Sunday, September 28, 2014


It’s like a dirty word. You’re stuck in here—trying to write when you don’t feel like it because of rain, or heat, or blizzard. You’ve got a deadline, which means you’ve stuck working on this until it’s done. Worst of all? You’re just stuck. Totally. Halfway through the novel. Surely someone knows what’s next. Just not you. Or you know exactly what’s next. But you can’t write it!

“Stuck” seems less synonymous with “fixed, “fastened,” or “infatuated” than with “baffled,” “stumped,” even “paralyzed.” Yet like many things in life, the real meaning of “stuck” depends on perspective. No one wants to be “stuck” doing everything because your spouse is out of commission. It’s a sign of true love, but nevertheless exhausting. But “stuck” with your writing? If you’re a serious writer, couldn’t that go either way?

~ Psychologically “stuck”

So many things can cause this. A rejection slip. A pal’s success. (You’re delighted! But still…) An upset stomach. Eight days of clouds. Ten hours of lower back pain. Sometimes you just can’t make yourself write. And sometimes that’s just as it should be.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS: Take a break. Get renewed. Try a different project (though don’t let that become a long-term distraction). Journal. Garden. Mess around on Facebook. Play basketball. Just don’t wait too long. Set a limit—in advance. Stick to it, or you’ll really be stuck.

~ Logistically “stuck”

Perhaps you instinctively realize that you’re headed in the wrong direction. Maybe you’re not consciously aware of this, but part of you knows you don’t want to go there. Or there’s this nagging sense that what you thought would follow hasn’t been set up. It makes no sense. Perhaps you bored? If so, your readers will be, too.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS: Brainstorm different directions. Go wild. Alternatively, set up causality—even if that means backtracking. Raise the stakes. Cut unnecessary material. Deepen characterization. Use your narrator to explain whatever context readers need.

~ Creatively “stuck”

Sometimes you don’t feel like writing because you have no idea what happens next or why or how to make it sizzle.  You’ve lost heart.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS: Return to your characters. They’re home base. The characters are why you’re writing it and why readers will read it. Hang out those characters. Remember why they intrigue you. Maybe “Take Your Characters to Dinner.” Isolating them from the predictable plot is among the best ways to generate exciting possibilities.

Tip: Why not get “stuck” on the idea of finishing and revising your novel—no matter what—because you care about it so much.

It’s all how you look at it.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Test of Time

A recent performance of Romeo and Juliet at American Players Theater in Spring Green, Wisconsin, confirms that Shakespeare remains as alive and well-loved as ever. Even the famous balcony scene, which could well feel like the most painful of clichés, still captures how the world feels when you’re first in love, with the moon too inconstant for a vow, and goodnight evoking a taste of death. All that stands the test of time.

This early play (1595—a decade before King Lear) blends romance, slapstick, violence, and wit. Each lover undergoes a developmental arc during the brief span between love at first sight and untimely death. Their tragedy affects not only friends and family, but all Verona—and everyone who’s encountered not only the play’s beauty, but its meaning.

Romeo and Juliet accomplishes this not just by lacing tragedy with comedy. Or with quicksilver action proving that major events—pressure points—change people so there’s no turning back. The play’s great strength is its capacity to reveal real people with real emotions, who remain utterly relevant even though we no longer brandish swords and have cellphones to get messages safely through. The play’s great strength is its continuing relevance.

In Good Prose, Pulitzer-Prize winner Tracy Kidder observes that “Revelation, someone’s learning something, is what transforms event into story. Without revelation, a story of high excitement leaves us asking, ‘Is that all?’”

No work can stand the test of time if readers wonder whether “That’s all.” Nor is this a genre issue. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is an early romance, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is science fiction, and Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger is magical realism.
What makes a work stand the test of time? How can your novel have a shot at achieving that?
~ Landscape.

A novel needs characters that inhabit a very particular environment. Readers must be able to enter it, too, and this world must control what characters dream and whether those dreams can come true.

~ Innovation.

Does the novel offer a spin, idea, location, or dilemma distinct from everyone else’s?         Does it possess something only you can offer?

~ Impassioned emotion.

Do the characters evoke at least as much compassion, irritation, or delight as real people? Do readers experience strong feeling about the characters?

~ Texture.

Does the novel have sufficient substance that one could reread it and reach different insights? Will no two readers interpret it identically?

Tip: It’s not a matter of what you write about, but how you write it.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Compassion and Characterization

People admire compassion. We love stories of other mammals protecting their offspring—and ours. We’re all for compassion, though sometimes more theoretically than literally. And this reality impacts both the characters we create and reader response to the characters we create.

For example, evaluate your feelings for this character from Emma Straub’s The Vacationers: “Franny always wanted to carry in the most impressive-looking dish, no matter that everyone knew she’d cooked everything on the table.”

The sentence probably doesn’t encourage you to like her much. But what if, after thirty-five years of marriage, her husband just slept with a twenty-three year old? And, worse, that it’s common knowledge in her circle and at his former job? Our response changes, because no one’s immune to betrayal, vulnerability, the nightmare of public humiliation.

Characters aren’t just what they do, but also why they do it. In Ian McEwan’s Solar, protagonist Michael Beard gets divorced five times, has endless affairs (simultaneously), lies about his politics, steals research, and frames his wife’s boyfriend for murder.

There’s no one to love in this novel, yet it works from beginning to end. Some of that’s great writing. The rest? A little empathy for Michael Beard, who “had to have his wife back, and dared not drive her away with shouting or threats or brilliant moments of unreason. Nor was it in his nature to plead. He was frozen, he was abject, he could think of nothing else.”

When a character, however egocentric, resonates with the egocentricity each of us strives to quell, we respond not with contempt but compassion. Both inside fiction and out, we react very differently when we understand why so-and-so behaved that way. We react very differently when we have lots of information instead of merely what’s obvious.

What’s that got to do with you as a novelist?

~ Have your characters yearn, because that’s so human. But never let them whine, because that’s so annoying!

~ Include backstory not because you did your “writing homework.” Help readers understand character motivation. That’s the only reason for backstory.

~ Make your characters screw up. Then either let them save themselves or let your readers wish the characters could.

~ Play with irony. Readers enjoy predicting a particular outcome. Later? Reveal that the truth lies elsewhere.

~ Use your most private emotions. Those are everyone’s most private emotions.

Tip: Supply enough insight to surprise readers with how much compassion they feel—and for whom.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Little Writer That Could

Whether writing children’s books, fantasy, mystery, or anything else, novelists agree about one thing: Writing is hard. Gadzooks, look at all the things a writer must worry about: a hook to start and end every chapter, complex plot and deep characterization, transitions and point of view. Then you have to put it all together so it sounds as if you accomplished it effortlessly, rather than slaving over every word the way you probably did. Whether the feedback comes from a writing partner, critique group, or you yourself, the goal might feel like climbing Mt. Everest.

In “Mind the Gap” from David Jauss’s Words Overflown by Stars, Betsy Sholl, former Poet Laureate from Maine, observes that, “It only takes one little stammer, one little break in the flow, to become aware of how speech negotiates between our private consciousness and social engagement.”

Writing is hard because it communicates a unique individual vision to someone receiving it through words alone. That’s a challenge. So every time even a single word falters, it’s a metaphorical “stutter” that readers detect immediately. And if writers are any good, they, too, can hear it. Sadly, the more carefully you read, and, of course, write, the more sensitive your ears to even the faintest hint of stammer.

What’s the antidote? You could train yourself to be more careless? Read faster. Write faster. In general, worry lots less about the burden of graceful “social engagement.”

You don’t want that? Quality is your goal? If you’re certain, begin by curtailing those brutal, ugly, and self-defeating messages about what you can’t do. For many, developing patience about one’s goals and weaknesses is a tall mountain to conquer. Most folks with high standards are not only harder on themselves than they need to be, but harder than they should be for optimal productivity and creativity. “Can’t” is as dirty a word as any four-letter one out there.

Replace defeatism with a healthy dose of realistic self-analysis.  Aside from relinquishing “I can’t,” many writers consider identifying strengths quite daunting. Wit? Elegant sentences? Enthralling plot? Dynamite scenario? Write down your assets. All of them.

Now for the mountain. What’s up there? Whatever you identify as your own personal “stutter.” Inorganic plot? Stereotypical characters? Dreary syntax?  All but the weakest writers know well in advance what’s needed to conquer that mountain of difficulties. You even know what you must do to reach its peak. Your peak.

Beautiful writing emerges from a merger of talent and technique. You can sit before your computer until your butt’s sore, but unless you believe in both your talent and ability to hone it with technique, maybe fiction isn’t the mountain for you to master. The best training in the world won’t help if with every sentence you’re thinking “I’ll never make it to the top, never revise the way I want. I can’t.”

Tip: “I think I can” isn’t age-specific, and works as well for writers as for everyone else.