Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Art of the “Art” Novel

Contemporary fiction offers a full palette of novels exploring human nature via paintings and painters: Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever, Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex, Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue, and Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Goldfinch

Now we have Saving Kandinsky, Mary Basson’s novel about Gabriele “Ella” Münter. “Ella” was the student and lover of the better-known painter Wassily Kandinsky—and the reason the Nazis failed to destroy his works of “Modernism—A Conspiracy by People Who Hate German Decency.”

The novel dramatizes politics while exploring the artistic life. Young Ella feels that “drawing was as good as having friends. When she was working on a piece, she concentrated, hard.  She entered into her work as though she were opening the door to a room where she might circulate among the forms and shapes inside, a choreographer among dancers.”

But when Kandinsky flirts with abstraction, Ella must rethink her definition of art. Looking at an early example of Expressionism, she protests, “’People won’t recognize the scene.’
‘No. Not with their eyes,’” Kandinsky answers.

With Ella, we begin to grasp the significance of what the Nazis condemned as “Degenerate”—and a why passion beyond love motivated Ella to risk her life protecting his paintings.

When the Nazis come for the work Ella has hidden, she “…felt her neck and shoulders grow tense, the hawk rising. She wanted to peck…with her beak, to shout out…leave her house, just get out. Count, she told herself, count quickly. Onetwothreefourfive. Breathe. The raptor quieted. ‘I don’t believe I caught your name, young man.’
‘Answer the question, please. We know, as well, that your father defected to America.’ He might have been chastising a wayward child.
Once again, the truth would serve. She pushed the bird down. ‘Papa? My goodness. Well, yes, but he came back, didn’t he, before I was born. Papa was a dentist in Dusseldorf, but you might know that already. Now, let’s see. As for those Communists, I couldn’t say for certain they want. I’m not really the person to ask.’”

This is a beautifully written read about courage, wit, aesthetics. How did Basson do it?

~Tension. Add it, and you have the luxury of analyzing art (or whatever).
~ History. It can be a genuine source of inspiration—and plot.
~Love. The real kind—with all the complications of early 20th century Europe.

And finally?

Tip: Write about what you love—what moves you. The readers will follow.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Art of Chad Harbach

On Tax Day at Lakeland College, the author of The Art of Fielding talked openly about what writing means to him.

Tip: “You become a writer because you need those books that seem delivered by gods.”

He wrote one of them. In many decades of one novel after another, his was the only time I reached page 512, started anew at page one, and read straight through. How did he do it? Well, yes, a ridiculous amount of talent. But also beliefs useful to every novelist.

~ Tradition offers a solid foundation.
His novel harnesses the archetypal to elevate college, winning, losing, and growing up to something much, much more. “What does a [baseball] team do when going off on a quest together?” The team’s star is “coming into consciousness. With The Fall come the complications and pains and joys of being a conscious human.” Mythological structure can support and augment nearly any novel. Are you using it to full advantage?

~ All the major characters matter—and are developed.
Harbach said that his “five central characters carry equal weight…I never felt more interested in Henry than in the other characters.” Do you give each major character enough attention for full complexity?

~ Readers want plot and characterization—not pre-digested themes.
“You’re in dangerous waters if you think a lot about thematics…Explication feels like a sort of defense.” Though his subject was explaining fiction, the observation applies elsewhere. Are your characters and images expressing whatever you want to say?

~ Nothing worthwhile comes cheap.
Harbach’s novel explains why “Writing is hard work”: “It was easy enough to write a sentence, but if you were going to create a work of art, the way Melville had, each sentence needed to fit perfectly with the one that preceded it, and the unwritten one that would follow. And each of those sentences needed to square with the ones on either side, so that three became five and five became seven, seven became nine, and whichever sentence he was writing became the slender fulcrum on which the whole precarious edifice depended. That sentence could contain anything, anything, and so it promised the kind of absolute freedom that, to Affenlight's mind, belonged to the artist and the artist alone. And yet that sentence was also beholden to the book’s very first one, and its last unwritten one, and every sentence in between.” Hmm. Are you working hard enough?

Harbach writes longhand, but you needn’t. Whatever it takes to achieve “a deeper state…surprise—a direction that the really intellectual mind isn’t going to go.”

That’s it. The formula for a book that “doesn’t even seem like it was written by a human being.” He was talking about Moby Dick. I’m talking about The Art of Fielding.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Building the “Building” Where Your Characters Live

Writers often associate worldbuilding with science fiction, and bildungsroman with coming of age. But isn’t every novel world at least partially imaginary—composed of details about the environment that the author must somehow communicate? And doesn’t every protagonist with an arc advance from inadequacy to greater strength?

The building you have to build reveals what your protagonist faces and why. And if you want readers beyond your loved ones, exploring that building must be fun.

Tip: Secrets are the most fun when one discovers them one snippet at a time.

The secret to successful worldbuilding and backstory? Hint just enough to incite curiosity. Was it murder? Now hold back. Is the protagonist a coward? What must the protagonist unlearn to make it in the metropolis? Will the last human perish?

It’s all in the timing. At a writer’s conference, grinning merrily, Don Maass stunned his audience by saying, “Once you’re seventy percent of the way through your novel, go ahead and have all the backstory you want.”

He’s right, of course. Then how do you build the building until then? By taking a stroll in your reader’s shoes. Aside from the plot, what do you absolutely need to know?

If you’re thinking like a reader, that’s quite a question. Don’t shrug it off. Probe. Deeply and honestly. Want some additional tricks for suggesting and keeping secrets?

~ List at least ten things you intend to hide.
Plan where to insert them, insinuating early, then failing to dish the dirt till the last possible moment. This focuses a first draft or adds tension to a later one.

~ Compose an elaborate backstory.
Writing it out can restrain the impulse to dump all of it into your novel. Drizzle small details, always integrating the past with current conflict. Tease.

~ Explain the whole world.
Add everything. In the first few chapters. All at once. Now? Slash and burn. If you omit everything you possibly can, you might have just exactly enough.

Eventually readers should see the entire building—because you built it one secret, one brick, one shadow of a brick at a time. Getting to know this building? Really, really fun.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Feeling the Feeling

Since novelists need their readers to feel what the characters do, it’s useful that humans feel with both our hands and hearts. Characters, too, can touch either a face or a nerve. What’s this got to do with conveying feelings?

Feeling covers so much territory: to grope, caress fur, get chilled, evade anger, experience curiosity or euphoria. What do they all share in common?

To answer this, consider churches. They evoke our deepest feelings, whether sanctity, security, love of beauty—or frustration over whether church delivers or nullifies these.

Physicality is the source of the profound emotions that churches evoke. The images are so intense—so iconic, that most everyone senses spiritual presence, even if no incense burns, even if you never kneel, touch a statue, or let a wafer melt on your tongue.

Since they first built churches, they knew that the feelings we literally feel transmit those we can only imagine. Fiction works precisely the same way.

Tip: Tangible feeling is the route to emotional feeling.

Despite this, people, including writers, of course, reduce the complexity and solidity of emotion to abstract and unrealistic shorthand: scared, angry, overjoyed, miserable. “Sad” evokes the same amount of physical sensation that “good as gold” does—i.e. none at all. Imagery isn’t enough. It’s got to be imagery that’s still vital.

So how do you help your readers feel the feelings?

Bring characters together.
Can someone brooding alone match the intensity of a live confrontation?

Translate into body language.
Forget abstract description and ponderous pondering. What is the character doing?

What event or image (image—not cliché) does the feeling resemble?

Few feelings are one-dimensional. What conflicting emotions does your character feel?

Fiction works its magic by creating a world, and worlds are built from what we hear, see, smell, touch, and taste. Convey feeling with—feeling.