Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Audience Appetite

The people who adore reading novels adore them passionately. But novel readers tend to gravitate just as passionately to a particular kind. Those starved for the straightforward will avoid complexity the way vegetarians avoid bacon. On the other hand, if you want a good chew, applesauce isn’t going to satisfy.

Where’s the spot for your own book on the huge buffet out there? Considering that question won’t just help you sell your book; it’ll help you write a much better one—with a better chance of selling, as well.

Italo Calvino observed that “Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature.” Calvino offers other valuable insights: “Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them,” or “A classic is a work which persists as a background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.”

Isn’t this why some novels linger on the minds not just of individuals but of entire cultures? Why some fiction remains “true” even when everything else in the world has changed? But are “Overambitious projects” different in literature than in music, sculpture, philosophy, or science? Probably not.

Tip: The eye of the beholder determines what makes a “project” “overambitious.”

Can you visualize your ideal reader? Maybe it’s someone who’d choose the goodies that you would at the buffet. Maybe it’s a favorite teacher, your son, your critique partner, the guy from your lit class at West Point, or the cutie who delivers the mail. Picture the reader you want. Take your time.

Ready? Use your ideal reader to answer the questions every novelist faces. Like these.

~ Does it matter if the characters or plot seem a little familiar?
~ How much setting is too much?
~ Is there such a thing as too clear?
~ Is white space or *** a perfectly good technique? No matter how often?
~ If it starts to sound like poetry, is that a good thing?
~ Must the point of view be absolutely consistent?
~ Is it okay if most of the characters are “neurotic”?
~ Does backstory add insight, or is it just annoying?
~ How much dialogue is “just right”?
~ How “political” does a novel get to be?

There are no right answers! None. But you need to ask—and answer—such questions. Know your audience. That’s not just how you market adroitly. It’s how you write adroitly, too.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Passive Voice and the Novelist’s Voice

Novel readers don’t ask for much: A powerful plot. Compelling characters. A voice you could listen to forever.

What don’t novel readers ask for? A novel where there is a plot based on decisions that should be made by characters who are being described by a narrator resulting in a voice that is passive. There is (good construction to avoid) no justification for that!

Novelists rarely incite that much irritation. But the sentence does illustrate the connection between passive voice—and no voice. In “The Pleasures and Perils of the Passive,” Constance Hale identifies both kinds of voice: “Most (though not all) verbs have a property known as ‘voice,’ which can be either active or passive. The voice of a verb is different from both the common notion of voice (the timbre produced by a person’s vocal cords) and the literary notion (the ineffable way the writer’s words work on the page).”

Stephen King delivers this warning in “Why and How to Avoid Passive Voice”:  “You should avoid the passive voice. I’m not the only one who says so; you can find the same advice in ‘The Elements of Style’.  Messrs. Strunk and White don't speculate as to why so many writers are attracted to passive verbs, but I'm willing to; I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe.”

Safe or not, the passive voice is wordy, cumbersome, and unintentionally comic: “The ball was hit by the girl.” Will that release your voice? Seriously?

To find your voice, you must first counteract insecurity and self-consciousness, then enchant through syntax, music, diction, rhythm, figurative language, and on and on. Why add an awkward, usually displeasing construction that makes all that harder?  Because exceptions exist (though preferably not expressed as “There are exceptions”).

~ Would a sentence become unclear or ungainly if you traded subject for object?

The Emperor was attacked by an enraged people, starving and humiliated, whom he’d recently enslaved in a victory that generated, song, poem, statue and—revolution.

~ Do you intentionally seek distance? Ambiguity? A certain tone or rhythm?

There are truths few humans can endure, truths awaiting someone to voice them.

How to choose when to give in and use passive voice?

Tip: Imagine that each passive sentence costs $50,000. Then spend your cash wisely.

After all, W.H. Auden proclaimed, “All I have is a voice.” And that’s all anyone has.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Does Your Novel Behave like a Story or like a Sestina?

Even if you’re unsure what a sestina is, you don’t want your novel resembling one. Novels must thrust forward, rather than circling around plot, theme, or character emotions.

What’s a sestina? A complex 39-line poem dating back to 12th century France. Since novels can be 390 pages, the two forms illuminate in distinctly different ways.

The sestina takes the last word of the first six lines (123456) and creates this pattern from those six words: 615243, 364125, 532614, 451362, 246531. The six words reappear one last time in the final three-line verse. By repeating and revisiting, the sestina reveals different conclusions about the same idea, which—ceases to be the same idea.

Though this might seem excessive, each recurrence changes the word’s context, even its meaning. If you’re curious about the sestina, check out what Elizabeth Bishop does with the simple words “house,” “grandmother,” “child,” “stove,” “almanac,” and “tears.”

The technique is not only terrific for poets but an excellent exercise for deepening a novel. You might quite usefully compose a sestina about dilemma, subplot, or backstory. But it’s no way to structure the book itself.

Here’s why. Lauren Groff liked Joshua Ferris’s “To Rise Again at a Decent Hour,” but said of the protagonist’s arc: “If I never found the novel an ‘opera of bracing suspense,’ it may be because I was so worn down by O’Rourke’s incessant circling around his self-hatred and fear and inability to make a substantive effort, that when change does in fact come to him, it feels a bit limp and clammy.”

Novels generally trace the journey from weakness or difficulty to strength and power. Progress won’t be steady. There’ll be set-backs, wrong turns, resurrection of self-destructive habits, and worship of false truths.

This doesn’t mean you get to repeat as sestinas do. How can you avoid that?

~ A scene goal outline.
Check how often the protagonist progresses or retraces.

~ Physical/emotional balance.
The more characters ruminate, worry, and plan, then the more static your novel will feel.

~ Motivated dialogue.
Do conversations actually advance plot, or exist only to break up the narration?

~ A character arc.
Do events cause the character to grow, or is success sudden and inexplicable?

Tip: Life often seems to go in circles, but readers don’t want novels imitating that.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

“Hope is the Thing with Feathers”

Emily Dickinson wasn’t the happiest of individuals: she loathed conformity, suffered various physical difficulties, endured unrequited love, and felt every emotion acutely. Yet if one side of her impassioned reactions was “Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me,” then the other was belief in how high human consciousness could soar.  For humans, even a plane ride is an act of faith, a belief that we can escape our earthbound nature.

Whether you’re passionate about God and identity, as Dickinson was, or about travel, love, or politics, it’s easy to get darkly bitter about what someone isn’t providing, how it isn’t fair, will never improve, and so on. It takes guts and at least a few feathers to make a song when things look hopeless. Yet is there anything better an artist can give?

Pete Seeger died not long ago, and if ever there lived a person who could fly and make everyone else believe they also could, he was such a man. He was also a man who despised injustice and devoted his life (and income) to defeating it. He grinned and joked and stood tall and sang no matter how much indignation he experienced. You can, too. You should, too.

Pete Seeger’s recipe works well for novels: stand up for justice, tell the truth, maintain your sense of humor, and never lose hope. Since its inception, storytelling has used plot to impart moral lessons, bond tribes, dispense culture, and inspire hope. If, arguably, storytelling makes us human, perhaps storytelling matters because it’s our best hope for hope.

Storytelling promises catharsis. Since Aristotle, we’ve become more flexible about lauding royalty and upholding constraints like the plot completing in one place during one twenty-four hour period. Our emotions, though? Those haven’t changed much.

If we’ve been rooting for someone, whether real or fictional, and this individual fails the ultimate test, yet learns from it, well, we learn too. We only suffer vicariously. But what we learn from the suffering that we experienced on the page—that belongs to us as much as the protagonist. 

How do you make that happen?

~ Afflict your protagonist with a universal dilemma—one everyone can relate to.
~ Root the trouble not in fate but in one individual, one individual’s mistakes.
~ Don’t let the angst or gore overshadow the emotions and their “lessons.”
(That keeps us reading/watching “Game of Thrones.”)
~ Provide hope—like the boy who’ll live to tell the story of Camelot.

Tip: Go ahead and be as dark as you like. But offer at least a small ray of light by the end.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Censure or Motivation? Criticism or Challenge?

Most writers claim to crave feedback, a desire that has spawned numerous credit and noncredit writing programs and an even larger number of critique groups and writing partners. But bad feedback is worse than none at all. What makes critique useful? It must reflect the author’s purpose. Suggesting that someone turn a mystery into science fiction wastes everyone’s time, as do either excessive praise or excessive trashing.

Tip: Critique should be equal parts insight and inspiration.

Writers, being a sensitive and clever breed, have wittily railed against criticism. Here’s Kurt Vonnegut: “Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.”  Or John Osborne: “Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamp-post what it feels about dogs.” Franklin Jones pointed out that “Honest criticism is hard to take, particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance, or a stranger,” and Bob Dylan sang, “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.”

Yes, of course, criticism can be inaccurate and obnoxious. It can also be invaluable. If we want to publish, we’re no longer writing just for ourselves. People get to review us, and if we want good reviews, we should seek worthwhile feedback and use it to meet reader needs. As Benjamin Franklin observed, “Critics are our friends, they show us our faults.” If we’re writing for readers, we need to hear from readers. But feedback is dreadfully hard to hear if negativity seems its main thrust.

That’s the difference between criticism and challenge. However crucial, criticism can resemble masticating Brussels sprouts or whatever it is that might be good for you but doesn’t go down so easily.

In contrast, challenge signals growth—excitement. Writers gleefully pursue challenges: National Novel Writing Month, daily prompts, stories no longer than a hundred words. Challenge connotes a game, one you might win. So challenge yourself to hear every reasonable suggestion, and challenge yourself to offer all suggestions so that they sound reasonable.

Passive voice and all, Samuel Johnson had it right: “It is advantageous to an author that his book should be attacked as well as praised. Fame is a shuttlecock. If it be struck at one end of the room, it will soon fall to the ground. To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends.”

That’s the challenge: what you need to give and receive. Here’s the reward: “This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.” -- Barbara Kingsolver