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.