Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Psychology of Three

Writers and readers don’t necessarily experience fiction the same way.  Novelists usually love the set up, where they got the idea in the first place! Ah, the climax. It aptly rewards or disciplines, restoring moral order and communicating theme. Not to mention the relief of typing “The End.”

Readers might disagree. Because the characters are still unfamiliar, the stakes must be swiftly and enormously high. Theme is enjoyable only if subtle, credible, and deserved. If readers love a book, they rarely want it to end. Hard to say goodbye. The next novel might be less appealing.  Many readers, then, favor the middle. There the conflict escalates, the characters breathe. Choices surprise, while events seem motivated yet unpredictable.

Perhaps the middle causes more trouble for you than your characters. What’s the strategy?

~Accelerate the inciting incident.

Start with a symbolic Big Bang. An explosion like that will organically engender a chain of events that force your protagonist to learn the requisite lessons for a happy ending. Deliver the inciting incident immediately, and choose one you needn’t explain.

~ Look ahead.

Be willing to discard your homework. Why does the protagonist hold grudges, despise autumn, or refuse to own a poodle? It’s great for the writer to know all of this backstory —and more. Just so the reader needn’t endure what amounts to someone else’s notes.

~ Explore plot templates.

The web offers numerous reminders of what the mid-section must accomplish. Among the best choices? Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey or Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method.  Pick a recipe that suits you, and use it flexibly rather than dogmatically.  

~ Streamline.

At the first sign of a sagging middle, the average novelist rushes to fill the gap, usually by reaching wide instead of deep. Rather than adding new subplots or minor characters, focus on what’s already there. Intensify and intertwine. Too many ingredients spoil the soup.

~ Fall in love with how your protagonist earns the ending.

If you’ve done your job right, your main character worked as hard as a team of dogs to enjoy that happiness, victory, or moral triumph. As Ursula K. Le Guin observed, “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.”

Tip: The development of the opening sets up the finale. Revere your novel’s start, middle, and end.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

How’s Your Attention Span?

Writing’s a balancing act. Your ego must inspire rather than breed defensiveness or despair. You need to consider audience, but never to the point where you can’t evaluate the actual prose. The goal is composing freely, but with sufficient awareness of quality that you needn’t discard every word later on. You want to revise rigorously, yet with exhilaration. Otherwise you stifle what can be an electrifying process.  

All this demands impartial assessment. How can you accomplish that while wondering whether you’ll land an agent, what’s in those emails binging in the background, or if you’ll ever compose another sentence as good—or bad—as the previous one.

Good writing balances knowledge of craft with creative implementation of that knowledge. The novelist must consider tension, emotion, pace, characterization, detail, and language. Change just one thing on that incomplete list, and you’ve altered something else. Add a transition, and now you’ve repeated a word. Surely writing is complicated enough without your mind wandering while you diagnose and revise.

Writing time is less a matter of the time spent than the time spent with high quality of attention. You can’t attain that when focused on yourself instead of your novel:

Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and you do not learn.  – Basho

If this sounds a lot like mindfulness, could be because that’s what it is. Mindfulness. This word evokes powerful reactions. Most people view it as either a practice to follow, or “Oh no. Not that stuff.”

But mindfulness is simply consciousness or calm awareness of the present moment.  According to Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is

the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.

Of course you can achieve concentration in a variety of ways. It doesn’t matter which you choose. Once you do, though, you’ll

  • Read what’s on the page, not what you hope is there.
  • Encounter your words objectively, so you can revise them effectively.
  • Examine your work with neither too much nor little confidence.
  • Scrutinize every sentence, rather than only the best or weakest parts.
  • Eliminate real-world distractions.
 Tip: The best writers balance quality of concentration with quality of invention.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Gift or To Give?

Today’s a time of chocolate, roses, expensive jewelry and store-bought poems. But in either real or fictional worlds, how much love do these offerings convey? Is there something a bit facile about 77% cocoa or a new watch?  What’s the best way to express any emotion, including love?

“All human happiness and misery take the form of action,” Aristotle said. It’s easy to buy carnations, say “I love you,” or keep repeating, “I’m sorry.” Why is the quote that “actions seem louder than words” so famous?

Because it’s true. The opening of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory illustrates:

Mr. Tench went out to look for his ether cylinder: out into the blazing Mexican sun and the bleaching dust. A few buzzards looked down from the roof with shabby indifference:  he wasn’t carrion yet. A faint feeling of rebellion stirred in Mr. Tench’s heart, and he wrenched up a piece of the road with splintering finger-nails and tossed it feebly up at them.

Yes, Greene comments by mentioning “indifference” and “rebellion.” Yet the memorable part is the protagonist’s behavior: braving the heat, tearing at the road, taunting the buzzards.

In Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones, she captures atmosphere not by describing it but “showing” hope and connection, however inhuman:

 And then a cat, its belly sagging with young, ambled over and brushed her leg with its tail—the one warm gesture in a cold country.

Marshall needn’t explain that no amount of frustration will make this protagonist give up; the cat conveys this for her. Through action.

Like the cat, characters must do something. Otherwise, the writer forces readers to accept narrator claims about emotions, decisions, and options.

Jonathan Franzen often comments on his characters’ emotions—but only to add depth and insight. These few sentences capture a range of emotion through the behavior of Pip and her boyfriend:

Pip shut the door again, to block out the words, but even with the door closed she could hear the fighting. The people who’d bequeathed a broken world to her were shouting at each other viciously. Jason sighed and took her hand. She held it tightly.

Even without reading this extraordinary novel, you know that the overheard accusations are unbearable, that Jason wants to support her but is helpless to help, and that she clings to him because he’s there and that’s all she has. The physical responses capture this with active verbs: “shut,” “block,” “closed,” “shouting,” “sighed,” and “held.” Something happens.

Something happens with a gift, too, of course. Who wouldn’t want a carefully chosen one? But loving acts exert greater power. And in fiction? Store-bought expressions of love, pain, fury, or terror can only “tell.”

Tip: Nothing conveys emotion like behavior or action.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

“V” Is for “Vivid”—Not “Verbose”

The internet revolutionized our assessment of “vivid” versus “verbose.”  

Do you ever skip description in a novel? I do, too. Obviously, merely describing how things look, sound, taste, feel, and smell is not, by itself, going to bring a location to life. Something more is required…Only through the eyes and heart of a character does place come truly alive.”  — Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction

Neil Gaiman illustrates this in American Gods:

The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.

That works. This does not: “The house smelled of must, dampness, and the sweetish smell of rot.” What makes one “vivid” and the other “verbose”?

  1. Originality.
Particularly when dealing with anything familiar—like a decaying house—transcend same-old, same-old. What’s the best source of that? Your character’s perception.

  1. Comparison.
This could be a metaphor, simile, symbol, or analogy. In all of these, successful comparisons arise from “an intuitive perception of the similarity in the dissimilar” — Aristotle, The Poetics.  Does the resemblance resonate at the deepest level? If so, readers instantly sense that a mockingbird or white whale or scarlet letter represents not only the literal but also a meaning beyond that.

  1. Insight.
Setting becomes meaningful when it reminds readers what they didn’t know they knew.

  1. Tension.
Setting should set up what’s ahead, and without “telling.”  In Kraken, here’s what China Miéville does with the sky:

The light was going: some cloud cover arriving, as if summoned by drama.

And Amy Tan with war in The Joy Luck Club:

But later that day, the streets of Kweilin were strewn with newspapers reporting great Kuomintang victories, and on top of these papers, like fresh fish from a butcher, lay rows of people—men, women and children who had never lost hope, but had lost their lives instead.

Images of “clouds” or “war” abound on the internet. So even incorporating all five senses won’t necessarily produce something “that readers will not skim,” as Maass reminds. Unless setting intensifies response to plot and character, it often feels “verbose.”

Tip: Setting becomes “vivid” only when it’s as integral to a novel as its plot.