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.