Sunday, July 26, 2015

Cassandra and the Causal Plot

Poor Cassandra was doomed to accurately prophecy but never be believed. This legendary clairvoyant has more to offer the topic of causality than mere alliteration. She raises the question: what makes people believe a prediction? If ancient Greek gods are involved, there’s not much you can do about convincing your audience. But if you’re plotting a novel and want it to seem credible, you need causality—the antithesis of life’s randomness.

In contrast to good or bad luck, causality means that actions have consequences. Foolish or self-centered choices incur costs, while moral behavior eventually bestows a metaphorical pot of gold.

In fiction, causality shows up in two distinct arenas:

~ Foreshadowing.

Cassandra warned the people of Troy neither to welcome gorgeous Helen nor trust the gigantic horse assembled outside the city. The Trojans ignored her—and paid dearly. Novelists, too, must pay for not looking ahead. Unless you sow the seeds for what’s coming, the theme won’t seem any more credible to the audience than Cassandra’s predictions did.

1.      Hint in the very first chapter at the protagonist resources that will produce the ending. Just be sure to hint rather than bludgeon.
2.      Make each scene lead inevitably to the next. Agent/author Don Maass reminds that scenes must be so tightly interwoven that if you remove one, the entire plot unravels. Each scene must cause what follows. No exceptions.
3.      Derive theme from the resolution of the plot. Want your themes to be the icing on the cake? Then directly correlate the protagonist’s choices with what protagonist and reader ultimately discover. Together.

~ Climax.

Whether it’s called “pressure point,” “arc,” “story promise,” or “inciting incident,” the opening impetus needs enough heft to get both characters and readers to the climax.

    1. A credible climax develops from the opening launch.
    2. An empathetic climax involves human actions and decisions. Avoid your own version of Athena forcing the Trojans to quit ignoring Cassandra.
    3. A causal climax reveals how struggle summoned the protagonist’s best. That’s how you earn the ending

Tip: The novel’s opening explosion results in a chain of events that lead the protagonist to the climatic choice, which often resolves the initial dilemma.

You needn’t be Cassandra to know that while readers happily suspend disbelief , they’re terribly unhappy about inconsistency, randomness, or manipulation. Causality helps you view plot as far more fundamentally interconnected than a beginning, middle, and end. Which do you think your readers would prefer?

Friday, July 17, 2015

Ego, Egotism, and Authorship

Both “ego” and “egotism” can have a negative connotation, but only the latter always does. That’s because “ego” has to do with self, whereas “egotism” conveys an inflated sense of that.
If you believe you’re the only one in the world who could write this novel about Beethoven, basketball, or Baltimore, you’re an egotist. But if you believe you can—and should—complete and try to publish is novel about whatever, then you have enough ego to get the job done.

After all, according, to William Knowlton Zinsser, “Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.”  Unless you believe you have something to say, why endure the labor and critique when the vast majority of us must keep our day jobs, anyway. Julian Baggini is right: “There is an inherent vanity in writing; believing you have something special to offer the world is built-in to the very act of putting your work out into the world.” 

Still, egoism and egotism remain distinct:

~ An egotist despises constructive criticism. How could anyone know more than she does?
~ An egoist welcomes constructive criticism. How else can you please yourself with the best
   novel you’re capable of producing?

~ An egotist believes he is among the best writers there ever were—if not the very best.
~ An egoist, more often than not, believes that it’s impossible to meet his own expectations.

~ An egotist relishes praise; it’s always well-deserved.
~ An egoist might fear praise; maybe the result was good this time. What if it never is again?

~ An egotist is, at least publically, eternally free of self-doubt.
~ An egoist, alone or out in the world, is rarely free of self-doubt.

~ An egotist doesn’t believe in hard work. Why bother when you already excel?
~ An egoist generally loves hard work, because both the work and the product contribute to

Here’s the question: which do you love more, your novel or yourself? According to Thomas Mallon, “George Orwell in his essay ‘Why I Write’ (1946)…indicates a clear awareness that self-loathing and self-love are locked in a tight, procreative embrace.” But is that “self-love” egotistical or egoistical? And is the source of creativity egotism or egoism?

In The Moonflower Vine, Jetta Carleton writes, “Yet none of these things gave him confidence. All they gave him was egotism, which is less the conviction of one's worth than the desire for that conviction.”

Writing is hard work, and as everyone already knows, you won’t always be rewarded, or not as much you deserve, or perhaps not at all. That means you’ll need lots of faith, hope, and stamina to write, revise, and publish a novel. Many writers are fragile souls, prone to “self-loathing” without even a smattering of egotism. Excessive doubt can be as self-defeating as its antithesis.

Tip: Resist the temptation to think either too much—or too little!—of your book and your talent. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Detail and Shadow

Most writers relish details the way they cherish words: how can you possibly amass enough? Yet details are like chocolate. Continue after you should quit, and the result is queasiness. Or worse.

19th century writer Thomas Bailey Aldrich said, “I like to have a thing suggested rather than told in full. When every detail is given, the mind rests satisfied, and the imagination loses the desire to use its own wings.”

Here in the 21st century “wings” are generally restricted to literal flight. The language has changed, but not its truth: the smallest possible number of precise details let readers engineer their own flights.

The right detail is worth ten or twelve almost-right ones. This isn’t just a matter of leaving readers enough space; it also involves perception.

The beginnings and ends of shadow lie between the light and darkness and may be infinitely diminished and infinitely increased. Shadow is the means by which bodies display their form. The forms of bodies could not be understood in detail but for shadow. ― Leonardo da Vinci

What underlies this observation? The significance of dimness, of ambiguity, of the part you have to squint to bring into focus—and it might still remain indistinct anyway.

The history of photography, of how we make imagery permanent, has much to offer novelists. Picture yourself in a darkroom, dipping the print-to-be in its bath, waiting for an image to emerge, waiting to see what you captured.  Even though we can now see what we capture as fast as our fingers can move, patience remains the fiction writer’s ally. Yes, it’s great to have 50 chances to get the shot. But you have let all of them go except the one that offers both shadow and light, that guides readers without blocking the view. Present all your attempts, and you’ve erased every shadow.

Keep” taking shots” until you achieve the picture that gives readers of what they sought in the first place: the privilege of discovering where the shadows begin. Here’s an example:

Helen made all well-formed sentences. But they were hollow and stuffed―linguistic training bras. She sorted nouns from verbs, but, disembodied, she did not know the difference between thing and process, except as they functioned in clauses. Her predications were all shotgun weddings. Her ideas were as decorative as half-timber beams that bore no building load. ― Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2

Powers gives us lots of metaphors, each providing a clue to what’s missing. The details make this happen: “training bra,” “noun” or “verb,” impetuous marriage, and “beams” that offer no support.  In about fifty words, readers discover something about Helen, the person describing her, and the discomfort of non-communication. He loves metaphors—and many of us love him for that! Because the metaphors are never definitive—only suggestive. Each reader can interpret a little differently. Grant your own readers that opportunity.

Tip: Leave room for the shadows.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Angle, Emphasis, and Insight

What do you want readers to see? Perhaps you seek a kind of photographic realism, with the proportions between background and character, acuity and obscurity resembling what we see every day. Maybe, however, you want more—want readers to view the world from a different vantage point in order to reach new perception, new conclusions.

Tip: To change your reader’s perspective, you must first change your own.

Albert Einstein said that to solve a problem, you must alter your approach to it—that something must shift to allow new insight. That’s what a device called the camera obscura once provided. This precursor of Kodak is a dark chamber that reversed the image visible on the other side.  Some theorize that 17th century Dutch Masters like Vermeer used it to study the world upside down, in order to gain greater control of detail via altered perception. Tracy Chevalier describes this exquisitely in Girl with a Pearl Earring.

If you’d like to change your perspective without a camera obscura, what might you do?

~ Listen.

Many of the best novelists are more interested in what others have to say than in their own thoughts, which they already know. And opinions that make you queasy are likely among the most useful. What better way to explore other belief systems?

~ Ask questions.

Why does this person believe what she believes? How does he compartmentalize that way? Not all your characters are like you (!),  so you need a way to understand those who aren’t.

~ Broaden your horizons.

Seen any good paintings lately? Even if art isn’t your thing, a quick web foray can do lots to present the world through lenses rose-colored and otherwise. Some suggestions:

  • In Felix Vallotton’s “The Ball,” greenery gets far more precedence than figures or objects. Doesn’t that raise a lot of questions? Which ones?

  • “Christina’s  World,” by Andrew Wyeth, again emphasizes landscape. The disabled woman is unable to walk to the farmhouse, which is some distance away. What does the painting reveal about her? About her world? About your own?

  • “Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see,” said Rene Magritte, who painted a man painting a woman on the woman, a mirror functioning in reverse of a camera obscura,  a room-sized apple,  a locomotive suspended beneath a mantelpiece. All are true in the details—just not the relationships. What does that say? How are fiction and surrealism related?

Change how you see—what you see—and you can change the view for your readers. Toy with proportion, reversal, emphasis, and irony. Nothing will look quite the same. Isn’t that inherent in the word “fiction”?