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.

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Emotional Wisdom of the Novel

The best ones have it. Consider the psychology of Melville’s Captain Ahab or the well-motivated sadism of Hawthorne’s Chillingworth. Generally, novels dispense insight because their authors have it—along with the ability to “show” rather than “tell” what they grasp.

Since the novel’s inception, people have sought moral truths from fiction. As Jonathan Gottschall asks in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, “Why are humans addicted to Neverland? How did we become the storytelling animal?”

To a novelist, “how” matters less than the conviction that after the characters disappear, readers know something about emotional wisdom that they didn’t before.

What does emotional wisdom look like? Here’s Richard Russo from Empire Falls:

“What he discovered was that violating his own best nature wasn’t nearly as unpleasant or difficult as he’d imagined. In fact, looking around Empire Falls, he got the distinct impression that people did it every day. And if you had to violate your destiny, doing so as a Whiting male wasn’t so bad. To his surprise he also discovered that it was possible to be good at what you had little interest in, just as it had been possible to be bad at something, whether painting or poetry, that you cared about a great deal.”

Who knew? Or that:

“Science doesn't tell us what we should do. It only tells us what is.” ― Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior

Or Jane Austen? Pride and Prejudice is among the wisest portrayals of who we are:

“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves; vanity, to what we would have others think of us.”

How can you convey emotional wisdom?

~ Start with the plot. The inciting incident, climax, and resolution are the source of whatever you’d like readers to understand.
~ Resist the temptation to comment. For one thing, comments tend to oversimplify. For another? Stuffing the theme into a character’s mouth is still commenting.
~ Probe human nature. You can’t offer insights you don’t have. Why do people really do whatever they’re doing? It’s rarely obvious. Put some thought into it.
~ Surprise us. Every time you hit readers with something that never previously recognized, you hint at how wise you are—and how wise they are to be reading you.

Tip: We think of emotion and wisdom as antithetical. The more your novel implodes that, then the happier (and wiser?) your readers will be.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Who Wants a Window Seat next to the Wing?

Anyone desiring a view will dislike anything blocking it. Aboard a plane or not, which obstacles do fiction readers encounter?

*** Author.

Are you standing between your characters and your readers? As Jonathan Franzen expressed it in The Writer, “I think the most important thing―it may sound strange―is to get inside the character to the point that there is a lot of anxiety and shame. The real struggle is to find a dramatic setup and a corresponding tone that make it possible to dwell in that anxiety and shame without feeling icky as a reader. That’s a big challenge. My approach to that―pretty much with all the characters―was that when it started seeming funny to me, I knew I was there.  If it seemed anguished or earnest, I knew I wasn’t there.” Restrict “anguish” and “earnestness” to your life: use your characters to ban those from the pages of your novel. If, however briefly, you point out “anguish” or convey “earnestness,” you’ve obstructed the view.

Don Maass agrees, observing in Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling that “When your readers (temporarily) believe something that you’re not (ultimately) saying, you’re writing fiction at the level of art….Call it withholding, if that helps. Conceptualize it as misdirection, if you like. However you think of it, make your readers think.” Just so. If you tell them what to think, how can they discover for themselves what’s hidden under that wing?

*** Characters.

Just as you don’t want your ego overshadowing the landscape, you don’t want your narrator over-explaining, pontificating, or overshadowing the action and scenery.

*** Narrator.

But. The narrator controls the altitude and intensity. If your narrator explains nothing, makes no connections, and delivers no insights, either your book will be 2000 pages long or frustrated readers will terminate futile attempts at guesswork and—find a novel that balances character and narrator input. Narrators who guide without belaboring the obvious actually make the characters more visible.

How do you give readers the view they want?

~ Get out of the way. You’re the author—not the wing.
~ Use your narrator to control pace and clarify what readers can’t infer.
~ Let the characters star—they’re why readers choose certain novels, and certain seats.

Tip: Give your readers a window seat on a plane with invisible wings.