Sunday, August 31, 2014

Scenario and “The Woman Upstairs”

The brilliance of Claire Messud’s novel, The Woman Upstairs, is taking the pain of a woman symbolically dismissed from view and using that to analyze the pain that an unnoticed person of either gender can endure. Who’s the woman upstairs, and what ticks her off?

Bertha Mason, the mysterious character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, is a potentially dangerous madwoman in the attic. Messud handles the allusion so lightly that a reader can fully appreciate the novel without noticing the reference to Rochester’s first wife. 

But Messud brings new life to Bronte’s question: Is Mason dangerous because she’s a madwoman, or because cruelty and misunderstanding have reduced her to one?

Put “the woman upstairs” in a contemporary setting, and you can reveal the psyche of a woman treated as if she lacks merit, feelings—in fact doesn’t exist. Her purpose is fulfilling the needs of everyone else, constantly putting herself last, if she counts at all. In The N.Y. Times Book Review, Barbara Kingsolver observes that “A novel’s extraordinary power is to allow a reader to take possession of the inner life of another.” Messud accomplishes precisely that.
So why did this novel fare so poorly compared with Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch?  Jennifer Weiner (In Her Shoes) says, “The world doesn’t think what she’s doing is as worthy as what Tartt is doing.” But why? What’s behind the acclaim for a laborious book with a meandering plot and lots of stock characters versus an exquisitely written, deeply analytical one about individual pain representative of all human pain?
It’s all in the scenario. The Woman Upstairs attracts about as much attention as its protagonist, who tells us, “And especially now that I’ve learned that I really am invisible, I need to stop wanting to fly. I want to stop needing to fly.”  
The flight Nora Eldridge longs for is the equivalent of High Concept—the Big Idea that sells movies, books, and film options. If your scenario resembles an unnoticed person in hiding, its premise won’t help sell your book. What should you do?
Tip: Decide what really matters to you as an author.
If your heart’s in a winning scenario, you’re so lucky! But maybe your heart’s in writing something agents and critics might consider mundane. Then you must choose between writing the book you long to write or, instead, concentrating on making the sale. There’s no right or wrong answer here. However, you do need to be honest about what you choose, your rationale, and the probable consequences of your choice.
Because the truth is that the woman who wrote a brilliant novel got little recognition, and the woman who wrote one with a High Concept won a Pulitzer. The prose didn’t make the difference; the scenario did.
As Messud puts it, “When you are the woman upstairs, nobody thinks of you first.” 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

What about the Dialogue No Character Ever Speaks?

Dialogue shapes novels. There’s an unspoken dialogue between a novel and its readers that shapes the quality and impact of fiction.  In Novel Voices, Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabelais interview Siri Hustvedt, who has this to say about the dialogue that keeps us reading fiction:
The reader situates himself somewhere between the immediate here of the world in which he reads and the there of the book. He enters a state that is between himself and the voice of the book. Reading is also entering a dialogue of sorts because a book is nothing until it lives inside the reader, who makes the book come to life.

You can’t have a dialogue without both parties participating. But readers can’t do that unless some things are unsaid, some points never made. How else can readers interpret through the lens of their own memories, experiences, and appetites? Of course no one wants a novel to be an empty blackboard, awaiting the reader’s imprint. But no one wants every detail laid out, either, because that makes it impossible for readers to discover meaning for themselves.

Which factors let readers participate in the experience of fiction?

~ Plot events.

This is restricted to what the characters actually do or execute or say. What they contemplate, how they commiserate, whether they circumnavigate—all that excludes the reader, because it’s talking to rather than with.

~ Dialogue between characters.

Again, this is restricted to what the characters say rather than what they say “lazily,” “cheerfully,” “thoughtfully,” or “stormily.” Once you add adverbs or any other filter, it becomes a lecture—not a dialogue.

~ Subtext.
Pose questions that sound like questions and seemingly definitive statements that imply questions. If you like, write down exactly what the character wants to say. Afterwards, though, revise until your characters sound like real people—dropping hints, insinuating threats, and generally playing games.
~ Ambiguity.

Much as you’d like to, never, ever “tell” readers exactly what you want them to notice, believe, defy, or applaud. Drop clues. Unfurl your plot. Make your characters suffer enough to change. What will readers absorb from that? It’s up to them.
Tip: Let readers participate in the dialogue. After all, it’s why they’re there.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Taming and Training Your Voice

That’s already a contradiction. If your voice sounds caged or restrained or even as if you worked on it, it’s not working. So how can you train your voice?

You can’t proceed the way you’d attack plot or metaphor or an unfortunate addiction to adjectives. Still, you can get out of your own way, giving your voice every opportunity to come out and flash something appealing. Because voice is a bit wild—and should stay that way. But wild can also mean running amuck, and you don’t want that, either.

Here’s a start on taming and training.

1. Think about your audience—and only your audience. Nothing else.

Contrary as it may seem, the more you think about anything related to ego or how good or bad you sound or the effect you want to achieve or how many books you will (or won’t!) sell, then the more you damage your voice. Be yourself. Let yourself sound like yourself. That’s how your readers get the real thing. You can always polish. But you can’t polish what isn’t worth polishing because it isn’t real.

2. Ignore the superficial, obvious, or clichéd. What do only you see? Know? Value?

This necessitates risk. But gems are rarely scattered on the surface. They’re down deep. That’s what you—only you—can say, so you’ll have just the right words for it. The poet Muriel Rukeyser calls it “Going diving.” She’s talking about poetry, of course, but for any writer, “If you dive deep enough and have favorable winds or whatever is under the water, you come to a place where experience can be shared, and somehow there is somewhere in oneself that shares.”

3. Embrace tradition, then transcend it. Revere, but without losing individuality.

Use everything you’ve read and discovered to identify your place among your literary predecessors. Not so you can imitate them, of course, but so you can perfect the voice you developed because the authors before you made you who you are—a blend of yourself and those who made you yourself.

Where would Claire Messud be without Ralph Ellison and Charlotte Bronte, or Chad Harbach without Merman Melville, or Alice Hoffman without Emily Bronte? And that’s just the short list.

Obviously, these folks can generate their own scenarios or voices. Yet neither ideas nor the words for them spring out fully formed, like Aphrodite on the sea. Even Aphrodite came from somewhere, as do our thoughts and expression of them, which reflects both idiosyncrasy and tradition. As Cormac McCarthy put it, “The ugly fact is, books are made out of books. The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.”

Tip: A great voice reflects the canon preceding it while striking a chord that resonates with both past and future, with both who we are and the forces—and voices—that created who we are. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

How Much Do People Want to Change?

Not much. Every New Year’s brings promises of writing more and eating less, of visiting the gym, giving or tossing items you never use, and finishing the draft. If any of those happen, it’s usually because—something happened.

Tip: Inertia is powerful. Events drive characters, people, and novels.

What about the people writing the novels? All have the best intentions. They plan to write daily, revise based on critique, research agents early on, take the necessary steps to make the dream come true. Yet somehow, potentially wonderful novels linger unfinished, unrevised, and unagented. Sometimes reality interferes. But more often, inertia does.

What gets a novelist moving? An event. Your best friend gets an agent, writes “The End,” transcends a rejection slip. Alternatively, your worst enemy gets an agent, writes “The End,” transcends a rejection slip. You’re ready to act, so don’t drift back to getting it done whenever you do. Because without another event, who knows?

Events control people—and characters—in a way that good intentions rarely can. Of events, the inciting incident is among the most provocative, seductive, and inflammatory. Whether the protagonist answers the call or vows to resist it, the world is forever changed. As Hamlet said, “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.” Like most protagonists, Hamlet knows that he’s been called to act.

That’s what the inciting incident is. Too often, though, writers assume that the inciting incident is for the reader—a hook to explode the plot with a giant bang. That, too, of course, but the inciting incident is mainly for the protagonist. Without an impetus like his father’s ghost appearing to Hamlet, the protagonist simply rails against injustice. And stays stuck.

How can a novelist combat inertia?

~ Choose your inciting incident carefully.
It needs sufficient oomph to carry your entire novel.
~ Substitute event for syndrome.
People and characters will tolerate a fair amount of dissatisfaction without taking action. But guess what? Readers won’t.
~ Clarify in your own mind (not on the page!) how you want your protagonist to change.
Is it from selfish to generous, snobbish to compassionate, or passive to proactive?
~ Eliminate inert brooding, worrying, planning, and fantasizing.
None of those remove the protagonist’s difficulties or fulfill the protagonist’s dreams. Plus it’s no fun to read.
~ Be the protagonist of your writing life.
Look for events that motivate you. Do postponed deadlines have consequences? Hmmm. If not, should they?

Ideas are glorious. But action gets things done—both inside and outside of fiction.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

"Anansi Boys": Taking Risks Because You Have a Parachute Handy

Risk creates gorgeous prose, thrilling scenarios, and memorable characters. But risk without a means of protection is merely self-destructive. Neil Gaiman’s great talent is taking wild leaps, yet always landing safely. 

The character Fat Charlie Nancy has endless troubles: his father, brother, job, fiancé, and future mother-in-law. It’s partly his fault, but mostly not. His troubles take place in a world both magical and realistic, both sensuous and scary. How many writers humanely combine mystery with wit, folklore with justice, creepy bad guys with music, mythology, and the essence of family, evil, storytelling, and silliness? It’s all here.

How’d he do it? What parachutes does he use?

~ Create a narrator who’ll let you say what you want to. It’s all about voice.
    “Each person who ever was or is or will be has a song. It isn’t a song that anybody else wrote. It has its own melody, it has its own words. Very few people get to sing their song. Most of us fear that we cannot do it justice with our voices, or that our words are too foolish or too honest, or too odd. So people live their song instead.”

~ Invigorate familiar metaphors. This can surpass creating brand-new ones.
    “Daisy looked up at him with the kind of expression that Jesus might have given someone who had just explained that he was probably allergic to bread and fishes, so could He possibly do him a quick chicken salad: there was pity in that expression, along with almost infinite compassion.”

~ Create character with dialogue. Spider and Charlie each sound unique.
    “The ties of blood,” said Spider, “are stronger than water.”
“Water’s not strong,” objected Fat Charlie.
“Stronger than vodka, then. Or volcanoes. Or, or ammonia.”

~ Characterize quickly and concisely. Go for the sentence that speaks volumes.
    “Ahh,” said Mrs. Dunwiddy. She could disapprove with just that one syllable.

~ Stay in voice when you shift time or offer transitions. Don’t freeze up.
    “Like all sentient beings, Fat Charlie had a weirdness quotient. For some days the needle had been over in the red, occasionally banging jerkily against the pin. Now the meter broke.”

~ Go a little wild. Just know where your parachutes are.
    “There was something about being in the vicinity of Grahame Coats that always made Fat Charlie (a) speak in clichés and (b) begin to daydream about huge black helicopters first opening fire upon, then dropping buckets of flaming napalm onto the offices of the Grahame Coats agency. Fat Charlie would not be in the office in those daydreams…”

Tip: Find your own parachute and take your own leaps. You can’t pull back from what you never wrote.