Sunday, December 28, 2014

Post-Holiday Gifts for Readers and Writers

No wrapping required, and most novel readers or writers want these goodies:

For the reader who wants to have everything:

Give readers tension and momentum.
Page-turners are fun. No matter how elevated the subject, readers read novels for fun. Slogging through backstory, wordiness, or redundant scenes better summarized rarely produces much fun.

Give readers originality.
Stock characters, situations, language, or outcome can, but shouldn’t be, comical.

Give readers a full-blown escape from reality.
Most of us read novels to avoid paying bills, sorting the laundry, or turning out the light and wondering if sleep will come easily tonight. Protect your readers from their own reality, which intrudes with even a second of implausibility, familiarity, boredom, silliness, grossness. Instead? Supply what readers came for: a trip into a world you created just for them.

For the writer who has everything:

Which writer is this? Every novelist I know wants to be better at handling plot or metaphors, suffers from blockage or excess, and frets over adoring or loathing revision. The one thing writers agree on is never having enough time.

Give yourself time.
That doesn’t mean texting, gaming, or alphabetizing cd’s to avoid starting the next chapter. Nor does it mean interminably rewriting the opening chapters to avoid what’s next. But agonizing about time drains energy, stifles soul, and—wastes time.

Give yourself honesty.
Why completely depend on your writing partner or critique group to point out what isn’t working? You won’t always know; that’s what critique is for. But often you do know. When you do? Listen. Put your energy into revising--not rationalizing.

Give yourself stimulation.
Daydream. Relish sensory experiences. Plunge into the world of your fiction, even if that means researching, watching related movies, exploring dead ends.

Give yourself tenderness.
As Robert Browning put it, high standards help us reach for heaven. But do your standards set you up for failure? Discipline is great, but unrealistic goals demolish creativity. If writing just makes you unhappy, why bother?

Tip: Be good to your readers. Be good to yourself.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Only a Click Away

Tip: The better you see, then the better your readers will.
Sit in a public place and observe the people with their phones. Don’t whip out your own and start photographing or texting. Don’t call or email anyone about what you see. Resist that temptation. Obsession, maybe? Just watch. Remember that?
A smart phone lets you see with a camera instead of only with your eyes. The views differ radically. Once you frame the world to fit a rectangle or panorama, you’ve changed it, however slightly.  And that affects your readers more than slightly.
Good novels create a reality that’s sharper, acuter, and more “real” than reality itself. Can video, slo-mo, burst, or series of clicks capture the fullness and intensity of the entire world? What camera can compete with the five senses plus the human imagination?
Well over a century back, Ralph Waldo Emerson understood this. “Each and All” mourns the fact that snippets and souvenirs can’t reproduce the forest or seashore:

I fetched my sea-born treasures home;
But the poor, unsightly, noisome things
Had left their beauty on the shore,
With the sun, and the sand, and the wild uproar.

Is photography depriving you of what Emerson calls “the perfect whole”? If so, that deprives your readers, as well. Perhaps a bit of sensory immersion would help.

Put down your phone. Disconnect yourself from everything except the physical world around you. Take a moment to touch, hear, see, smell, maybe taste. In this scene…

What’s most beautiful?
What’s ugliest?
What’s most intriguing?
What contains potential danger?
What contains potential pleasure?
How would you make someone care about the least interesting detail here?
How would you make someone care about the least empathetic person here?
What astonishes you?
What’s a metaphor to describe “the perfect whole”?

Don’t give up until you have a good answer for each question.

What Ezra Pound called making it “new” is less about seeing something different than finding what’s different in the presumably ordinary. It’s more comfortable to reach for the exotic. But if you’re a writer, originality is your job. Take it all in so your readers can. According to Kurt Heinzelman in “Make it new: The Rise of an Idea,” the writer’s task is renewing via a “return to origins.” Where do you find that? Many things originate in the external world—and at least sometimes you need to view them without the frame a camera imposes.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Candles and Creativity

It’s almost Chanukah, the holiday celebrating light lasting not while the fuel holds out but while light’s needed. How apt to revere that when nights are long, days short, and creativity can feel diminished, if not spent. During these short days, keep lighting candles—religiously or otherwise. Because creativity isn’t an external thing dependent on season or sunlight. The source of your creativity is inside you.

All of us start out so well; we’re curious, unafraid of new things, unembarrassed by failure, open to ideas, ecstatic over inventing how to talk and see and touch. Risk thrills us. But then life can interfere. Envy, shame, and fear exert their ugly power. We learn there are wrong answers. We stop seeing the world as exotic. Haven’t we read about it, heard about it, seen it all before? No! We haven’t.

Creativity meshes all the plausible possibilities out there, bringing the depths to the surface so insightfully and originally that only you could capture what you found. Innovation gave us Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Joyce’s Ulysses. And so on.

Maybe the pilot light for your creativity always flickers, never does, or is sensitive to cold, wind, darkness. Maybe you’re already asking the right questions. If not, try these.

~ Does your creativity work best if you push yourself, or relax?
“Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.” ―Ray Bradbury

~ How do you generate new plots, images, scenes?
“Creativity is merely a plus name for regular activity. Any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better.” ― John Updike

~ Ever try to mesh two seemingly incompatible ideas?
“Artistic temperament sometimes seems a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling.” ― Madeleine L’Engle

How many artistic risks are you willing to take?
“An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.” ― Oscar Wilde

Are you still discovering?
“The thing is to become a master and in your old age to acquire the courage to do what children did when they knew nothing. ” ― Ernest Hemingway

Are you waiting or hoarding?
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” ― Maya Angelou

Tip: Are your literal or  metaphorical candles lit? You already have all the matches you need.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Windows into the Story World

In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall  reports that “the psychologists Melanie Green and Timothy Brock…argue that entering fictional worlds ‘radically alters the way information is processed.’ Green and Brock’s research shows that the more absorbed readers are in a story, the more the story changes them.” 

What does this suggest? Every story, from Rumpelstiltskin’s failed strategy to Elizabeth Bennet marrying Fitzwilliam Darcy, changes beliefs because readers look through a window into the characters’ lives. Readers look through those windows willingly, and the windows control the view.

Even when the same author created the characters and windows, no two sets of windows are identical. Some windows are so intensely rose-colored that certain readers instantly draw the blinds. Other windows are thickly draped. What’s on the other side seems bathed in gloom or dusk. Readers might not see what’s going on—or might dislike what they’re able to make out.

Stained glass fragments compose some of the least reader-friendly windows. Can you picture the writer inserting one glittering piece after another, progressing ever so slowly, perhaps removing a chip of red that clashes with the burgundy, maybe deciding that a pattern repeats too often or ends too abruptly. It becomes all about the stained glass.

This kind of tinkering with individual pieces often creates a window of breathtaking majesty. But if the window’s beauty obstructs the view of the characters behind the glass, what’s the point?

In “Why I Write” (1946), George Orwell said that “it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane.”

This offers significant insight into the complex relationship between the writer, readers, and the writer’s characters: the significant connection is between the reader and the characters—not the reader and the writer.

If you’d rather design stained glass windows than admire them in holy buildings, fiction might be the wrong vehicle for your ideas. Because it’s perhaps fair to argue that the relationship between readers and characters verges on the holy.  

After all, this is why readers entranced by fiction are so susceptible to its ideas. It’s why writers are asked to “show,” not “tell.” It’s why the best novelists willingly sacrifice so much—including ego—for the sake of story. Story is not about the writer or the writer’s exquisite sentences. The story is about—the story.

The windows your readers look through control their experience. Absolutely clear windows might seem closer to film than fiction, while distracting stained glass—however glorious—interferes with what the audience came to receive. But stained glass that colors and adds depth to the scenes behind it? It doesn’t get better than that.

Tip: Story is about characters and our concern for them; all the rest is window-dressing.