lucky enough to be on a southern beach instead of imprisoned in a northern cold front. Say you like that beach enough to put it in your novel. The easy, obvious course is describing the easy and obvious. Here goes: hundreds of folks glistening with oil or tanning lotion splay out on beach chairs facing the sun. Behind them, the waves lap rhythmically, soothingly. It’s true. Absolutely.

But who cares?  No one, really. No magic here. Only the easy and obvious.

Tip: To convey something magical, first you must see—not just skim the surface, but really see.

It’s actually harder to see than to craft sentences about what you’ve uncovered. Seeing is far more than half the battle.  Happily, looking deeply and creatively is a skill. Like any skill, it’s something you can learn. All you need is patience, practice, and determination to keep seeking what’s initially invisible.

A writer I know remarked on wanting to find what’s beautiful and special about any location. Even though many admire mountains and ocean more than farmland, finding magic wherever you are makes you a better novelist.

That’s the whole trick: looking past pedestrian clichés and tired, superficial imagery to the mystery and magic. In that world—which is actually everywhere—magic surrounds you, encompasses you, infiltrates you. Replace sunbathers (yawn) and raucous gulls (yawn, yawn) and lapping waves (not yawn but ouch!). How about a sliver of moon accompanying a star or two when your protagonist’s the only one in the hotel pool at 5 a.m. Or a protagonist who, with only blessing for compensation, walks the beach, forking litter from seaweed and broken coral, stowing other people’s refuse in a giant garbage bag.

~ Find the magic of fantasy.

If you’re lucky enough to imagine what elves lovingly whisper during elf trysts, or the spell an elderly       wizard casts when he knows his long life is winding down, then you transcend the ordinary.

~ Find the magic of reality.

Every novelist needs magic, and not all of us can or want to conjure elves, wizards, or unicorns. But magic is everywhere. All you have to do is really look, and you’ll begin to really see. Abracadabra.

There it is. Yours for the taking—yours for the giving. A version of blessed.