Sunday, January 25, 2015

Hurry Up Already

A bit like Einstein’s iconic train, the way time unspools in fiction is relative. Just as in real life, glorious moments seem to last forty-five seconds, while the wait for news of surgery seems to last forty-five hours. Pace comes from efficient writing, sentence length and structure, and the one great detail that replaces four very good ones.

But you can’t control reader expectation and appetite. You can only strive to satisfy, and that won’t happen unless you consider who your readers are.

  • Do your readers crave mostly self-explanatory action?
  • Do your readers crave a thrilling new mystery or secret every couple of pages?
  • Do your readers crave sentence variety?
  • Do your readers crave facts and analysis?
  • Do your readers crave beauty and economy of language?
 Tip: Pace is a combination of what you write and how readers respond to it.

What affects reader response?

~ In a witty or lyrical voice, readers might welcome a long passage of history, such as
   one might find in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

~ At a crucial moment, readers might welcome a stretch of backstory, resembling what
   Phillipa Gregory executes in The Constant Princess.

~ At a life juncture, readers might welcome the psychological analysis that motivates
   Richard Russo’s characters in That Old Cape Magic.

You can and should think about your audience. But you can’t know exactly what readers think unless you could ask them. Happily, some truths about pacing pertain to almost all fiction. Avoid the following unless you include them intentionally.


State the obvious.
Double verbs, as in “Ellen lowered her eyes and fluttered her eyelashes.”
Bury action in logistical details.
Maintain the same pace all the time.
Disregard the “tension on every page” axiom.
Repeat words, details, or information that the reader’s already seen.
Use passive sentences when active ones work better.
Bury momentum in awkward constructions.
Ignore parallelism.

Pace protects the passion in fiction.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Clichés, Dull Knives, and Sharp Tools

A cliché is like taking a butter knife to a hunk of steak or a pristine golden pepper. If you want to discard fat or pith, you’ll need a honed instrument. If you want to engage readers, you’ll need honed language. How else can you trim the excess to reach the good parts?

What’s a cliché? A metaphor or expression that’s “dead as a doornail.” Clichés may seem harmless as a sheep in sheep’s clothing. But unless they’re somehow refurbished with evolved genetics and meaning, they’re at best an irritant and at worst an enemy of language, story, and theme.

Tip: Clichés are more treacherous than they seem.

If the character, event, or expression is the first thing that comes to mind, it’s the last thing you want on the page. A trope (dead metaphor or over-used plot device) not only spawns yawns from readers; it’s the enemy of the story that only one person can tell.

Where do clichés come from? According to Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd in Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction,  

The world brims over with temptations for the writer, modish words, unexamined phrases, borrowed tones, and the habits of thought they all represent. The creation of a style often begins with a negative achievement. Only by rejecting what comes too easily can you clear a space for yourself.

Clichés can “creep in” and “do damage” from “top to bottom.” They’re part of our language, our culture, our consciousness.  They can infiltrate fiction at the level of character, scenario, description, or metaphor. Kidder and Todd observe that:

When metaphors are fresh they are a form of thought, but when they are stale they are a way to avoid thought. “Tip of the iceberg” offends the ear as a cliché, and it offends reason because it is imprecise, if not spurious…

Decimate every clap of thunder” and kiss beneath a full moon. Trust that new stranger in town as you would the plague. Clichés are a plague, a threat to writer origination of events and conclusions and to reader interaction with the clues a good novelist provides.

What’s the “tried and true” cliché test? If it’s “the first thing” that “pops into your mind,” hesitate. Is this “yesterday’s news”? Could you plot this scene differently? Add complexity to this character? Describe the villain, damsel, mentor, surf, robin, or train station in a way no one else could—because no one’s thought about it the way you have. That takes effort. But you’ll like the moment better. So will your readers.

After all, isn’t that what fiction’s for?  In The Writing Class, Jincy Willett reminds that, “Only in art were there clichés; never in nature. There were no ordinary human beings. Everybody was born with surprise inside.”

Spread some surprise.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Voice: Vocal Cords and Chords

While vocal cords don’t literally deliver voice in fiction, they do symbolize the mechanism that lets what’s inside strike a chord with reader needs, beliefs, and expectations.

Chords—three or more harmonious notes heard as one—can impart pleasing complexity. Writers who can alternate between funny, poetic, and insightful often entertain more than those who only offer one thing.  A wide range adds complexity, as does leaving plenty of room for reader chords: for what their inference and imagination can add.

No finite boundary exists between your voice and what readers absorb, because no one approaches a novel without expectations and preconceptions.  This is so subtle that you can lose sight of the reader while writing.

Novels aren’t just author, narrator, characters. Readers participate, because each of them differs in optimism, vocabulary, tolerance for ambiguity, fondness for digression, loathing of short or long sentences, and so on. In Every Day, David Levithan reminds us that “The sound of the words as they’re said is always different from the sound they make when they’re heard, because the speaker hears some of the sound from the inside.”

Of course you need your gut to tell you what matters. But that’s not the whole story. Unless you’re journaling, your concern with reader response matters at least as much.

Tip: “Who Are You Writing For?” isn’t the main question. It’s the only one.

You can focus more on your readers by reading aloud or considering these questions:

~ Does a fondness for tautness or rhythm interfere with the accessibility of the prose?
Making syntax more important than the reader is self-indulgent.

~ Do you use the concept of “voice” to rationalize long-winded or awkward passages?
Making syntax more important than the reader is self-indulgent.

~ Do you provide the details that readers need—when they need them?
            Readers want details to serve the story rather than the author.

~ Do you use your fiction primarily to instruct or persuade?
            Learning along the way is great, but readers choose novels for pleasure.

~ Do you use your own emotions to deepen those of your characters or to grind axes?
            Writing fiction can be therapeutic, but that’s not its main purpose.

W.H. Auden put it really well: “All I have is a voice.” Indeed. But that voice is not only for self-expression but for reaching, touching, and perhaps transforming others. After all, as Zora Neale Hurston put it, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Unless your readers “hear” you, that’s a lot like silence.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Happy New Writer Resolutions

Lots of folks, including writers, consider resolutions hopelessly artificial. Yet there’s a good chance you recently promised someone (even if only yourself) that you’d exercise more, eat healthier, and quit muttering obscenities at thoughtless drivers unaware of your existence. Resolved anything about your writing? It never hurts to take stock, make plans, celebrate successes, and renew goals. Starting now.

Craft resolutions

~ Don’t deprive readers of the chance to infer.
~ Don’t irritate readers with extra words, gratuitous information, or belaboring of setting, emotion, or anything else.
~ Don’t be afraid of the dark: “…literature begins at the well you leaned over as a child and with the black fear that looked up at you from its depths. From the puppy you patted that turned out to be rabid.” – Aharon Appelfeld’s  Suddenly, Love (translated by Jeffrey M. Green)
~ Don’t patronize: “A good writer, like a good lover, must create a pact of trust with the object of his/her seduction that remains qualified, paradoxically, by a good measure of uncertainty, mystery and surprise.” –  Francine du Plessix Gray
~ Do choose details that take readers where you want their minds to go.
~ Do introduce a third character: “Character triangles make the strongest character combination and are the most common in stories…there’s actually a rather obvious reason for it: balance…. One person isn’t enough to get full interaction. Two is possible, but it doesn’t have a wild card to make things interesting. Three is just right.” –  Ronald B. Tobias
~ Do cut scenes that don’t fulfill their purpose: “If the character leaves the scene essentially as s/he entered it, your reader may become emotionally disengaged. However, if the scene shows great character development but doesn’t move the plot along, then it’s only done half a job. Good scenes should do both.”  –  Rachel Simon

Psychological Resolutions

~ Do try to write (or think about your writing) every day. Even if you can only squeeze out fifteen minutes.
~ Do formulate realistic goals. Then meet them.
~ Do embrace risk: “All the intelligence and talent in the world can’t make a singer. The voice is a wild thing. It can’t be bred in captivity. It is a sport, like the silver fox. It happens.” –  Willa Cather
~ Do learn from your mistakes: “There is such a thing as the poetry of a mistake, and when you say, ‘Mistakes were made,’ you deprive an action of its poetry, and you sound like a weasel.” ― Charles Baxter
~ Do be yourself: “The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.” –  Neil Gaiman
~ Do respect your talent enough to demand your best from yourself.
~ Do respect yourself enough to be kind and realistic about own very human foibles.

Tip: A good writing year mixes discipline with tenderness, high standards with empathy.