Sunday, November 30, 2014

Novelists Givingthanks

Writers face numerous obstacles, fears, and envies. Other writers write better. There’s never enough time. The publishing industry seems more geared to trends and profits than to originality or quality. Getting an agent feels like a Herculean task—and that precedes publication, then marketing. After all that, very few any of us get to quit our day jobs. And, finally, why is it so slow-going? Such hard work? But that’s only part of the picture.

Now that many writers have enjoyed a day off and an excuse to overeat, this seems a fine time to extol the other side of being a writer. How about what D. L. Burnett (In the Kingdom of Dragons) calls being “in the zone.” That euphoria is tantamount to making love to your ideas—and having your own words love you back. Nothing quite like it.

The blessings don’t end there. Today’s writers can edit on a laptop, research on the web, self-publish, and enjoy a plethora of courses, craft books, and critique groups. If not every one of those is good, the great ones are superb. That helps writers become superb.

Writers are also lucky to have …

…a means of probing truth: “The role of a writer is not to say what we all can say, but what we are unable to say.” ― Anais Nin
…an excuse for eavesdropping and gossiping: “The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer, you see―every scrap, even the longest and most boring of luncheon parties.” ― Graham Greene
…a blueprint for hidden connections:  “Storytelling is ultimately a creative act of pattern recognition. Through characters, plot and setting, a writer creates places where previously invisible truths become visible. Or the storyteller posits a series of dots that the reader can connect.” ― Douglas Coupland
…a way to procure your favorite novel: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” ― Toni Morrison
…a means of coping with pain: “A wounded deer leaps the highest.” ― Emily Dickinson
a way to create your own world: “The odd thing about being a writer is you do tend to lose yourself in your books. Sometimes it seems like real life is flickering by and you’re hardly a part of it. You remember the events in your books better than you remember the events that actually took place when you were writing them.” ― George R. R. Martin
…a justification for occasional anti-social behavior: “Being lonely is not a bad thing for a writer. ― Chuck Palahniuk
…a source of energy: “I don’t need an alarm clock. My ideas wake me.” ― Ray Bradbury
…a chance to reach strangers across time and space:  “A writer is, after all, only half his book. The other half is the reader and from the reader the writer learns.  ― L. Travers
…a way to change the future: “catch the imagination of young people, and plant a seed that will flower and come to fruition.” ― Isaac Asimov
…a shot at eternity: “Writers live twice.” — Natalie Goldberg

Tip: “If you wish to be a writer, write.” ― Epictetus

Every day could be Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

What You Call It

Changes in the publishing industry have squeezed novels into painful categories, not just suspense, but romantic suspense, not just mystery, but cozy. Is the world or how novelists view it really so narrow? If publishing’s so difficult anyway, would novelists be better off ignoring those tidy genres? Even if agents are uncertain where a novel fits?

Because many readers crave not just entertainment and intrigue but “What do I now know or think that I didn’t before?” Of course if you spell out all your beliefs, then nonfiction—perhaps blogging—might be the best bet. Because the power of fiction springs from plot’s capacity to change beliefs by firing the imagination.

Tip: A big, thrilling plot can express anything you want. Who cares what it’s called!

Face of our Father, by G. Egore Pitir, isn’t clearly thriller or literary novel, neither all action nor all psychology. It plunges into tough questions. Should good people always be rewarded and bad punished? Do we even know what we mean by “good,” “bad,” “reward,” “punishment”? How terrorists are made?

The Americans apologized. Collateral damage, they called her. By nightfall she was buried. And to this day, it was not the lowering into the ground, nor the shovelfuls of dirt falling on her body, nor the parting prayers, but the ululations of the women, the terrible and glorious wailing of tongues, that never let him rest.

Is murder ever justifiable? Additional “facts” from Pitir’s fiction:

He would reach America. See her cities in ruins. Fields barren, People in tears. Their tall proud Lady crumbled to her knees and ravaged, a headless torso holding a dark torch. He would bring Americans the constant fear of death. He would bring them Afghanistan.

Readers learn that “This was jihad…everyone rushing toward the fire of battle, everyone flaring with passion, everyone’s life so brief.” Americans might know less than we think:

Reaching up, she lowered the burqa’s grille over her face. Felt its comfort and strength. Behind the grille her body seemed to fade away. Breasts, hips and curves vanished, leaving only mind. Angie was no longer body, she was spirit. No one could hurt her beneath the grille. Beneath the grille, she was love, she was mother.

The American woman who tries on this burqa has betrayed her husband. How often can a couple betray each other and remain a couple? What unmakes a terrorist? A marriage? Readers get to wonder if redemption is possible. Which matters more: Justice? Honor? Love?

The bigger the questions, the bigger the shoulders a plot needs. Face of our Father is a broad-shouldered novel of terrorism, computer hackers, torture, betrayal, and adulterous love interwoven with envy, adoration, greed, compassion, and, yes, forgiveness.

Few of us willingly face this father’s face. But ignoring fact or fiction doesn’t change reality. Whatever you call this novel, reading it might might make you consider realities no one wants to face—even inspire you to transcend some assumptions and niches yourself.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Plot and Its Delivery

Novels with great plots often succeed despite weak writing. Great plots generate movies and TV series, so cash flow follows. Sound great, right?  Yet unless your plot is extraordinary or your novel merely a draft for a screenplay, you might want to pay attention to the plot’s delivery. Lots of attention.

These elements can make adequate plots good and good plots great:

One-dimensional characters never live, so their fate never matters much.

ü  Do you reveal your characters through action and dialogue, instead of through thoughts (potentially tedious) or commentary (potentially irritating)?
ü  Do your characters exhibit both consistency and complexity, as real people do?

~ Narrator/character balance.
Readers need the context only narrators can provide (summary of time, change of scene, exploration of complex motivation) in addition to the immediacy only characters present.

ü  Do you make use of both your narrator and characters?
ü  Do you put meaty, exciting events in scene using your characters?
ü  Does the narrator quickly and attractively deliver the logistics and background that are fun to write but deadly to read?

~ Supportive detail.
In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway made two points about description: “The first is that the writer must deal in sense detail. The second is that these must be details ‘that matter.’” In other words, the best details involve one of the five senses, but that’s not enough. The detail must point toward what you what readers to see, hear, etc.

ü  Do your details ever distract from the story?
ü  Are all your details both concrete and significant?
ü  Do you amass catalogues of details because you haven’t found the one you need?

~ Texture.
Memorable novels offer something beyond familiar characters enacting a familiar plot, however competently that’s executed.

ü  Does your novel encourage readers to reach their own conclusions?
ü  Do you intertwine theme with plot?
ü  Does your story allude to concepts and conditions larger than itself?

~ Beauty.
Our world is an efficient and hasty one. Many readers don’t care about graceful sentences, and many writers feel that polishing sentences wastes time. Yet writers remain responsible for their writing.

ü  Do you want to write swiftly or beautifully?
ü  Wouldn’t you love readers exclaiming, “Wow—that’s gorgeous”?

Tip: if you polish both plot and delivery, you could earn both Pulitzer and film option.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Moral of the Story

Do stories deliver morals, or is story itself—at its very core—a dramatization of morality? Is story in fact the human method for articulating and sustaining beliefs? After all, in The Storytelling Animal Jonathan Gottschall points out:

people are willing to imagine almost anything in a story: that wolves can blow down houses; that a man can become a vile cockroach in his sleep (Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis); that donkeys can fly, speak and sing R&B songs (Shrek), that “a dead-but-living fatherless god-man [Jesus] has the super-powers to grant utopian immortality”; that a white whale might really be evil incarnate; that time travelers can visit the past, kill a butterfly, and lay the future waste (Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”).
            I should say that people are willing to imagine almost anything. This flexibility does not extend to the moral realm. Shrewd thinkers going back as far as the philosopher David Hume have noted a tendency toward “imaginative resistance”: we won’t go along if someone tries to tell us that bad is good, and good is bad.

Gottschall goes on to observe that “Story runs on poetic justice, or at least on our hopes for it” and cites others who agree. As John Gardner puts it, fiction “is essentially serious and beneficial, a game played against chaos and death, against entropy.”

Since 1021 (The Tale of Genji), novelists have possessed a powerful opportunity, to use as weapon, tool, propaganda device, or source of social good. But has fiction remained a moral force, or does that notion seem antiquated as reading books printed on paper?

Probably both. People, including novel readers, are less susceptible to didactic preaching than they presumably were when Samuel Richardson rewarded chastity in Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) or Henry Fielding lauded lofty ideals (instead of promiscuity) in The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling (1749). Today’s readers enjoy a spoonful of voice, plot, and originality to help the morality go down.

Yet in every genre, novel readers still crave moral questions. Will she overcome her snootiness in order to deserve the man she loves? Will squandering earth’s resources yield the fate of The Dead Planet? Will the self-important detectives ignore the lady who gobbles mysteries, collects stray cats, and is the only one who can solve the crime?

Consider the moral center of your own novel. Can you enrich it?

  • Does your novel have a layer or texture beyond the entertainment component?
  • Does the plot somehow illuminate human psychology or society?
  • If the novel ends happily, did the protagonist change enough to deserve that?
  • Do you ever resort to oversimplified solutions for resolving moral conflict?
  • Do you polarize good versus evil, or reflect the gray area between them?
  • Do you free readers to reach their own conclusions about your story?
  • If you could leave your readers with just one thought when they finish your novel, what would that be? Does your plot convey that?
Tip: Memorable novels are equal parts fun and poetic justice.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Transformation of, by, and for the Novel

Many of us write novels because there’s truth we want to express, an ideal we want our characters to portray. We may even hope to promote change. Yet those truths and ideals raise the question of whether books exert any substantial and lasting power.

Some argue that they do. When Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he purportedly said,  “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this Great War?” Lincoln was right about so many things. But maybe not about this. Can fiction really change thoughts,  beliefs, politics, or lives? How much influence do books really have?

English profs read many novels. Yet lit majors aren’t necessarily more moral or compassionate or better-adjusted than anyone else. Does this suggest that every insight evaporates once the eyes scan “The End?” Transformation is elusive. It’s mysterious. You can’t measure it empirically—which doesn’t prove that it never happens.

Lots of people retain faith in the capacity of “art” to transform, to change what we do or how we feel. The local paper here listed a speech by Favianna Rodriguez called “How Art Can Shift Politics and Stop Rape Culture.” Elton John reminds us that “When all hope is gone/Sad songs say so much.”

At its best, art is universal because it probes the very deepest places in the human mind, the terrain where differences of culture, gender, race, or worldview dissipate. Deep inside there, most of us are remarkably similar—and have remained so for centuries. That’s why Shakespeare and Poe, Bach and Beethoven, Austen and the Bronte sisters still work.

For the novelist, the capacity to transform might begin with the perception of everyday reality. If your vision lets you detect the thrillingly extraordinary in the tediously ordinary, then you’re on your way to building a world, shaping a set of characters, and planning a series of events more credible and causal than life itself.

If the events you introduce transform your characters in a believable way, you’ve opened the door to transforming readers. After all, hasn’t fiction been doing that what since it was born?

Say you do transform a reader. Even before the novel ends, this person truly identifies with your characters—sees them as fellow humans rather than stick figures, empathizes with their plight. As the book closes, this reader feels that maybe X needn’t hate Y, that sharing with Y would feel good, that reaching out to Y might be possible.

If this represents true transformation, how long will it last? Hard to say. But if your book, however briefly, makes just one reader wiser, gentler, more generous or compassionate , isn’t that worth a great deal? No matter how long it lasts? Or doesn’t?

Even if your book is only one grain on the beach, one droplet of a single wave, over time, a lot of grains or droplets can produce major change. It takes a long, long time to build a mountain. It can take a long, long time to tear one down. Perhaps the transformation of readers—on our own time scale—is similar. Such patience doesn’t come easily when our beliefs are strong. But perhaps we need faith in time, in readers. In art.

Tip: Open yourself to transformation, and you’ll never know how much you affect someone you’ve never met.