Sunday, March 29, 2015

“A Muse of Fire”

Shakespeare’s Henry V begins with, “O for a muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention,” a plea to transform the bare stage of the Globe into a French battleground. This great storyteller then asked something of the spectators: “let us…on your imaginary forces work.” Suppose that “when we talk of horses, that you see them.” Here’s the climax: “‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.”

Tip: The audience, reader or spectator, completes the picture.

Like the playwright, the novelist sets the stage, introduces the cast, and pits characters against each other. But that’s not worth much if everything is so blatantly clear that the audience can’t participate, or so painfully unclear that the audience can’t participate.

How do you let readers use their own imaginations just enough? Other than Aristotle himself, few people have sharper instincts about the mechanics of fiction than writer/agent Don Maass. His cardinal insight is that if it isn’t original, readers won’t buy it.

This is a classic argument. Plato and Aristotle, his pupil, disputed whether the truth of facts trumps the originality of story. We now agree that neither history nor story is superior. Each has a different purpose: fiction’s is to create a compelling, causal whole from what happened.

Tip: The quality of story comes from infusing a chain of events with your individuality.

To do that, you must dive deep inside. As Robert Browning urged, the “reach should exceed the grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?” Sometimes, of course, you reach down, and—nothing’s there.  Your antagonist upstages your protagonist. A scene feels challenging beyond your abilities. When novelist heaven seem beyond your grasp, “C’mon, baby, light your fire.”

~ Distract yourself. Run, dance, commune with your music. Media can also work, though less effectively because it can deaden rather than invigorate.

~ Stimulate yourself. Do a little research, interview your characters, change your plot line, write scenes out of order. Remind yourself what you love about your book, your writing, and you.

~ Tease yourself. Forbid yourself backstory. Introduce secrets. Base conversation on what’s implied rather than said (subtext). End chapters within scenes (interrupted scene). Break habits!

At its best, fiction gives just enough, so that like Shakespeare’s play, battlefields arise from a combination of the author’s words, the characters’ actions—and the reader’s mind.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Religion and Revision?

This comparison isn’t meant to be blasphemous! Religion can loosely be defined as a belief system involving a higher power, while revision produces an improved version of something.

Viewed this way, there’s more commonality between the two than how the words sound:

  • Never covet thy neighbor’s publications, prizes, interviews, royalties.
  • The journey is its own reward.
  • Think more about others than yourself.
  • That hard work often produces some rationalizing.
  • Your journey will likely involve some wise mentors and some false ones.
  • Your journey will help unleash the best you have to offer.
  • Your journey will be difficult—because it’s supposed to be.
  • Your journey might change you from who you were to who you want to be.

Let’s say you consider those premises valid. What’s next?

v  Do unto others (your readers) as you would have other writers do to you. Never condescend or waste words.
v  View revision not just as the heaven of a “perfect” novel, but as a meaningful creative process. That’s not a view; that’s exactly what revision is.
v  Understand the “commandments” well enough to know when the context justifies breaking them—and when it doesn’t.
v  Be patient. Sometimes the solution lies beyond your immediate understanding. But keep trying. Don’t give up.
v  Place yourself in the hands of a power greater than yourself. Your novel knows what it needs. So do your readers.
v  Heaven helps those who help themselves.

If you want your final draft to differ radically from your first one, as Raymond Chandler put it,
“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” The joy of revision is making sacrifices to achieve something good.

Upholding the tenets of your religion demands effort; that’s why some people give up what they love for Lent. This is Stephen King’s take on that: “The writer must have a good imagination to begin with, but the imagination has to be muscular, which means it must be exercised in a disciplined way, day in and day out, by writing, failing, succeeding and revising.”

Tip: Revise as if your soul depended on it.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

How Are Sherman Alexie and Steven Colbert Alike?

Wherever you are politically, you probably find the other side naively misguided or dangerously evil. You probably have at least one friend on the other side. What to do?

Tip: Laughter just might be the quickest route to compassion, healing, and insight.

Alexie and Colbert are both comedians of many trades, but comparing a pundit to a novelist feels like comparing “truthiness” to facts. Yet here they both are on conflict in America:

It’s like this white-Indian thing has gotten out of control. And the thing with the blacks and the Mexicans. Everybody blaming everybody...I don’t know what happened. I can’t explain it all. Just look around at the world. Look at this country. Things just aren’t like they used to be. – Sherman Alexie, Indian Killer

Let’s all go back to the good old days! Here’s another.

Join me in standing up against any actual knowledge about guns. Let the CDC know they can take away our ignorance when they pry it from our cold dead minds. – Stephen Colbert

Or on homophobia from a devout Catholic:

Christianity is the best way to cure gayness — just get on your knees, take a swig of wine, and accept the body of a man into your mouth. – Stephen Colbert


My grandmother’s greatest gift was tolerance. Now, in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity. In fact, weird people were often celebrated. Epileptics were often shamans because people just assumed that God gave seizure-visions to the lucky ones. Gay people were seen as magical too. I mean, like in many cultures, men were viewed as warriors and women were viewed as caregivers. But gay people, being both male and female, were seen as both warriors and caregivers. Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives! My grandmother had no use for all the gay bashing and homophobia in the world, especially among other Indians. “Jeez,” she said, Who cares if a man wants to marry another man? All I want to know is who’s going to pick up all the dirty socks?” – Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

What’s this got to do with your fiction?

~ The angrier you are, then the more you need to understate.
~ The angrier you are, then the more you need irony.
~ The more you want people to listen, then the more you need to make them laugh. at least 

Novels change us by clarifying the issues. Ranting only divides, as does oversimplifying characters into heroes or villains. As Colbert put it, “That’s why I don’t think I could ever stop doing what I’m doing, because I laugh all day long and if I didn’t I would just cry all day long….I would say laughter is the best medicine. But it’s more than that. It’s an entire regime of antibiotics and steroids.” Here’s to our health.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Ready, Set, Scene Goal

Whether drafting or revising, writers often imagine what could happen next and start typing immediately. For the lucky few, that’s a great strategy. For everyone else, it’s ignoring an opportunity that may sound like busy work, but in reality is anything but.

Among other things, Jack M. Bickham is known for observing that “Writers write. Everyone else makes excuses.” The quote lets us know we can trust him. In Scene & Structure (1993), Bickham differentiates the protagonist’s over-arching goal from the pressing one in the scene at hand. This is what he says about scene goals:

The prototypical scene begins with the most important character—invariably the viewpoint character—walking into a situation with a definite, clear-cut, specific goal which appears to be immediately attainable. This goal represents an important step in the character’s game plan—something to be obtained or achieved which will move him one big step closer to attainment of his major story goal.

In the last two decades, a lot has happened in and about fiction. Today, one might describe the scene goal this way: Whatever a character desperately wants to get or avoid.

The scene goal differs radically from the author’s goal. Successful scenes do more than supply backstory, introduce minor characters, create atmosphere, or break for an info-dump.

Tip: Focus on character desire; this gives scenes energy, focus, and momentum.

Scene goals assist with every stage of the writing process. Here’s what the scene goal can give you:

~ A genuine hook.
Avoid the summary or context that don’t truly entice.

~ Focus.
You detect details that don’t belong in this scene, or possibly not in any scene.

~ Tension.
How will other characters respond to the protagonist's determination?

~ Foreshadowing.
How will the protagonist fail or learn from that failure?

~ Launch pad.
Before the climax, the goal isn’t realized, only appears to be, or results in worse trouble.

Isn’t it worth that little extra effort to build scenes from what characters—not authors—want? After all, that’s what readers want.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Flirting with Boredom

Fiction offers an unspoken contract: Writers try to anticipate what readers want, and generally satisfied readers forgive novelists for not always anticipating correctly. Maybe that seems unrelated to boredom or flirting. But boredom has everything to do with the eye of the reader-beholder, and novelists who refuse to flirt are doomed to boring others. Take no risks, and you’ll never say anything new or exciting.

Certain things are boring about 98% of the time:

~ Repeating. Once is great, twice not at all.
            Angry to the point of fury, she raised her clenched fist at him.

~ “Doubling.” Don’t clarify unnecessarily.
            Ann had made a decision, and she turned to go.

~ “Showing” and then “telling” (or the reverse). Pick one or the other.
            His deep sadness caused tears to fall from his eyes.

~ Judging. Save the editorials for your friends—or, better yet, your journal.
A person who wanted tropical sun and humidity, even in winter, was clearly nuts.

~ Lecturing. Save the info-dump for your nonfiction book, your friends—or your journal.
Aristotle, master of science, philosophy, poetry, and human nature, continues to affect us millennia after his death.

After you’ve eliminated boring habits, start flirting. Be playful. Inject sexual innuendo, and invite rather than fulfill. Fiction readers adore humor, sensuality, and the chance to reach their own conclusions. Of course novels flirt a bit differently than people do.

  • Ground the story.
Setting for its own sake can bore, but setting that gives the characters a home intensifies the plot and highlights the themes.

  • Tease.
Leave scenes incomplete. Sustain problems, mysteries, obstacles, and secrets till the last possible moment. Answers can bore. Questions rarely do.

  • Differentiate essential material from tangential.
Learning about monarch butterflies sounds educational, except in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, where understanding them clarifies their symbolism, beauty, and value. Nothing boring there.

  • Set up.
Maybe preparing readers for the climax feels meticulous or over-zealous. But the opposite feels like a miraculous rescue, i.e. no fun at all. Flirt with foreshadowing.

Tip: Seduce us by making us wonder what you’ll do with the details. After all, that’s where the devil resides.