Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Gift of Fiction

Let’s set Uncle Scrooge aside for the moment. Stifle the grousing about how long writing a novel will take, how little money it will make, that it proceeds at a crawl, or that you might never find a publisher at all.

Speed and money control many things, but neither of those motivates people to read or write fiction. Don’t like the novel you’re reading? Start another. Don’t like the novel you’re writing? Start something else.

Composing good fiction is certainly hard work. But it’s also a chance to give and receive. In “Three Cognitive Benefits of Reading Fiction,” Jordan Bates lists these opportunities:

“1. Improves social perception and emotional intelligence…

  2. Increases empathy…

  3. Makes one more comfortable with ambiguity…”

Who wouldn’t want to be more open-minded, in touch with our common humanity, and capable of coping with language’s intricacy and our world’s uncertainty?

This still doesn’t explain why so many continue writing fiction when so it’s so much easier to publish what the industry calls “truth.”

~ Truth.
Plato argued that story can’t be “true” because it doesn’t record what happened. Aristotle countered that story tackles the higher truths: causality, credibility, and morality. The gift is the journey toward the real truths.

~ Discovery.
The novelist must examine many kinds of truth. Which emotions are genuine? Why do people harbor so many secrets? How is this incident/character/description both like and unlike that one? The gift is clearer vision.

~ Escape.
Instead of worrying about bills, you make metaphors. Instead of arguing with your sister-law, you abbreviate or expand time. The gift is the stimulation of creating an alternative reality.

~ Power.
You’re the master of this world. What a trip! You gleefully demolish whatever bores you and nobly insure that nice guys finish first. The gift is engineering the ending you want.

~ Catharsis.
If you’ve done your job, your characters faced obstacles that spurred them toward maturity. The gift is their journey enhancing your own in ways you don’t consciously notice.

Take a moment to look beyond how hard you work or discouraged you sometimes get. You’re expanding horizons—including you own. You’re affecting the culture while becoming part of it.

Tip: Novels change the lives not just of characters, but of those reading about or creating them.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


Would you rather remove the Band-Aid slowly—or just rip it off? Would you rather slowly discover which aspects of your novel warrant revision—or get it over with? No right answer exists. It’s your choice, but it is a choice, and remembering that might help.

Tip: Why not be completely honest with yourself so you can be honest with your critiquers.

Most writers agree with Kenneth Blanchard: “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” Writers usually insist that if they respect the critique, they’ll take the entire candid yet considerate assessment, and all at once. But rationality and ego don’t always match.

Like everyone else, writers often experience disparity between what they think they ought to want and what they actually do. In our secret writer hearts, we want to hear, “This is glorious! I wouldn’t change a single word.” But how often is there no room for improvement? Are you willing to keep some realities in mind?

~ Trust.

Heed criticism only from those who are not only insightful, but unquestionably in your corner. A constructive critique, “like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s [sic] growth without destroying his roots.” -- Frank A. Clark

~ Flexibility.

The suggestion turns you off: it’s not what you meant, doesn’t emphasize what matters, misses the point. That isn’t carte blanche to simply dismiss it. Critique provides opportunity to revise so you can accomplish what you intended. Start with being super- choosey about who critiques you. Those opinions matter. Dismiss them at your peril.

~ Defensiveness.

It’s natural. But it does need a time limit and, again, heaps of honesty. Part of you values The Work more than anything. The trick is letting that part triumph.

~ Pride.

If you know how hard you worked—with all the objectivity you could muster—then you know why you included that word, that detail, that climax. Then you can proudly say, “I need that.” Yet you also need greater objectivity than you can realistically generate. Which do you prefer: your defense or this reader’s “truth”?

Feedback is part of the package: “There is no defense against criticism except obscurity” -  Joseph Addison.

Chin up. As Konrad Adenauer observes, “A thick skin is a gift from God.” That’s because the better you listen, then the better you make your writing. Rumi was right that “Criticism polishes my mirror.” Isn’t that what you seek, even it involves “ouch”?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Winter Light

Chanukah, the festival of light, commemorates the miracle of a scarce supply of oil burning for eight days. What better time than now to revere light? Many of us fade at least a little during winter, missing what fosters happiness, not to mention inspiration.

The symbolism of light is rich and ancient. Shakespeare’s Juliet has this to say of her lover:

When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.

This tragedy complicates dark and light, as all insightful fiction does. But no matter what your faith or lack of it, light represents goodness and illumination; it’s a gift from and to the gods or God. Light’s presence has always protected us from animals, spirits, and fear of the unknown.

What’s that got to do with your novel? A great novel offers subtle and surprising enlightenment. In that sense, isn’t every novel a festival of enduring light?

Festival. The word originally described religious gatherings and social bonding, later adding group entertainment and celebration of the arts. The novel encompasses all of that: a good time, a cultural expression, and both strengthening and questioning of norms.

Tip: Incorporate all the elements of festival into your novel.

As a writer, you’re in the fortunate position of gathering and distributing all the “available light.”

~ Find the light.

Whether with candles, fireplace, imagery and the prose you create or enjoy, gather all the light you can. Unless you collect the light, how can you possibly share it?

~ Study the characteristics of light.

Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself. ― Truman Capote
How recently have you questioned light and dark, good and evil in your novel?

~ Revere the intrinsic symbolism of light.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. ― Martin Luther King Jr.

What better time than right now to revisit this relationship? Can you do that in your own novel?

Use your fiction to reveal the light that represents our hopes—and burns beyond our expectations.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Purity and Impurity in Jonathan Franzen’s "Purity"

Depending on your definition of masterpiece, this novel might just be one. Pip needs love, money, and her dad’s identity—not necessarily in that order. Impurities and all, I want everyone to read it. So I won’t divulge any of its many secrets. Want the actual plot? Read this book!

It’s not perfect. In crystals, impurities alter the basic structure, adding color and fire; this describes Franzen as well. Some reviewers attack these distortions: self-indulgence, sexism, oversimplification, snobbishness, one-dimensional protagonists, and disconnected narrative threads.

There’s more. Tension can be as low as breadth is huge. The remarkable characterization occurs less from action than backstory. Lots and lots of “telling.”

Maybe. But here’s what else Purity offers:

~ Zingers.
 “Don’t talk to me about hatred if you haven’t been married.”

~ Analogy.
“It’s like having one red sock in a load of white laundry. One red sock, and nothing is ever white again.”

~ Insight.
“And maybe this was what craziness was: an emergency valve to relieve the pressure of unbearable anxiety.”

~ Irony.
“Stupidity mistook itself for intelligence, whereas intelligence knew its own stupidity.”

~ The “extra” in “extraordinary”:
“Fog spilled from the heights of San Francisco like the liquid it almost was.”

~ Voice.
“The tropics were an olfactory revelation. She realized that, coming from a temperate place like the other Santa Cruz, her own Santa Cruz, she’d been like a person developing her vision in poor light. There was such a relative paucity of smells in California that the inerconnecteness of all possible smells was not apparent….How many smells the earth alone had! One kind of soil was distinctly like cloves, another like catfish; one sandy loam was like citrus and chalk, others had elements of patchouli or fresh horseradish. And was there anything a fungus couldn’t smell like in the tropics?”

In an NPR interview, Franzen describes fiction-writing as expertly as he describes everything else: “It’s like having this dream that you can go back to, kind of on demand. When it’s really going’re in a fantasy land and feeling no pain.”

You’ll need chutzpah to create that kind of “ fantasy land.” Here’s the thing about risk. Take none, and “good” is the most you’ll get. Defy “pure” convention, and you might fail; you might inspire loathing as well as adoration. Personally, I pray that Franzen keeps doing his own thing.

Tip: Too much risk is—risky. But none at all? No color or fire there.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Turkey or Tofu, Tenderness, and—Tension

Whatever your personal protein, your novel needs both the fondness and frustration that describes any family gathering. The interplay between those? That makes novels tick.

Holidays expose the best and worst in everyone, including novelists. The bigoted uncle, the family mythology about who’s smart or successful, the Brussels Sprouts with cinnamon (?)—fodder for Charles Baxter’s observation that “Hell is story friendly.”

Yet fiction always needs a touch up, whether describing Thanksgiving or anything else. Colum McCann believes that “literature can make familiar the unfamiliar, and the unfamiliar is very much about the dispossessed, and so the value of literature seems to me to go into the stories that not everybody wants to tell.”

Those stories range from those living on the brink, in the streets, or simply starved for the Norman Rockwell painting we worry that everyone else is enjoying.

Tip: Tension resides in the irony between expectation and reality.

Some novelists enjoy adding tension as much as encountering Aunt Agatha, who blissfully reminds you that you’ve neither published nor married. What’s wrong with you?

That’s tension all right, and as Jodie Renner reminds, “All genres of fiction, not just thrillers, suspense novels, and action-adventures, need tension, suspense, and intrigue to keep readers eagerly turning the pages.”

Ready to write fiction as rich in tension as holiday food has calories? Here’s how:

~ Desire.
            That starts it all. Someone wants something apparently unattainable.

~ Change.
            That desire involves giving something up, even if it’s only the harbor of the familiar.

~ Twist.
Corey would like to be rich and adore everyone in her family. Yawn. Wouldn’t we all? Astonish us with how Corey’s longing both resembles and differs from everyone else’s.

~ Secret.
No one cares that Corey salted the filling instead of the caramel crust. But planning to offer herself to her brother-in-law? That’s a secret, like what you deliberately omit:

what creates tension . . . is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it’s also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things. – Raymond Carver

Yes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Leo Tolstoy). Fiction needs idiosyncrasy, universality, and tension. That needn’t deter renewed hope that the next holiday will exceed your expectations. And why not? The cycle continues...

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Reading the Rocks

Whether polishing novels or agates, what we call “art” reveals what’s deep inside, awaiting someone to make it visible. As Michelangelo put it, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” In this way, rocks and stories share something in common.

Like lapidary, novel writing involves carving and polishing in order to reveal. The initial premise resembles a geode, like the ones in the picture below.

Not much to appreciate there, not until you expose the contents of its heart. To do that, you need to imagine the secret shapes, lines, and textures you want to bring to the surface.

I was lucky enough to discuss the art of polishing with the patient—and exceedingly talented—lapidarist Alan Vonderohe. A lot of that conversation applies equally well to novelists.

~ Choose raw material with potential.

Not every geode or scenario is worth the effort. Why invest time and energy in something dull or commonplace? But don’t dismiss before you’ve considered the possibilities, either.

~ Study your options.

Vonderohe may spend a few days examining a rock to discern its secrets. The truth is that, with stones and scenarios, once you discover the right approach, it’s difficult to imagine another alternative. In fiction, we call that causality. Outlining helps you bring the best to the surface, the way handling a rock opens you to its potential before you start to polish. Ultimately, thinking before cutting or composing saves time and energy; it’s a shortcut to emphasizing what matters.

~ Nourish flexibility.

A good lapidarist keeps changing the view to disclose the best angle, perhaps an almost invisible vein of blue. Why view your novel from only one direction, missing all those possibilities that never crossed your mind? The rut is the artist’s enemy.

~ Uncover the heart.

Lapidary begins with taking away, while writing fiction begins with building up. In the end, though, every art involves polishing. How else will it seem finished?

~ Respect nature.

At mineral and gem shows you’ll find rocks dyed garish colors or carved into triangles, skulls, hearts, and butterflies. Yet doesn’t art originate in the tension between naked raw material—whether anecdote or uncut stone—and the artist’s interpretation of that? A story or stone can become so contrived that its integrity disappears. If it no longer seems true, if interpretation descends into commercialization, is that still art?

Tip: Polishing lets others see what one imagination detected hidden beneath the surface.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Nature as Art, Art versus Nature

Nature hardly needs art to create breathlessness. Look closely. Define art flexibly. Isn’t every leaf or droplet “art?” The real question is whether art reproduces or imitates nature. Aristotle made this argument in response to his teacher Plato, who deemed everything but pure fact dangerous. What has this to do with you as a novelist? Everything.

Tip: Though nature is art, art itself originates in the imitation of nature.

Without that imitation, you get either:

Covering approximately 20 percent of the Earth’s surface, the Atlantic Ocean is the second largest ocean basin in the world, following only the Pacific. -- National Ocean Service


Look how very beautifully azure the white-capped waves go on cresting.

 Neither of those creates a sense of place like these:  

There was dull light all around, everywhere. When we walked on the crisp snow no shadow showed the footprint. We left no track. Sledge, tent, himself, myself: nothing else at all. No sun, no sky, no horizon, no world. ― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

The light was going: some cloud cover arriving, as if summoned by drama. ― China Miéville, Kraken

The color of the sky was like a length of white chalk turned on its side and rubbed into asphalt. Sanded―that was how the world looked, worked slowly down to no rough edges. ― David Guterson, The Other
After all, as Eudora Welty observed,

Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else... Fiction depends for its life on place.

To achieve that, translate nature into imagery that someone else can understand. You'll need:

~ Precision. No vague or abstract description.

~ Originality. The imagery that only you can deliver.

~ Symbolism. Make it so instantly comprehensible that it requires no explanation.

~ Drama. Setting that’s disconnected from plot has no place in fiction.

Nature makes art all the time, but fiction requires the vision that you alone can offer.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Princess inside the Dragon???

Rainer Maria Rilke had this to say about expectations, judgments, and truths:

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us, is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

Maybe you find this concept troubling even outside fiction writing, not to mention within it. But don’t visualize Walt Disnified princesses and dragons. These are metaphors, symbols to tweak however you wish. Often, though, metaphors are the best way to express the unsayable.

So which ideas does this metaphor suggest?

~ Identify the dragons in the lives of your characters.

What if the sources of terror and repugnance craved love instead of blood?  How many of those only reside within? What new insights might this generate?

~ Look beneath the surface.

Though dragon imagery shifts from culture to culture, the basic idea’s always the same. Or is it? Perhaps humans and dragons share traits in common. Why do dragons represent so many things? What does it really mean to be a dragon? A princess?

~ Refurbish.

We associate dragons not with beauty, vulnerability or tenderness, but such hideous violence that slaying one makes you a hero. When we change both image and message, readers experience both original and new versions.  How efficient is that?

~ Reveal similarities, whether in heart or history, in drama or dream.

How does the antagonist resemble the protagonist? How do both antagonist and protagonist manifest the strengths and weaknesses everyone shares?

~ Play God.

The role of Supreme Being capable of infinite wisdom and understanding suits fiction writers well. We write fiction, of course, from yearning to expose what we consider evil and good. But that yearning must remain so secret that every dragon harbors a bit of princess. Wouldn’t your readers appreciate that kind of wisdom and understanding ?  

~ Astonish.

Great plots reveal the possibility of the improbable, the morality that becomes possible because the hero makes it so. You won’t need a single dragon or princess. Just larger-than-life characters and a causal plot.

Tip: Use the metaphorical dragons and princesses surrounding us to gentle your novel’s dragons and
        fortify its princesses. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Do It with a Prop

This is a true story, and a prop started it all:

A Canadian couple who’ve been living together for several years decides to vacation in Venice. On the iconic Rialto Bridge, they pause before a jewelry shop. Its gold pieces tempt them inside. One of them admires a beautifully crafted plain gold band. She wants it. He agrees that it’s gorgeous and, what-the-heck—buys the other for himself.

Outside, with the gondoliers crooning corny songs as the red-velvet-lined gondolas sway on the mint-green waves, he turns to her. “So I guess this means we’re getting married?”

She nods. “Yes.”

They’re still married, and—I got to see their rings when this drama professor explained how he urges his students to use props. “What better way to both motivate and make motivation concrete?” Yes, indeed.

Tip: Props drive characters, promote causality, and transform abstract into concrete.

What makes props work?

~ Clarity.

Have to explain the prop? You haven’t found the right one yet.

~ Originality.

Instead of giving a gardener a trowel or a plumber a snake, choose something credible but unpredictable. Does the gardener make pottery for all those plants? Does the plumber play second base or collect old jazz albums?

~ Characterization.

Random props seem—random! For example, whether a guy wears his wedding band says something about him, just as what kind of engagement ring she likes says something about her. When props reveal and deepen character, you accomplish two things with one detail. Exquisite efficiency.

~ Symbolism.

The wedding ring works because it unexpectedly happened in a foreign country, albeit an exceedingly romantic one.  If Lucy spies a ring in Modern Bride and invites Herman to admire it, the effect is clichéd, heavy-handed, and not in the least romantic. Surprise us.

~ Causality.

According to the Canadian couple, without that window, they might never have married at all, and certainly not right then. The storefront caused action—the kind that drives fiction because one event (stopping before the window) causes the next (wedding bells). Serving coffee won’t necessarily enhance a scene. But staining the white carpet that he never wanted her to buy? That’s something else entirely.

Prop it up.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Past Lives Still

Ruins (our odd label for the remains of past glory) preserve both culture and aesthetics. The characters in novels, too, retain remnants of who they were. No one can wander there, reverently touching stones, marveling at the engineering, artistry, and longevity. Yet the past controls actions and decision. Even if it remains unexcavated. Still.

Still—both enduring and motionless. And if you’re fortunate enough to discover a corner of an ancient amphitheatre where you can feel entirely alone, that’s enough to still your own heartbeat.

This happens in novels, too. History, either personal or otherwise, constrains the psyche and thus shapes plot. Pip’s boyish willingness to aid an escaped convict ultimately elicits the “great expectations” that will break his heart. To win his first love back, Gatsby slips on the first “gold hat” he finds: bootlegger.  In Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, one torturous night of staring at his uneaten dinner shapes a future split between conning and being conned. As a powerful source of angst, the past is a powerful source of plot.

Even when the ruins of childhood or adolescence don’t engineer the inciting incident, the penitentiary of memory affects everyone. Why else would backstory and flashback attract like magnets? Writers instinctively promote the moments that shaped characters, that influence what they’ll face and how.

Tip: In fiction, the past is a terrific tool unless it overwhelms the present or future.

As Alain Resnais puts it, “The present and the past coexist, but the past shouldn’t be in flashback.” In other words, don’t give the past more “in-scene” air-time than it deserves. More on that from “How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them―A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide”:

 For mysterious reasons, many authors consider it useful to provide a story about a forty-year-old man-about-town with a prologue drawn from his life as a five-year-old boy. ... There’s only one letter’s difference between “yarn” and “yawn,” and it is often a long letter, filled with childhood memories. ― Howard Mittelmark

How to use the past while exploiting momentum?

~ Hurry.
A few lines of backstory go a long way.

~ Imply.
Rather than belaboring how the past controls the present, hint instead of declaiming, “And I knew right then what so terrified me—and why.”

~ Raise the immediate stakes.
The only justification for a character’s past is intensified present-time trouble. The past isn’t there for its own sake, but for the mystery and secrets of the present.

~ Complicate.
            Use backstory to plot, rather than the other way around.

The past lives still. Which doesn’t mean you should let it upstage present-time conflict.     

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Reader/Writer Contract

Here, the only signing is an autograph or credit card. There’s no lawyerly language, and the contract’s easily broken. Readers just donate unread novels to the local library.

Who wants to write an unwanted novel? Or even start one? Fortunately, readers come in as many varieties as writers hoping to reach them. Here’s your part of the contract: the better you identify your potential audience, and the more you satisfy their appetites, then the happier everyone involved will be.

So what’s in this contract?

~ Opening hook.

Get their attention. Don’t wait. What’s the hurry? Keep those library donations in mind.

What happens in the first moments of a book? For William Gibson, author of The Peripheral, a kind of invitation is extended—when  readers will or won’t feel what he calls “the click.” But this transcends connecting with an audience. Gibson adds that “the first sentences invite the writer, too: they contain a blueprint for the book that will be written.” – “The First Sentence Is a Handshake,” by Joe Fassler (The Atlantic)

~ Accessibility

Mark Twain observed that “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.” Why does this make us laugh? Because we may admire Wuthering Heights, but it’s not necessarily what we’re rereading. Gripping novels blend suspense and emotion with depth and insight. One without the other is like all protein or all dessert. Who wants that?

~ Context

Wait a second. Where are we? If you can’t tell in the first pages if you’re in Venice, California or Italy; whether it’s right now or fifty years ago; and fantasy or satire, you’ll likely replace this ambiguous novel with one you can follow.

~ Improbable probability

If we can’t believe that this could happen, we won’t care. Nor will we care if it’s obvious on page one who will end up with whom, how the sleuth will solve the mystery, or what gives the protagonist that happy ending. As Don Maass has observed, no reader wants an obvious plot device. No reader wants an unearned ending, either. 

~ Inconsistent consistency

Characters won’t seem credible unless all their traits fit together as a whole. But unless they occasionally surprise us, they’re neither believable nor fun.

~ Room to breathe

Novels that “tell” everything—even almost everything—suffocate. They’re as much fun as consistent consistency or probable probability. You can do better. Your readers deserve better.

Tip: Use the opening to promise readers what they can’t live without. Then deliver it.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Deal Breakers and Deal Makers

Beginning to read the next novel isn’t like buying the a house or car. And yet…

A novel is a commitment.  So many novels to choose from, so little time. No one wants to waste it on the book that never deserved to be a bestseller, the dud your formerly favorite author must’ve completed over a weekend, or the unwanted gift of ungainly fiction from your least favorite sister-in-law.  You’d prefer to choose your own books, thank-you-very-much, and your choices depend on avoiding the following mishaps.

Deal Breaker: Predictability.

She doesn’t want him. He doesn’t want her. But if there’s lots of emphasis on their apathy, you know that they must want each other by the end. Yawn.

Deal Maker: Readers are positive the plot’s headed in a certain direction and—wham—it’s as much a twist as it is credible.

Deal Breaker: Repetition.

Sam tells Nancy he’s leaving her. But Nancy needs Roger, who’s madly in love with her, to know about Sam’s bittersweet surprise. So the novelist blithely reiterates the conversation to Roger. No. No, no, no!

Deal Maker: Once readers know it, only repeat it if it adds tension.

Deal Breaker: Impossible sentences.

There’s more than one kind. Unable to break free, she hissed and then she bit him and before long she spit at his eye and she and oh! Please! And that’s more than enough. Or. The boy who is the leader of the student council elected in an unprecedented vote because the preppie got kicked out of school for drugs is known for discarding girls even the prettiest and most popular ones, like Kleenex.

Deal Maker: Clean sentences are inviting sentences.

Deal Breaker: Point of view irritants.

It felt like roving or omniscient, but now suddenly it’s limited to a single character. Or we’ve heard only from Prudence for ninety-six pages, but here’s Roderigo. What’s up? Not enthusiasm for the next page.

Deal Maker: Point of view is always and only in the eye of the reader. If it kinda feels like a violation, then it unquestionably is. What’s “legal” doesn’t apply.

Deal Breaker: Disastrous dialogue.

Does the dialogue reveal pertinent information that’s meant to inform the reader and isn’t even vaguely credible? Does the dialogue sound exactly like real life? Are the dialogue passages long and tedious rather than snappy? Do the characters shout exactly what’s troubling them, or do they use subtext?

Deal Maker: Great dialogue only resembles people talking. Because that’s tedious to read.

Tip: If you’re a novelist, you’re a reader. What breaks a deal for you? Your readers feel the same. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Dogs Are Magnets

Not for everyone, of course. But pups in particular magnetize many of us the way any body of water summons Labrador retrievers to plunge right in. For fiction readers, too, certain possibilities magnetize. Most prominent of these is name recognition. Until you’re famous yourself, you can’t do much about that one. Not to worry. You can choose among plenty of other magnets.

~ Concept.
The actual definition is simply an idea. But screenwriting has elevated Concept much the way it elevates everything else. The concept is A Big Idea. BIG! Not a skirmish—a world war; not a failed romance—a love or death dilemma, not just intriguing— but ensnaring. Concepts differ across genres. The Concept might involve a new way to think about baseball (Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding) or art (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch), or genetics (Richard Powers’s The Gold-Bug Variations).  But whatever the genre, the idea must feel BIG.

~ Scenario.

Whether or not you liked Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, the scenario’s unbeatable. Murder. Secret sects. The Holy Grail. Sex. The Louvre. This doesn’t mean you should ever write something only because it might sell. Who wants a write for the market? After all, by the time you finish your Vampire Trilogy, space might be the new thing. However, if your heart lies with parent/child relationships, it helps to have the integrity that The Memory Keeper’s Daughter offers. Where’s the gold in your own scenario? Seek it, and you’ll strengthen not only your novel’s premise and marketability, but the novel itself.

~ Darkness laced with levity.

For whatever reason, many people adore that forbidden underbelly in the venues of tabloid, gangster movie, True Crime, and memoir about victims defeating catastrophe. If you’re willing to plunge into those murky waters, do it. Probe the dark secrets of whatever you’re writing about. The intrigue of nightmare, childhood memory, and buried fantasy resides in those depths. But! Unmitigated darkness reeks of gloom. How to balance it? Irony, wit, humor.

~ Triumph against all odds.

People love heroes. Also underdogs and people who help themselves.  Probably most of all, people love the athlete who wins despite disability; the insecure guy who lands the huge contract, or the singer who emerges from the woodwork to become an international phenomenon. Leave your protagonist room for an arc. But never start with a protagonist arc that’s under the cellar.

~ Truly sexy sex.

Unsexy sex bombards us. Nakedness rather than nudity, crudeness rather than innuendo. What about that flash of Ginger Roger’s ankle beneath her long, twirling chiffon dress? Or Matthew McConaughey’s half-open white shirt? Hints generally seduce better than blatant exposure.

~ Dogs.

As a last resort, you could always add some sort of puppy. At least for this reader. Works every time.

Tip: Write the book you want to! But if you want readers, magnetize them.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Dialogue: Animosity or Virtuosity

Consider Nancy and Kevin. This brother and sister mostly got along, though it’s years since they’ve been close: marriage, kids, careers—they drifted. But neither Kevin nor Nancy predicted that dad’s death would endanger their relationship.

Unless you’re related to Nancy and Kevin, why would you care? Because the demise of Kevin and Nancy illustrates how dialogue works. Or doesn’t.

Kevin’s fury might launch a scene. After all, he maintained Dad’s hardware store, plus keeping his lawn mowed, snow blowed, and roof repaired. Nor was Kevin’s schedule exactly overflowing with spare time for someone else’s life.

“Your life? What about mine?” Nancy wants to know when she adds her lines to the script.  Hardly her fault that Kevin took years getting Dad’s house in shape to sell. Especially since her husband graciously took Dad into their home. Of course Dad didn’t intentionally torment every member of Nancy’s family (even Rover). But his dementia irritated, exhausted, and freaked them all. Every day. For years.

Who’s right? Nancy. And Kevin. Life has enough actual bad guys. Fiction shouldn’t. Readers must believe both stories. That promotes dilemma—the most genuine source of tension. Make dilemma drive the script characters play out when they interact.

Tip: Good dialogue comes from a forceful, credible, well- justified script for each character.

You get there not by replicating reality, but simulating it.

~ Brevity.

In the real world, Kevin and Nancy might shriek, accuse, and bellow. Or bicker twenty-nine separate times over a four-month period.  That won’t propel fiction.  Their conversations need to be short, snappy, and subtle. And two or three times beats twenty-nine.

~ Subtext.

Kevin might actually scream, “If you can’t understand what this cost me, I never want to speak to you again!” Makes sense. A bit tepid, though. Why read on, when we can predict what’s next. Besides, wouldn’t it be more fun (not to mention more accurate) to wonder if Kevin’s rage disguises hurt? There’s greater ambivalence in “I can’t believe you’d say that,” or “I don’t even recognize you.” Cliché, yes, but reflective of complex emotion. That’s how they became cliché.

~ Equality.

In real life, courts determine guilt or innocence. In fiction, everyone’s both. If you despise Nancy or Kevin so piercingly that you can’t design two defensible versions of the so-called facts, you have no business telling their story.

Want virtuoso characterization and dialogue? Handle animosity not as if it were a heat-seeking missile, but a feeling we all experience at least occasionally. Emotion is intricately complex: rage mixed with pain, greed laced with regret, righteousness tempered by anxiety about never speaking to your sibling again. Make sure all your characters can justify themselves. Because each person both believes his or her story—and doesn’t. Unless dialogue reflects that, it won’t infuse the depth, intricacy, and credibility your story deserves. Because your readers do.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Types: Stereotype, Archetype, Trope

Archetypes, stereotypes, and tropes are about equally elusive and significant. Does it matter if you’re sure which you use?  Classification’s unimportant. What matters? Lay a foundation with archetype; use trope to speed pace; avoid stereotype whenever possible.

~ Stereotype.

The etymology says it all. The word comes from the mold that made identical copies of the original. In life or the novel, stereotypes feel clichéd—uninspired. Worse still, generalizations about ethnicity, religion, size, education, hair color and so on ignore individuality. Stereotypes are misleading and harmful. How useful can they be in fiction?

Stereotypes are contrived writing solutions, while archetypes are the platform that tradition offers.

~ Archetype.

The archetype is the original mold used for the stereotypes that follow it. According to Carl Jung, roles like the Hero originate in the “collective unconscious.” We’re all in it together. (For more on this, check “The 12 Common Archetypes,” by Carl Golden.)

In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler analyzes archetypes as a source of plot from inciting incident to climax. Archetype underlies the classic plot: coming of age, abuse of power, love changing identity and history. Yet without your own original twist, the situation and its characters will seem stereotypical.

If the distinction between archetype and stereotypes is a bit fluid, trope is even more so, because it’s used in several different ways.

~ Trope

It can be a symbol (a rose equals love), a genre convention (“once upon a time”), a shortcut conveying plot or character (a stranger came to town), or an over-used device (the bossy, bespectacled librarian). Tropes range from very, very useful and efficient to very, very the opposite. While archetypes are universal, tropes often refer to a particular genre, like YA, Horror, Cozy, Western.

What does all this boil down to?

Tip: Tradition can both bring forth the richness of allusion—or the poverty of cliché.

How to know the difference? The easy answer is to solicit feedback. A wise, objective reader will let you know if you’ve united the benefits of both convention and innovation.

The harder answer lies in the details. Obviously, the over-familiar is tedious, manipulative, or facile. The “novel” part of the novel demands “something new under the sun.” Build on the conventional: archetype, trope, allusion.  Add to that dimensionality, mutability, individuality, and universality. You’ll have something good—maybe even great.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Can “ugly” emotions be good?

If even Jimmy Carter admits that “I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times,” how can the rest of us escape not only lust, but wrath, greed, sloth, pride, envy, and gluttony? Regardless of how you view traditional religion, you likely disapprove of them all. Add a bit of psychology, and the list lengthens: manipulation, sadism, passive aggression, lack of empathy. Who wants to be like that? Or know someone like that? Far fewer people than the number who’d love to read about it.

Tip: Ugly emotions keep readers turning pages.

Aside from the popularity of true crime, thrillers, and mystery, everyone enjoys a good bad guy. And most of us equally enjoy a good guy who’s at least a little bad. These characters mirror the sins in our hearts, and because we recognize ourselves in that mirror, the novel’s bad guys inspire us to improve, while the good guys reassure us that nobody’s perfect. Not even in fiction.

Take betrayal. Its underpinning is a smug self-righteousness. How could you do that to me when I was so generous/thoughtful/compassionate/supportive? Like anything about fiction that’s taken too far, betrayal can build such an unpalatable character that readers simply close the book.

Yet in healthy doses, betrayal can drive a novel fast and far enough to become a classic. Javert kills himself because Jean Valjean betrays the officer’s belief in absolute justice. Madame Bovary feels betrayed by the life that first her husband, then her lover promised. Gatsby betrays his moral center for the fool’s gold glitter of Daisy; vengeance drives Ahab to betray his crew’s trust in their captain. In The Art of Fielding, the sport that Henry loves betrays him: when the ball he wields so well injures his friend. Henry, in turn, betrays his skill—by resolutely and suddenly losing it.

Dark thoughts—like betrayal—fertilize both dilemma and causality.

 ~ Causality.

 In the best novels, every event except the last arises from the one preceding and spawns the one following. Pride goeth both before a fall and the next scene; the proud character will make mistakes, possibly horrifying, and definitely instigating whatever happens next.

 ~ Dilemma.

Most of us hope to bury or at least hide our dark thoughts. We know that greed is offensive, that envy is never classy, and so on. We struggle forward. But when a character’s dark thoughts clash with the sense of right and wrong—that’s an immovable object meeting an irresistible force. In other words, it’s fiction.

This doesn’t mean that your protagonist must act on every unpalatable thought. You could leave that to the antagonist. Or not. But while complicating the protagonist with some stifled but evil impulses, don’t neglect to complicate the antagonist. As Robert McKee observed, a worthy antagonist shapes a worthy protagonist.

Worth has much to do with credibility. Do we believe in the protagonist? That external forces pressure her into earning the ending? Credibility also demands exposing the secrets most humans vault away. This exposure is both credible and intriguing. We want to know what’s in the protagonist’s vault just as intensely as we want no one to guess what’s in our own.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Healing Wounds

My dad’s favorite saying was “Time wounds all heels.” But he wasn’t a fiction writer. Fiction writers know that the quip reflects wishful thinking more than reality. Worse, it disregards fiction’s essence: How do the good guys go from hurt to healing, from dragged down by the past to buoyed up by what it can teach? How do characters get from haunted to heroic?

Whether romance or western, literary or mystery, the heart of every novel is the journey from everything that crisis entails to everything that a cathartic climax entails. The protagonist suffers and, through that pain, achieves insight and some relief. So do the readers.

This healing process very closely resembles recovery from a physical wound.

~ The gash.
It might be a cut, bite, or burn. The pain, from bloodshed or betrayal, is fierce and immediate—like someone setting you on fire. You know from the start that this scar will be permanent. You might not be in danger of bleeding to death. You are in danger of wanting to.

~ The rage.
The second act is often fury. How could I, or him, or her, or something be so stupid and inappropriate, and directly in my way, or unwilling to provide what I want/need/deserve? In life, many of us love to blame. But isn’t fiction bigger than that? When the protagonist finally relinquishes rage for serenity, that’s part of the ending’s pleasure.

~ The hurt.
It happened so long ago. How can it still feel as raw as if it the stab is three hours old? The bruise throbbing, the scar forming, the sore abating—all can feel worse than that first thrust. The brevity of the injury is nothing contrasted with the time needed to let go.

~ The healing.
It’s your job to offer a plot that forces your protagonist to heal emotional wounds, so readers can go along for that ride. Objectivity promotes healing: Readers get to see who really did what, and why. Readers also watch characters bid blame farewell. You didn’t mean to stick your arm over the flame anymore than the flame intended to attack you. Forgiveness is where healing happens.

Novels provide diverse things: excitement, glorious language, fantasy fulfillment, psychological insight, and—catharsis. The story’s climax is the cathartic moment when whatever past event or syndrome daunted or wounded or stymied becomes part of the past. Where it belongs. When fiction works as it’s supposed to, readers heal right along with the characters.

Perhaps fiction’s greatest gift is that we watch characters struggle, fail, and experience the gamut of emotions while we sit safe on a lawn chair or couch. All we have to do is turn pages. We risk nothing. Yet we stand to gain everything. Because of catharsis.

Tip: The lessons characters learn from pain are the lessons readers hope to learn effortlessly.

Make your characters suffer. Let them act out, being childish or tempestuous or febrile. But then let them learn forgiveness, forbearance, and, yes, some kind of faith. Because that’s how those writing about them learn. And, more importantly, those reading about them, too.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Too Good to Be True?

How good can a good protagonist really be? In a recent N.Y. Times “Bookends,” Thomas Mallon rightly observed that, “No one has ever preferred Amelia to Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair, or Melanie to Scarlett in Gone with the Wind.”

Tip: Perfectly good is perfectly—boring.

Good protagonists must be morally sound, but definitely troubled and definitely rebellious about constraint. Too selfish makes them unpalatable. But too perfect and they swiftly become at best uninteresting and at worst mildly self-righteous. To inspire and excite, protagonists need to get going with enough oomph to offer:

~ Fire.
This might be the main ingredient. A good protagonist has a great deal to gain or lose. Passion makes people care enough to act, screw up, and have another go. That journey makes fiction fiction.      

~ Arc.
If your character starts perfect, where can she go? The fun of fiction is watching someone conquer something, whether that’s the snotty guy with the huge estate (Pride and Prejudice), the power of death (The Fault in Our Stars), the mystery of the genetic code (The Gold Bug Variations), anyone who opposes the Borgias (Blood and Beauty), or an early crop of crooked bankers and lawyers (A Conspiracy of Paper).

~ Voice.
Especially in first person, the protagonist must be charming, funny, dramatic, and mysterious. Something very much out of the ordinary. Often someone with passionate opinions, but a nice sense of humor about them.

~ Desire.
This needn’t be sensual, just a motivation for action. Too much politeness, modesty, resignation, even stoicism can be unappetizing. If you think everyone and everything is fine, you won’t take many risks. This might be a terrific way to live. Just not in a novel.

~ Credibility.
As a friend recently said, we’re all “emerging.” Anyone delighted with his or her “goodness” is too arrogant (and naïve and misinformed) to really be that good. Real people are flawed people. Preferably a bit honest about it. This goes for protagonists, too.

~ Inconsistent consistency.
That’s another way to spell “credibility.” If your protagonist has a weakness (and your protagonist must), then this might generate a succession of similar mistakes. But if your protagonist always repeats exactly the same mistake, or never makes one at all, readers won’t believe, won’t care, or both.

~ Resolution.
Nice people can be very accepting, very forgiving, very tolerant—very lovely to be around but not to read about. Protagonists judge and act. That’s the source of story.

A good protagonist is one who’s good enough—and no better.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Avoid Accidents!

Accidents can work wonders. People meet and fall in love, and perhaps if no asteroid hit the earth about 65 million years ago, no one could write or read this blog. But accidents and fiction are badly matched.

Plenty of accidents annoy or destroy. We leave the bread in the oven too long, saw lumber a quarter inch too short, delete favorite photos while making space in the Cloud, blurt painful things that never entirely disappear. Only the last one drives fiction. The others are entirely realistic and could deepen plot. Yet something’s missing.

Try this. “Prudence was minding her own business, when suddenly she decided to visit her mother’s grave, quit her job, end her marriage. Or she didn’t decide a thing, yet suddenly got struck by lightning, or a teen toying with his new handgun, or a car careening onto the sidewalk.”

Poor Prudence. Poor reader of a novel about Prudence. Suddenly? That enhances fiction about as much as “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…”

Fiction traces motive. Why suddenly end her marriage, and why’s she ruminating during the storm, especially when a random car veers onto the sidewalk? Why watch her ruminate at all?

Active choices have driven fiction for centuries. Even a novel as blatantly moralistic as Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela” (1740, subtitled “Virtue Rewarded “) examines motive. Squire B doesn’t make his move until his mom dies, and Pamela mistrusts her supposed benefactor. After probing human behavior and its result, the novel concludes both happily and morally.

Today’s readers might not call this book “licentious,” balk at class difference, or applaud Pamela’s obsession with chastity. But they might all agree that the book’s core is what the character must learn, just as Darcy and Elizabeth must unlearn pride and prejudice in the novel of that title. Some things never change.

How much can characters learn from random events, however tragic? Such events reveal heroism and weakness. Sometimes they reveal whom we really love or what really matters. Yet fiction’s most intriguing messages involve dilemmas, human choices, and their resolutions. So you might try the following:

~ Watch for the word “suddenly.” Is it an easy solution to a fictional issue you’d be better off solving?

~ Beware external events as plot pivots. Yes, war, tornadoes, and forest fires change lives. But can they contribute as much as revealing human psychology through—human psychology?

~ Trace the consequences of decisions. In real life ambivalence determines lots of outcomes; we simply refuse to decide—and something results because of that. But how powerful is inaction in fiction? How powerful are outcomes based on external forces rather than personal choices?

The greatest stories trace not battles, but character response to them; not famine, but character response to it, not poverty, but character response to it. Does your novel rely on unfortunate or tragic happenstance, or on the outcome characters earn or fail to? We look to fiction for what life doesn’t provide.

Tip: Accidents are part of life but serve minimal purpose in fiction.