Sunday, December 25, 2016

Story: Sympathy and Significance

The integration of character with plot moves us as few things can. Here’s an example. Among three 4-D shorts at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium is “Sea Monsters: A prehistoric Adventure (National Geographic, 2007). 

That genre and topic might sound irrelevant to the contemporary novel. Actually, though, the story of a young marine dinosaur named Dolly provokes acute understanding of evolution,  fossil hunting, and one prehistoric creature’s existence. The movie exploits adventure and mystery to teach science and connect with distance that’s difficult to conceive. Whether animated film or fiction, story lets humans remember, relate, perhaps even rectify. That’s the common thread between dolls, dolomite, and Don Juan, along with billions of other possibilities. All of it starts with character.

~ Character

The star of this particular story is a Dolichorhynchops from the vast inland sea of Kansas 80 million years ago. That world feels close and vital less due to 4-D (including rumbling and a bit of splashing) than a protagonist with a plight culminating in more than one happy ending.

Empathy comes from identifying with another being—human or otherwise. Fortunately, face-to-face experience evokes kindness in most primates. But from afar, when beings vastly differ in appearance, lifestyle, habitat, or time span, empathy comes harder, too often disintegrating into a sense of “Other”: “You’re not like me, so I don’t have to care.” 

That where story comes in. Once readers connect, they feel compassion, even when the species has an unfamiliar, unpronounceable name. Happily, characterization often shatters distrust of “Otherness.”

~ Plot.

Dolly’s Super-Objective, or primary goal, is surviving long enough to reproduce. Around 80 million years later, paleontologists from Kansas to Australia, from 1918 to 2002, have their own Super-Objective. What can they learn about Dolly from the fossil she has become? Like all good stories, theirs has elements of mystery, of change.

The journey of a character, whether from another world, timeframe, or continent, always involves external pressure. The interaction between environment and Super-Objective instigates plot. The secret behind all those childhood favorites (“Curious George,” “The Velveteen Rabbit,” “The Little Engine that Could”) is the same secret that drives novelists from Jane Austen to Zora Neale Hurston: Will this character I’ve come to care about get the job done? By the deadline?

Strong plots follow the classical pattern: The protagonist is in trouble. As Charles Baxter put it, “Hell is story friendly.” Then the protagonist must have enough perseverance, chutzpah, and skill to continue struggling even when it seems hopeless. Dolly has quite a battle with that shark. And the entire audience breathes a huge sigh of relief when she escapes with only the small wound that will solve the mystery of her life story (a fragment of shark tooth embedded in her skeleton). 
Plot and protagonist must be inseparable. Unless we care about the character, no amount of plot will matter. Unless something’s relentlessly progressing, even the best-drawn  character can’t sustain the story.

~ Theme.

It’s the reward for integrated character and plot. Depending on how you interpret theme, every story has it, even if it’s mainly that detectives must look beneath the surface to compute whodunit, or love’s better the second time around, or look before you leap.

The themes in this short film are immense. The rocks are full of stories. Fossils are stories. The stories of the dead live well beyond their material existence. And those who hunt those stories become stories themselves. 

Tip: Whatever you want to say, let your story—and only your story—say it.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

How Not to Break a Bough

If you pile on too much weight, whether it’s a tree limb or a story’s spine, the structure won’t withstand the burden.

Story spine? This term from the screenplay world is equally useful to both screenwriters and novelists, explaining how story builds from the fusion between longing and action. The article “Classical Screenplay Structure,” from the Screenplayology site, defines the protagonist’s driving desire as a Super-Objective, a passion that motivates the journey from inciting incident to climax:
the Spine is the unified thread of actions taken on the part of the character in pursuit of his or her Super-Objective. Together, the Super-Objective and Spine offer the screenwriter a path of adherence to Aristotle’s prescription of plot unity.
Of course Aristotle’s three unities (time, place, and action) translate only indirectly to film and fiction. Many novels span planets, across centuries. And although a play without subplots might seem exquisitely coherent, contemporary audiences both expect and enjoy subplots. The Poetics best assists contemporary writers when applied to the spirit, rather than the letter, of its laws.

Tip: Strong story structure originates in an inextricable meshing of plot and character.

In Kate Wright’s excellent blog on “The Five S’s of Screenwriting, she clarifies that
Spine begins with discovering what your story is about through character behavior. It is about creating a unifying depth within your story, character by character, action by action, sequence by sequence, layer upon layer. The surprise is that once you discover what your story is about on a profound level, there are an infinite number of insights and details you can infuse into the material through character behavior, actions, and images. The challenge is to discover this unifying idea or principle that synthesizes what the story is about in simple terms.
Have you identified the driving force of your novel? That’s the start of its spine, a backbone both sturdy and flexible enough to support all the images and examples most novelists long to include. Solidify the fundamental structure, and you get to indulge yourself a little (though just a little!) more.

Karina Wilson’s column on “Screenwriting: The Emotional Spine” analyzes the fusion of individual units into a powerful whole:
The spine has three main functions in a vertebrate: strength, flexibility and communication. The emotional spine of a screenplay serves those same purposes. It provides strength, joining the separate elements of plot and character, and connecting the three acts. It provides flexibility, especially within characterization, allowing people to twist, to be flawed, erratic, make bad decisions and U-turns–as long as they remain connected to the spinal cord. It permits the communication of messages, particularly within subtext and meta-narrative, running deeper than dialogue, or a single character’s arc.
Each portion of that backbone must fit and contribute.  Obvious as this sounds, most writers at least occasionally get lost in word choice at the expense of the deep structure.

How to remedy that? Susan Kougell suggests literally picturing a human spine and hanging plot points on that. Some may find this a bit metaphorical. The idea, though, is to fashion  a spine sturdy enough to support all the characters, details, and description. No vertebrae can be weak or absent. The story shouldn’t stoop over or suffer from osteoporosis, a pitiful core, or a flabby middle.

For many of us, weighing down the offshoots comes more easily and feels more fun. But that makes for a misshapen tree or novel. Build a mighty trunk, capable of supporting a blizzard of snow—or words. It’s all about the spine.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Seeing the Stories in the Stars

Some of the earliest storytellers looked up at those distant pinpoints of light and both identified and created patterns—which is the beginning of storytelling.  Using this pattern-finding ability, various societies detected not just three stars, but a shepherd, a messenger to the gods, a foreshadowing of winter,  the three Wise Men, a symbol of yahweh’s power, a swordsman, a hunter.

That’s an awful lot of stories, gleaned from all over our planet, evoked by random stars that barely represent any pattern at all. But this isn’t surprising because, according to  Michael Shermer, “Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.” 

We invent stories to entertain, explain the inexplicable, cement social cohesiveness, cope with adversity, and even defy death. “The patterns we perceive,” John Verndon says, “are determined by the stories we want to believe.”  So as a novelist, you want to reveal a pattern that illustrates whatever you’d like readers to notice, consider, or even do.

~ Plot.

This, of course, is the fundamental use of a pattern to convey beliefs. In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the pattern takes the shape of a journey down the river, one beginning with total naivety on the boy’s part, ending with a glimmer of understanding that slaves are not property or “Other”—but fellow humans, and being “sivilized,” as Huck puts it, isn’t just confining. It’s down right dangerous. 

This sort of episodic story structure is out of favor these days. But the strategy of transforming random events into a  coherent pattern is certainly not. Most novels, contemporary or otherwise, use pattern to reveal a different way to see the world. 

~ Imagery.

Patterns shape Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The lighthouse itself is a distant beacon symbolizing different things to different characters, but to them all, it’s out of reach, even when you get there. How you think about the lighthouse controls what you’re able to do, as Lily discovers when she’s finally able to complete her painting. 

Novelists have always used imagery to compare and contrast characters in terms of moral or aesthetic values. Images not only cement theme but bind disjointed events and details into a coherent whole. Recurring patterns can unite an encyclopedia range of illustrations and tangents, as Jonathan Franzen does in The Corrections or Chad Harbach in The Art of Fielding

~ Causality and morality.

Perhaps it seems a little dated to have all the good guys win and the all the bad ones wind up behind bars. Yet The Memory Keeper’s Daughter (Kim Edwards) reminds us to be careful what—or whom—we discard. Writers like Shauna Singh Baldwin, Kiran Desai, Chitra Divakaruni, Chang-Rae Lee, and Colson Whitehead remind us, much like Charles Dickens or Jane Austen, that treating others intolerantly yields intolerable cruelty.

The novel remains a moral instrument because a passion for justice underlies the human storytelling drive. Always has. If fiction is as random as reality, or as cruel as the underdog losing and tyranny triumphing, how can the novel achieve its ultimate purpose? The novel remains a source of hope when the world outside the book’s pages seems mighty hopeless.

But that hope must be earned. If heroes win simply because they're lucky, fiction merely replicates the world readers seek to escape by reading about heroes?  Most novels trace just causality. Be brave, oppose immorality, capitalize on resources you never knew you had and you can right wrongs, acquire human or divine salvation. Repair the broken world. 

Fiction satisfies us most when looking back on the one we just finished, we detect a subtle pattern. The journey involved maturation from obvious mistakes to misfortune to finally achieving happiness and victory due to better, wiser, more generous choices. Novels serve the same purpose as constellations. It’s not just dark and distant out there. Orion looks down on us.

Tip: Stories do their work by revealing hidden patterns.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Taste the Sauce

The best cooks know that a recipe is only the start. Unless you check the final blend of flavors, how will you know if that “pinch” of salt is heavy-handed or lightweight? What if the vinegar is less tangy than bitter, or the flavor of the pepper flimsy or fiery? 

Great cooking is an art. So is great writing. Every novelist can acquire hundreds of recipes for plot, dialogue, characterization—all the way down to the structure of the sentence. But don’t stop there.  

Tip: Recipes are an indispensable starting point, but you still have to adjust the seasoning.

Even the finest, most tried-and-true recipes won’t achieve the following without your personal touch:

~ Plot that feels organic.

Hundreds of plot recipes exist, everything from the Aristotelian arc, to John Truby's 7 Key Steps, to Jack M. Bickham’s Scene and Sequel, to Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method. You can structure plot using templates, sequences, caves, psychological baggage, and pressure or plot points. The terminology differs. But all of these trace the movement from terrible trouble to some sort of climax, usually involving a happy ending, usually produced by the protagonist’s own choices and actions. 

You can construct a solid foundation using any one or any combination of these plotting options. In the end, though, a completely credible plot can emerge only from a completely causal one, where every choice inevitably results in the next outcome, right up to the end. 

Without that? It all feels at least slightly contrived. It’s not entirely believable, and not at all organic. You’re not done until you apply the taste test.

~ Dialogue that propels.

Consider all those dialogue “rules.” Never go too long without some dialogue breaking up the narrative; gradually build every exchange to a climax; insert speaker attribution or stage business every ____ number of lines, and so on.

But doesn’t every single dialogue exchange differ from every other? You can’t plan in advance when or how long characters will speak. Adhere too closely to any recipe or formula, and your dialogue won’t reflect character struggle authentically.

The best dialogue advice is fairly general. Sol Stein reminds of the need to give each character “a different script.” That will always summon a genuine exchange, as will this advice from Robert McKee:
Learn to judge you dialogue by listening past the words and sensing the harmony or disharmony between cause and effect. Dialogue rings true when a character’s verbal actions resonate with his motivation, when his inner desires and outer tactics seem to complement each other.
~ Characters that breathe.

Whether Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, or Toni Morrison’s Sula, no single technique evokes emotion in every reader. The further you stray from prescriptive methods that tend to oversimplify, then the happier your readers will be. 

For example, Dara Marks is absolutely right that the past controls us. Her title, “The Fatal Flaw - The Most Essential Element for Bringing Characters to Life,” offers an excellent recipe. Yet it’s neither the ultimate one, nor the only route to creating character arc. The observation by Heraclitus that “Character is fate” is another recipe, but again, one among the many, many ways to develop complex character and plot. You’re not done until, like a great chef, you add the personal touch.

Want to cook up a great novel? Read a lot of writing recipes. Familiarize yourself with those suitable to you, and you’ll make the place where you create a comfortable and stimulating hangout. 

But not everyone enjoys the same dinner. Or novel. As you put the finishing touches on an offering that’s entirely your own, picture whom you’re serving. That’s the way to perfect the seasoning.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Giving Thanks for Readers

Without them, we’re just writing for ourselves. Would that be easier? You bet. Would that be preferable? Certainly not.

Tip: Whatever gets you to work harder gets you to work better.

If you don’t “show” when you ought to, make emotion genuine, plot causally, keep tension on every page, respect genre conventions, and word precisely, you can write as fast as you can type. But what kind of goal is that? Write for a reader, however, whether an individual (real or imaginary) or a congregation of them, and your standards rise to meet theirs. 

Here’s how:

~ “Showing” versus “Telling.”

Sadly, nothing about this is easy. If you never “tell,” readers can’t follow the story, even if it’s 250,000 words long, as will likely be the case. The trick is not to “tell” what you can “show.” Though there’s no formula, if a moment involves emotion, you probably want to reveal rather than describe. 

~ Genuine emotion.

Have you considered just how fake emotion can be? Watch commercials for greeting cards or pet food. Or a movie where one coincidence follows another until, thanks to a miracle save, the hero, through no resource of her own, lives happily ever after. Cheap. Fake, Shallow. Manipulative. In fiction, the only source of real emotion is real plot. 

~ Causal plot.

Don Maass has famously said that unless you construct a plot where no scene is expendable, you haven’t plotted the way you need to. Your not-so-secret weapon is causality. Every decision or action causes the next, nothing left to circumstance, nothing engineered from anything but character choices and assets. 

~ Tension on every page.

If the character (and thus reader) emotions stem from a causal plot that produces the outcome of every scene right up to the climax; and if events rather than abstractions like terror or agony deliver those emotions, then the tension will be right there. Let your characters and plot—rather than you the author—deliver the story. 

~ Genre Conventions.

This is where an image of a particular reader, representing a particular audience, really helps. For example, in fantasy or historical fiction, readers cheerfully tolerate so many characters that they’re offered—and willingly consult—lengthy lists of role and identity. But in genres like romantic suspense or women’s fiction, readers will balk at endless minor characters, no matter how melodic your voice or captivating your plot.

Read widely in your genre, and only current fiction counts. How people wrote mysteries when Agatha Christie reigned won’t necessarily tempt today’s mystery addicts. Do your homework. That’s neither cheating nor wasting time. After all, agents and publishers are, first and foremost, readers.

~ Precise wording.

This underlies everything readers seek. But it’s the last step—not the first.

Writers are a rebellious bunch. Many of us don’t instinctively appreciate constraints or critique. Of course you can ignore all that. Do your own thing. Just not if you want readers.

In this time when we need to count our blessings, if only to maintain our sanity, let’s count readers among those gifts. They keep us on our toes. They bring out our best. They remind us why we do this. And I, for one, couldn’t be more grateful. To our readers!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Verity versus Verisimilitude

Verity, from the Latin veritas, means “true” or “real.” In contrast, verisimilitude comes from the Latin likeness to truth. For fiction writers, the difference couldn’t be more dramatic—because drama originates in imitating rather than replicating reality. That’s the source of fiction’s big questions. As Richard Bradley put it in his review of Ward Just’s The Eastern Shore: “What makes a story true? What means of storytelling best capture reality? Are facts a path to truth or a finely constructed gate?”

“Verisimilitude,” Russell Smith notes, “is something I am constantly seeking in fiction. I am looking for surface detail that makes something seem real.” Because as Mark Twain and numerous others have observed, fiction, however fantastical, must seem more credible than reality itself.

But that’s only part of what fiction requires. In “Realism and Verisimilitude,” Taylor Stoehr suggests that “Fiction does not imitate life in the way that mirrors do, though we sometimes talk about its ‘mirroring of reality,’ nor does it pretend to be real in the way wax bananas do, or in the way that plastic simulates cowhide.”

Every novel creates a new reality, one true within its own parameters. The argument against Plato that Aristotle mounts in The Poetics insists that the most valuable truths transcend the literal facts. The best fiction, whether drama, epic poem, or novel, shapes a reality more causal and credible than the actual one.

How might you construct such a reality?

~ Propel Momentum.
As Robert McKee asserts in Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen: “Dialogue concentrates meaning; conversation dilutes it. Therefore, even in the most realistic settings and genres, credible dialogue does not imitate actuality.”
~ Manage Pace. 
It literally takes hours to prepare a turkey, drive to grandma’s, build a cabinet, or wash and fold the laundry. But no one wants to read logistics in anything approximating real time.
~ Avoid Coincidence.
Of course you could miss every traffic light, leave your identification at home, and be late for the plane. The one that crashes. But the fact that this could, or even did, actually happen doesn’t make it believable. Use subtle foreshadowing and set up to make your plot credible—particularly at its climax.
~ Justify  Psychological Insight.
Here’s McKee again: “beware characters who know themselves better than you know yourself.” The best novelists have explored every aspect of character psyche. But that’s a task for the novelist, not the character. 
~ Earn the Ending.
From the very start, present a protagonist with enough internal assets, however undeveloped, to save the day, and without the aid of convenient external miracles.
Tip: At its best, fiction feels, but should not literally be, more “true” than reality.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Art and Adversity

For the writers I know personally and perhaps millions I don’t know, the aftermath of the US. election was a time of pain, disgust, shock, and perhaps terror isn’t an exaggeration. Right now, working on fiction might seem at best—self-indulgent and at worst—pointless.  In this situation, what’s the role of art? Any kind of art?

On one hand, last May, more than 450 American novelists, poets and literary critics signed an “Open Letter to the American People.” The subject was our newly elected president. If these artists had an effect, it clearly wasn’t enough of one. 

On the other hand , in the NY Time Book Review of February 17, 2015, Mohsin Hamid claims that “Fiction can say publicly what might otherwise appear unsayable, combating the coerced silence that is a favored weapon of those who have power.”

In Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Baxter terrorizes a family, changing his mind about rape and murder because the comely daughter convinces him that she’s the author of Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” The poem stuns Baxter more than the nudity he demanded of her. Credible? Maybe that depends on the reader. Yet, in any case, the semi-miraculous save starkly contrasts with the father’s earlier observation that "His crime was to stand in the safety of his bedroom, wrapped in a woollen dressing gown, without moving or making a sound, half dreaming as he watched people die.” Throughout McEwan’s work, watching without acting always constitutes a crime.

Where does this leave the novelist? Maybe you want to write because it improves your immediate environment: a bit of reality more credible than reality itself in a world besmirched with socio-political rather than literary fictions. 

Art isn’t only for its audience. As Pablo Picasso put it, “We artists are indestructible; even in a prison, or in a concentration camp, I would be almighty in my own world of art, even if I had to paint my pictures with my wet tongue on the dusty floor of my cell.” 

According to E.A. Bucchianeri, “While art thrives on the blazing colours of scandal, literature blossoms on the dark soil of tragedy.”  Personally, I would very much prefer a different source of inspiration than what I, among millions of others, view as tragedy. But it won’t keep me from revising my novel, although it’s not a political one.

Besides, many believe that art, particularly fiction, affects its audience most deeply with drama, metaphor, subtext, and understatement. This suggests that railing about injustice won’t necessarily produce art. Yet, by grappling toward truth whether with paint (consider Picasso’s “Guernica”) or words, isn’t all art “Protest Art”? Isn’t all art at least theoretically political? In my own way, I will continue protesting. 

This is why. Wednesday morning, November 9, I happened to read “In Exile with Don Quixote,” by Ariel Dorfman, who wrote 
Those of us reading Don Quixote in 1973, in an embassy we could not leave, surrounded by soldiers ready to transport us to stadiums and cellars and, ultimately, cemeteries, responded viscerally to the novel. That continuous exultation and practice of liberty, both personal and aesthetic, was inspiring. —NY Times, 10/9/‘16
Dorfman alluded to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s confession in the prologue of this brand-new genre(1605) that this novel was “begotten in a prison where every discomfort has its place and every sad sound makes its home.” If he could compose a form that barely existed from inside a dungeon, what can you do? What should you do? 

Here’s Harry Belafonte on art and politics:
As Paul Robeson said, ‘Artists are the radical voice of civilization.’ Each and every one of you in this room, with your gifts and your power and your skills, could perhaps change the way in which our global humanity mistrusts itself. Perhaps we as artists and as visionaries, for what’s better in the human heart and the human soul, could influence citizens everywhere in the world to see the better side of who and what we are as a species.

Tip: Now more than ever, make your voice heard.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Notes on NaNoWriMo

That’s the acronym for National Novel Writing Month. The goal? “a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing. On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30.” 

According to Chuck Wendig, this computes to “at least 1,666 words per day over the 30 day period.” And he notes that lots of those words won’t be good, and that a more realistic word count for a novel is 70,000. So what’s the value of this?

Tip: Most writers have bad habits. And most writers benefit from identifying and breaking them.

The majority of writers are serious enough and smart enough to know that novel writing is rarely easy or lucrative. Perhaps they’ve already heard the Ernest Hemingway quote: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”

If someone clever and conscientious has critiqued a novelist, then he or she has bravely or miserably learned the truth that “Writing is easy to do, but hard to master.” —  Jeff Goins, “5 Hard Truths about Writing” 

And the solution to “Writing a good book, compared to a bad one, involves one thing. Work.” —Jeff Berkun, “How to Write a Book—the Short Honest Truth”

How does this relate to NaNoWriMo, which involves piling up the words, then revising those words you piled up? Depending on your schedule, writing process, and comfort level, this month offers an opportunity to diagnose habits and decide might change. Recognize any of these?
  • I’m planning. That’s writing.
  • I'm scheduling when I'll write. That’s writing.
  • I’m depressed; I can’t write.
  • I’m ecstatic; I can’t write.
  • I only have two and one-half hours, so there’s no point starting.
  • I can only write if nothing distracts me.
  • I promised I’d write for ninety minutes and I’m already five over. I get to stop.
  • I can only write when I’m inspired.
  • I can only write when I know exactly where the scene is going.
  • I can only write under ideal conditions.
Really? Really? In Marge Piercy’s superb poem, “For the Young Who Want to,” she reminds us that

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

Why not use this month to identify the ways you postpone writing? So you can write more. It’s never relaxing, might even be costly. How many of us applaud our efforts, thinking, “I couldn’t possibly have done better”? Yet, as novelist Chitra Divakaruni put it, “The question is what you would give up for your writing.” Want to use this month to find out?

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Wait for it

“Timing is everything” applies as much to fiction as anything else.  It’s too late once the wave hits, the leaves fall, or the sun sets or rises, and too early isn’t much better. Timing is a powerful ally—or enemy.

Which factors affect a novel’s timing?

~ Starting too early.

No harm in writers warming up, setting the scene, submerging first toe, then ankle, then thigh into the dark cold of the empty page. If you must, write down what you’re thinking. Then cut. Mercilessly. Novels start with the inciting incident that propels the entire book forward and not with the backstory, context, or status quo leading to the inciting incident. The same applies to scenes. Begin in medias res, or in the middle of the action or tension.

~ Minimizing the best moment.

Like everyone else, writers frequently abhor conflict. Who wants to cause trouble, feel lousy, or send someone else there? But readers await that very tension. As Charles Baxter reminds, “Hell is story friendly.” Offer heated arguments, enflamed accusations, and burning lust or envy. Fire up your characters, then let readers watch the desperate attempts to stamp out the fire. Wait for the moment of most intense passion, then deliver it. Slowly and seductively.

~ Resolving too soon.

Few novelists enjoy torturing their beloved creations with misery, misfortune, or misanthropy. Rather than watch characters suffer, particularly the protagonist, writers often assume a gently maternal attitude. Let’s make things better. As soon as possible. Readers, though, want just the opposite. It’s not sadistic to find character struggle spellbinding. After all, how the protagonist changes and wins, who saves the day and how—isn’t that the entire basis for the novel? So, within each scene, wait for the moment of greatest conflict, and climax there.

~ Ending too early.

Just as the struggles the plot introduces need to play out till the end, the novel as a whole must let both the dilemmas and their solutions ripen. Harvest what’s immature, and nothing tastes good. When approaching the words “The End,” some novelists can’t wait to get it over with. But stop to consider the last novel you read that sagged at its conclusion. Wait until it’s time to let go, and then do.

~ Ending too late.

But don’t wait too long. Fruit satisfies when plucked at just the right moment, neither grabbed too soon, nor left to shrivel. Wait until you’ve nourished all the tension, and all the character change this provoked. Then stop.

Timing is tricky because so many factors urge us to wait too long or not long enough. Think about your audience. Imagine yourself as reader rather than writer. There’s no better way to discern when the moment’s right.

Tip: Time is a crucial, too frequently dismissed element of fiction.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Hush, or Understatement, Subtext, and Whispering

Let’s start with a picture. After all, aren’t novels one picture after another of characters—both inside and out?

What do you see? This Bernini sculpture, which you can view in Rome’s elaborately decorated Santa Maria della Vittoria Church, has a story behind it.

The title, “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” clarifies that it’s a male angel, and that his hand, yes, indeed, is exactly where we suspected but were reluctant to admit. Is the angel really doing that? Yes.

Here’s a closer look. 

What captures the ecstasy? The Saint’s flung-back head, the arched body, the open mouth, the foot bodiless enough to seem devoid of bones. The sculpture melds earth and heaven—keen awareness of body with the ultimate transcendence of it. The sculpture conveys all this with such subtlety that without the tantalizing suggestion, much of this might go unnoticed. What a terrific recipe for fiction.

Tip: The more readers discover emotion, rather than being bludgeoned with it, the happier they'll be.

How does that work?

~ Understatement.

Intense emotion, such as tragedy, disaster, euphoria, or ecstasy needs implication. Because readers already know how they feel about such events. The more you “tell” them then, particularly with judgments like “horrible,” “painful,” “terrifying,” or joyous,” then the less readers can feel what they already do without your help. Abstract words, especially over-used ones, separate readers from plot, much the way adding the word “rapturous” to Bernini’s title would only interfere. Just as he uses the subtle folds of the marble—and what that implies—to make his point, use the events—not the descriptions—in your novel to make yours.

~ Subtext.

Literally what’s “beneath the words,” subtext involves what characters say indirectly.  A wife reluctant to confront her husband overtly might observe, “You needed another fishing rod?” A father might freak at his daughter’s low-cut, skin-tight tank top, and mutter, “Is that all you’re wearing? “Meaning implied but never vocalized both mimics real-life interaction and leaves readers free to interpret. This resembles the way one can scrutinize Bernini’s sculpture and infer the feelings of the angel and the saint.

~ Whispering.

With rare exceptions, the more intense the emotion, then the more subtly and quietly you ought to describe it. Defy this rule of both craft and psychology, and the likely result is melodrama, or a portrayal that feels sensational rather than emotionally gripping. Neither reader nor writer wants a novel to read like a tabloid.

How do you whisper? 
  • Use concrete language that evokes one of the five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell.
  • Avoid judgmental conclusions like “anguished,” “devastated,” or “heart-stopping.”
  • Focus more on what happens than how scary or wonderful or terrific it is.

Here’s the ultimate understatement: trust your audience. Bernini did.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Wrong Turn, Right Result

Maybe you were booked for Capri and wound up on the Amalfi Coast instead. 

Or perhaps a visit to the Uffizi paintings became a tour of Renaissance Florence. You could fret, weep, or storm. But wouldn’t you rather appreciate what turned out, instead of what you planned?

You could be pleasantly surprised. This pertains to fiction, as well.

~ Wrong Turn with Your Characters

Don’t save every minor character you introduced just because they’re now “alive.”

Do seek ways to make three minor characters into one. 

Do add unexpected discoveries, which are nearly always the best ones. Did you accidentally discover that your Georgina enjoys Brussel Sprouts or Latin dancing? Who knew that Hector excels at chess, Judo, or solving the Rubric Cube?

~ Wrong Turn with Your Plot

Don’t keep broadening or, worse, repeating.

Do dig deeper. There’s no better antidote for nothing happening. Seek innovative solutions to stagnation. This might be another source of tension (as opposed to yet another character), or what Noah Lukeman calls “a ticking clock,” or an archetypal struggle, such as honor versus expediency.

Do think in terms of causality. How does this event or emotion yield? If your protagonist refuses to confront another character about betrayal, what is the result? And, as Don Maass instructs, avoid picking the first possibility that comes to mind. It comes first to everyone else’s mind, too.

~ Wrong Turn with Point of View

Don’t jump on the easiest solution.

Do use physical behavior or setting to convey the character thoughts that go beyond the scope of your chosen perspective. You might look up how Edith Wharton accomplishes this at the beginning of “The House of Mirth.”

Do pursue an alternative direction. What’s another way to communicate what your point of view can’t legitimately capture?

~ Wrong Turn with a Scene’s Opening

Don’t follow Alice into a nightmarish Wonderland just because you started that way.

Do start every scene with a hook. That’s a great way to know where you’re going before you get too far.

Do start the scene later. You’ll often speed momentum and raise tension by deleting the first few paragraphs.

Do experiment with variations. How else could this happen? Again, focus on cause and effect.

~ Wrong Turn with an Entire Scene

Don’t feel you should keep it just because you wrote it.

Do look for opportunities to collapse entire scenes into a paragraph or so of summary. When you do that, be concrete and explicit. Character emotions are a terrific way to collapse time, plot, or both.

Tip: Like most things in life, fiction benefits from making lemons into lemonade.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

No Talking, Please

This isn’t about being quiet while a professional speaks, or not whispering when you’re bored, or being the good listener nearly everyone aspires to be. It’s about being a novelist.

Tip: Although some novels are offered orally, novels are written—not spoken.

That means if you’re writing the way you talk, stop! If you’re transcribing what you hear, stop! If you long to meticulously record what people actually say to each other, stop!

For better or worse, the composing of a novel has preciously little to do with what’s said in the real world, how well you capture that, or what your friends and family share. Even when they’re seriously pissed off.

Why not keep in mind some of these disparities between the spoken and written word?

1. Real conversation is really boring. Really often. Especially on paper.

Understandably, people daydream lots when even their most beloved family members address them. They have to. If not, they could potentially perish during the onslaught of tedious, redundant, tangential, and judgmental details. Lengthy conversation is often tolerable. Minds wander. Images appear. Grocery lists are written and rewritten. Toleration of wordy prose? Not so much. 

Be realistic. Be fair. Be thoughtful. Don’t force your readers to skim.

2.  In the real world, conversation involves audience response.

For the writer, this is both blessing and curse. It’s a blessing because you can skillfully circumvent all the ploys listeners employ. It’s a curse because since your audience contributes little or nothing: you have to do all the work.

When people converse, they ask questions. What did you mean? Why didn’t she answer? Even, who’s Neil Chambray? Novel readers can’t ask questions. They get it. Or don’t. And if they don’t get it often enough, you know what happens.

3. Extensive physical cues enhance real-world dialogue.

That’s what makes Skype popular. The audience interprets visual cues, notes tone of voice, recognizes the shift from merry to serious. For better or worse, one of the novelist’s tasks is making what characters say so concrete and comprehensive that readers believe they can see the dialogue they’re hearing.

4. Outside of fiction, listener expectations are remarkably low.

Aware that people are speaking extemporaneously, and that unless we’re at a meeting or lecture, we’re willing to accept this individual’s foibles, we accept a rather significant amount of repetition, backtracking, irrelevance, hyperbole, self-congratulation, obfuscation, and ambiguity. After all, we want to know what this person has to say. We persevere, knowing the irritation is finite. In fiction? If this happens too often, well, it’s easier to choose another novel than another friend or family member.

5. Especially in speech, crummy word choice and sentence structure are more frequent than occasional.

Casual speech, even from the wittiest, most brilliant and eloquent, has severe limitations. There is the prevalence of passive voice. Mixed metaphors make us so colorblind that we fail to detect the true colors of sound bites. Between you and I, the rules of grammar isn’t always impeccable, especially after an extra glass of wine. On paper, spoken idioms that sound just right become ships careening into each other because it’s a dark and stormy night. 

Writing a novel is nothing like “telling a story.” Save the talking for conversation with your friends.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Who Is Wallace Stevens?

When I recently solicited search engine help from a computer geek, that’s the question I got, followed by, “Is Wallace Stevens a corporation?”

Wallace Stevens (1879 - 1955), arguably the greatest poet America has yet produced, may not be recognizable to everyone. After all, not many poets are. But he should matter to every writer, which, of course, includes novelists.

Tip:  Know your audience well enough to present details responsively.

Here’s what Stevens could encourage writers to consider: 

~ Audience. 

This poet’s name, beloved to certain writers and unknown or only vaguely recalled by others, clarifies the question of audience. Until you’ve identified yours, you’ll never know what to take for granted and when you explain too little or too much. Readers (including agents) discard possibilities from both ends of the spectrum: feeling patronized, or feeling that they spend more time with Wikipedia and the dictionary than the novel itself. Neither is much fun.

As a novelist, it’s your job to know whether your readers are likely to be familiar with Wallace Stevens, Grace’s version of “You Don’t Own Me,” or The Battle of the Bulge.  Write for everyone, and you might wind up writing for no one.

~ Mystery and inference.

Stevens urges us to “Throw away the light, the definitions, and say what you see in the dark.” What’s the invitation here? Rationality can sometimes be—too rational, too clear, too blazingly bright to let creativity  flourish. Close your own eyes so you can open your reader’s.

~ Symbolism.

“Reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor,” Stevens says in “The Necessary Angel, Essays on Reality and the Imagination.”  Both the poet and the novelist need an original vision, accompanied by figurative language that lets readers see beyond the ordinary.

~ Concreteness

In that same book of essays, though, Stevens insists that it’s the relationship between the individual mind and the sound, smell, taste, sight, and touch of the physical world that lets writers fulfill reader needs: “The imagination loses vitality as it ceases to adhere to what is real.” Because of that, “Conceptions are artificial. Perceptions are essential.”

~ Unity of content and its expression.

Yes, great ideas can be expressed badly, and shallow observations phrased exquisitely. But in the most compelling verbal moments, the quality matches. And the language seems to reinforce the mood, the idea, the emotion. That’s why “A change of style is a change of meaning.”

~ Ambiguity.

Some of the greatest literature is accessible only if the reader is casual about exactitude, so “The poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully.”  Poetry becomes quite difficult if one expects an identical literal meaning from every reader every time. Hmm. Can’t we say the same of certain esoteric but highly influential novelists like Virginia Wool and James Joyce?

~ Inspiration. 

In “Sunday Morning,” Stevens postulates that “Death is the mother of beauty,” Is it the knowledge that life is finite that helps us appreciate the pathos of the seasons, that makes us want to draw? Paint? Write?

That’s who Wallace Stevens is. Want to know more? Start with “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “Evening without Angels,” “Sunday Morning,” and “Adagia.” 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Creativity and Constraint

Richard Powers, author of a several literary novels unrivaled in their beauty, says that "I write the way you might arrange flowers. Not every try works, but each one launches another. Every constraint, even dullness, frees up a new design."

According to evolutionists like the late Steven J. Gould, when it comes to developing new designs—like originating species, constraint breeds creativity. Put another way, we get to enjoy pearls because something irritated an oyster. The principle applies to writing as well:

Tip: Instead of dismissing difficulties, tackle them. That’s a plus for both reader and author.

So which constraints might writers sometimes disregard?

~ Clutter.

For many writers (certainly myself included), one of life’s greatest joys is words flowing so fast that your typing can’t keep up. Go for it. But afterwards? Remember that few constraints are more apt than “Less is more.” Tighten up. Lighten up. Challenge yourself to accomplish the task in fewer details rather than more.

~ Wordiness.

This involves not your details, but how you express them. William Zinsser reminds:

“I might add,” “It should be pointed out,” “It is interesting to note that”—how many sentences begin with these dreary clauses announcing what the writer is going to do next? If you might add, add it. If it should be pointed out, point it out. If it is interesting to note, make it interesting. Being told that something is interesting is the surest way of tempting the reader to find it dull; are we not all stupefied by what follows when someone says, “This will interest you” As for the inflated prepositions and conjunctions, they are the innumerable phrases like “with the possible exception of” (except), “due to the fact that” (because),” “he totally lacked the ability to” (he couldn’t), “until such time as” (until), “for the purpose of” (for).

~ Point of view consistency.

Yes, you’ll find plenty of contemporary novels (plenty!) that shift perspective whenever convenient. Should you imitate them? Only if you’re willing to lose what you’d gain by struggling toward a viable—and creative—strategy for inspiring yourself and pleasing your readers.

~ Tension.

You’ve likely heard, if not applied, some of these excuses: “Don’t readers want a lull?” “Why do mainstream/literary novels need conflict? Isn’t characterization more important?” “I write beautifully. Why worry about suspense?” And finally, “Even if I wanted all tension all the time, how would I do it?” Transform insufficient tension into an opportunity to develop “a new design.” Put your energy into momentum instead of rationalization.

Discouraged about self-editing? Feedback from others? Take any frustration you might experience and create a pearl. Goodness. If an oyster can do it, surely you can?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Write Tight--But "Right"

The title rhymes and all, but what might being “right” with your words mean? First, if your intended audience doesn’t enjoy it, something’s off. Take classic novels. Or, for many readers, don’t take them. Because, as Mark Twain put it, the classic is “a book which people praise and don’t read.” 

That’s not right. Neither is a book lauded for its brilliance but too incomprehensible for most of us to tackle. James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake may well be a masterpiece. But if hardly anyone reads it, did Joyce get it “right”? What’s intimidating or tedious is hardly a turn on. So.

~ Accessibility.

This plays a huge role in writing “right.” If readers neither understand what you’re saying nor care when they don’t, something’s very wrong.

~ Guidance.

Inference and confusion are two entirely different animals. The first may initially seem a bit unfamiliar. Yet it resembles something you want to understand; it suggests something positive, even if you haven’t figured it out yet. Confusion, though? That’s a nasty animal. It neither looks nor smells good. Tempt your readers with clues. Provide transitions. Give enough information, but not too much. Because that’s not such a delightful beast, either.

~ Tautness.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius the buffoon informs us that “brevity is the soul of wit,” then proceeds to go on and on. And on. And on. Point taken. Are you writing tight?

     Not if you’re smitten with passive voice.

     Not if you make the same point first generally, then specifically—or the reverse.

     Not if you adore (i.e. fall in love with) wordy verbs.

     Not if you usually use three words when one would do.

     Not if punctilious grammatical correctness clutters up your prose.

Correct forms like “has been competing” can feel as irritating as self-righteous political correctness in the real world. Be clear, not pompous or archaic.

Tight writing reduces clutter. Down with weak words (“is,” “be,” “am,” etc.); imprecise detail (three metaphors or images because each is inadequate); or clarifying what we prefer to infer.

That’s the script: clear, focused, taut. Tight yet right.

But here’s the thing about all those writing rules, no matter who espouses them As Picasso said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” How else can you—with a splendid blend of objectivity and passion—decide when to break them? 

Tip: Mediocre writers follow every rule. Good writers know when to break them.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Pale Purple Bikinis and Green and Gold Styrofoam Cups

Starting in childhood, the message accompanying the pencil, or pen, or keyboard is uniform: be vivid. Be specific. Let us picture the moment. Bring on the detail. 

Yes. Yet too much detail can be as bad as—or even worse than—not enough. Excessive description, even when electric and exquisite, can weaken fiction. Because you can inadvertently introduce problems like these:

~ Confusion. 

On the first page of your novel, Marcy leaves the kitchen without offering her husband the customary “Have a good day” kiss. That’s the tension of the opening. Why doesn’t she kiss him? How will he react? Can the couple (and those reading about them) anticipate sweaty make-up sex in just a page or two? 

But what if you decide to add vividness by explaining that last night Hank offended Marcy by saying she looked kind of plump in that sweater. Perhaps you may to clarify that, not being a wordsmith, Hank only meant that the garment was rather risqué for the office. But do readers care that chartreuse is Marcy’s favorite color, the sweater has a boat neck, she wears it with matching earrings, or she managed to scoop it up at nearly 70% off? 

Such sentences are often difficult to compose and position. That might be because the sentence doesn’t belong anywhere. If you can’t place it or fix it, maybe you don’t want it?

~ Distraction.

If readers are captivated by Marcy hesitating outside the divorce attorney’s office, it might be the time to mention that both her maternal and paternal grandparents are divorced. Is it the right time, though, for a lengthy description of how her mother and father fell in love?

~ Blur.

One way fiction differs from life is that it’s a set of focused details rather than a random barrage of them. Reality forces us to sift through and decide what matters. In fiction, that’s the author’s job. 

Don’t you want to attract a reader who assumes that whatever you include is important? A reader who pays attention, because if it isn’t relevant right now, it surely will be later? If you want readers like that, then every detail has to count.

~ Repetition.

Details sometimes result in a general description, then a specific one. Or a specific, then general one. Neither of those works.

Tip: Less description? That’s sometimes more. When in doubt, leave it out.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

To Violate or Not to Violate

That’s the question for fiction writers. And it’s both complex and crucial. What we call "point of view violations" affect credibility and thus reader response from the first sentence to the last.

Tip: Anything perceived as a point of view violation is one, and anything not? Isn’t.

Individual readers will be more or less tolerant. But to avoid Hamlet’s indecision and the contamination of “something rotten" in the state of your fiction, accept that certain violations are just violations. If this seems harsh, I’m “cruel only to be kind.”  Watch out for these:

~ Switching from one point of view character to another without justification.

Most readers cheerfully accept consistent and graceful use of two or more perspectives. But abrupt or unwarranted shifts are impossible to hide: they feel like violations.
~ Using 3rd person (“he,” “she,” “it”) and first (“I”) interchangeably. 

Every reader will squirm at “Ali loved barns. I’d love to inhabit a converted one, she thought.” That second sentence requires italics or quotation marks. Better yet? The consistency of “Ali loved barns and dreamed of inhabiting a converted one.”

~ Offering inauthentic observations.

Characters can’t explain what they never saw, can’t possibly know, or wouldn’t admit.

But characters can guess. and readers delight in watching them do so. How does that work?

* Let characters infer from physical cues.

    If Marcy tells readers what Alain thinks, that's a violation. If Marcy observes that he draws close, pulls away, and repeats this over 
    and over, this is more an accurate assessment that he's ambivalent about kissing her than a violation.

* Clarify the distinction between narrator and character.

    Start a new paragraph. To make the shift from close to the character to further away, use a transition to bridge the gap. Here's an

        Sam hated snakes and knew that numerous species inhabited every continent.

       Kenya, where Sam was stationed, was home to five of the deadliest vipers in the world.

* Expand point of view restrictions consistently rather than inadvertently.

    Is whatever sleight of hand you want to execute legitimate? If so, make readers believe it.

In the end, point of view resembles every other aspect of fiction. Set things up meticulously, and you’ll surprise readers so much that you can get away with a lot.  Not everything, though.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Plot Roast

Do it right, and it simmers until every ingredient is equally juicy and tender. Or wait too long, and you’ve got dried-out, unrecognizable mush. The success of dinner depends on what you put together, your means of preparing it, and the cook time. Story is remarkably similar.

The most successful plotters transcend the not-all-that-captivating question: What happens next?
After all, the answer might be, “Esmeralda yawned.” So will the reader. 

Rely exclusively on chronology, and you risk sliding into one or more of the following:

            ~ A series of unrelated, episodic incidents.

          Fiction sometimes works when the protagonist faces one unrelated problem after another, or
          one unrelated villain after another. But the strongest plots emphasize the role of character in
          destiny: choices have consequences. At least in fiction.

            ~ Flatness.

            Protagonist arc can only shift from sad and weak to victorious and empowered because each
            event teaches lessons and summons buried strengths. This stems from the novelist’s emphasis
            on obstacles and solutions, not on the humdrum activity between them.

~ Logistics.

Successful fiction has no room for characters performing morning ablutions, shopping for groceries, logging into the computer, crossing the icy parking lot, or any other detail that merely traces what happens between one drama and the next.

~ Randomness.

Plot based on “If this happens, then that,” rather than “This because of that,” and you risk introducing lots of coincidence. That threatens both credibility and momentum.

And today’s readers expect credibility and momentum. Lots of this is the internet. Every fact is a click or two away, and everything’s presented with teasers (hooks) and sound bites. No waiting. No wondering.

How to achieve that pace in fiction?

*** Summarize everything that’s pedestrian or mundane.

*** Start every scene as late in the action—rather than as early—as logically possible.

*** Hint (but don’t belabor) how each scene results from the one preceding.

*** Launch scenes with a hook—and provide it right away.

*** View plot less as what happens than why what happens is dramatically and emotionally  compelling.

Tip:  Reserve scenes for “someone making a scene,” i.e. struggling with conflict, preferably conflict that forces change.