Sunday, May 29, 2016

The “R” Factor, or Resilience for Readers and Writers

No one roots for the little engine that couldn’t or would recognize Beowulf if he muttered, “I’m doing the best I can.” The appeal of Katniss Everdeen isn’t difficulty choosing between two guys, or even her solid moral center.              

At least in others, not giving up turns us on. And this applies to both characters and those who create them.

The cast of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird lives by this adage: “Real courage is when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”  

As George R.R. Martin, who authored Game of Thrones, puts it:

My own heroes are the dreamers, those men and women who tried to make the world a better place than when they found it, whether in small ways or great ones. Some succeeded, some failed, most had mixed results... but it is the effort that’s heroic, as I see it. Win or lose, I admire those who fight the good fight.

This dovetails nicely with Margaret Mitchell writing in Gone with the Wind:  “Hardships make or break people.”  What screenwriting guru Linda Seger calls “pressure points” reveal character. Those who haunt and inspire are at their best when adversity confronts them. What a winning combination: thicken the plot with dire circumstances, use those to drive arc, and wind up enriching tension, adding dimension, maintaining momentum, and highlighting theme.

Tip: Subject your characters to circumstances that demand perseverance.

Now. Is it fair to expect more of your characters than of yourself?

Perhaps one particular writing issue cramps your style. That could be character perseverance, causal plot, artless voice, sleek sentences, or whatever. Pretty much every writer must deal with something. Do you face yours with the determination you require in your protagonist?

Or maybe it’s the actual time and effort. Do you write often enough?  Seriously enough? Maybe you frequently rationalize, procrastinate, take the easy way out, give up too soon, or make everything but your writing a priority. Hmm. Does pressure elicit the best from you as it does from your protagonist?

Marketing. Say you’ve truly revised—deeply and thoroughly. You’ve solicited feedback and responded to suggestions. And you begin submitting. Five rejections later, you quit.  Among others, Louisa May Alcott, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Stephen King, Herman Melville, J, K. Rowling, Anita Shreve and Gertrude Stein did not. Any message there?

According to Maya Angelou, “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”

Mark Twain says it in nine words:  “A few fly bites cannot stop a spirited horse.”

Tip: Remember The Little Engine That Could.


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Dealing with the Devil in those Details

For novelists and everyone else, detail sometimes involves a trick, curve, mystery or problem that’s invisible until—it’s too late. The phrase evolved from “God is in the detail,” and the author of triumphant details certainly achieves a succinct universality unavailable to mere mortals.

Since details are the stuff that novels are made of, how does the devil infiltrate?

~ Tedium.
The less new you can make it, then the faster you should say it.

~ Melodrama.

If someone’s dying or a country’s being raped, resist the temptation to explain that this is horrible. Let vivid, understated details convey the point for you.

~ Repetition.

            Why say it specifically, then generally? Or the other way around.  This inadvertent habit
            insinuates condescension. In other words, it presumes that readers can’t figure it out
            without a few versions. So don’t patronize. Even accidentally. Even if you certainly never
            intended ill will. Or insulting your readers is the last thing you want. See how annoying it
            becomes in no time at all?

~ Self-indulgence.

With rare exceptions, detail enhances story only when it enriches character and/or plot. Make the setting reveal character and heighten tension.

~ Uniformity.

            Don’t keep piling up similar details. No matter how vituperative the villain or angelic the
infant or pure the snow, provide nuance and dimensionality.

~ Significance

“Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to notice. Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life” (James Wood). Emphasize the details you want readers to notice. This sounds silly! But it’s easy to distract yourself with the vividness of an image or sound of a sentence and lose track of what matters about this scene.

~ Approximation.

“The truth of the story lies in the details” (Paul Auster). You annoy readers by
confusing the location of Times Square or crucial dates of  WWII. You also annoy
readers by trampling psychological and moral truth in the characters you create.

~ Fogginess.

“Nothing is less real than realism,” Georgia O'Keeffe observed. “Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.”  No matter how autobiographical your fiction, choose details to reveal pattern and cement credibility. Offer the focus that reality cannot.

Tip: If the detail isn’t adding, it’s subtracting.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Reality for the Writer: Verisimilitude for the Reader

What’s easy about being a fiction writer? You need a marketable “concept” that “captures the reader’s or viewer’s imagination, excites their senses, gets them asking ‘what if,’ and sparks them to start imagining the story even before they have read a word.” – Jeff Lyons

Then after completing a novel executing that concept, you still need an agent, marketing plan, publisher, maybe a publicist. How do you keep one foot in the marketing world, and the other in the one your imagination built? A smidgen of reality facilitates all those challenges:

~ Admit your goals.

Which matters more: the book you long to write, or its publication? If the latter, don’t write chick lit after its time has passed. Don’t invent a revolutionary point of view or have sixteen protagonists. Be honest about what you want to facilitate achieving it.

~ Put a beautifully-shod foot forward.

Agents—and readers—appreciate not just Concept, but quality. Don’t shop your book until the scenario is strong, the characters multi-dimensional, the tension high, the plot causal, and the writing musical. Plus whatever else makes your novel all it could be.

~ Persevere.

Hard as this is, you mustn’t take rejection personally. Agents have bad days and unfair biases. Publishers aren’t raking in dough. Readers have a zillion choices. Here, it’s not the early bird that gets the worm, but the bird that tried over and over and over. And over.

Tip: Stupid as it sounds, you need realistic goals and a realistic strategy for accomplishing them.

That’s the writer part. What about the reader part?

Fiction is far less about reality than a simulation of it that imposes greater credibility, causality, and morality than daily life. As Mark Twain put it, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.”  What to do?

~ Eliminate coincidence.
If it happened, we must accept it. In fiction? Not so much. Perhaps not at all!

~ Make us believe.

Lauren Groff notes, “as a writing teacher of mine once said, very gently, to a student who handed in work formed out of the rough stuff of her life, ‘That it happened doesn’t make it true.”  The novelist must make it seem true—with all the complexity and effort that entails.

~ Grant justice.

Who wants bad guys winning and good ones losing? That’s what the news is for.

Tip: Good fiction doesn’t re-create reality; it imitates it.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Could you writer smarter?

Why work harder if you can work smarter? Why do so many bright and brilliant writers inflict so many obstacles on themselves? Perhaps some of these habits sound familiar.

~ Comfortable:
Only write when you have a good, long stretch of free time available. And unless you’re inspired, you could still rationalize your way into a postponement. Easily.

! Smart:
If you’re accustomed to diving in without thinking about it, you’ll waste less time and energy. Trick yourself into daily commitment. A lot can happen in even fifteen minutes. Julia Cameron is right; “write every day.”

~ Comfortable:
Postpone every challenge. Hate writing dialogue? Save it for a rainy day, or a sunny one, or a perfect one when you can’t write because it’s so beautiful out.

! Smart:
Worry wastes time. Not just with the dentist, but the next scene, stretch of dialogue, or whatever seems an impossible challenge. Even if it isn’t easier than you think, you could complete a whole lot of fiddling and drafting in the time devoted to fretting.

~ Comfortable:
Why worry about starting the book with a great inciting incident or the scene with a great hook? You can always fill it in later. Besides, you’ll know more by then.

! Smart:
The opening launches your book, just as a good hook launches each scene. Think that through in advance to avoid starting too early or without enough conflict.

~ Comfortable:
Go ahead and write everything in scene. You can always decide later if the level of drama and emotion warrant changing the pace.

! Smart:
Why compose what you’ll later compress or discard altogether? It’s true that sometimes you must try things out. It’s equally true that once you try it, you might never want to let it go. Even if it slows momentum.

~ Comfortable:
            Pile on mini-plots and minor characters. Nothing maximizes your word count faster!

! Smart:
It’s not the number of words, but their quality. Even in the first draft, try to streamline.

Tip: Why not surprise yourself with what you can do if you quit procrastinating.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Novelist’s Vocal Chords

As D.W. Wilson noted in The White Review,

Voice is not talking. In fact that makes no sense – the written word being an inherently silent medium. We say we like the sound of a writer’s voice, but this is purely metaphorical, this is hand-waving, this is gross simplification of the highest order. What we actually like is some analogue of sound in a writer’s voice, some approximation of how the voice-as-written represents the voice-as-spoken.

Voice in fiction is so elusive that it’s as difficult to define as to release. But every novelist must grapple with it, because “if you like the person telling you the story—which is to say the voice, not the author—you generally will let them tell you a story” (Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic).

 Like sinful chocolate or cheese, satisfying complex voice teases and fulfills, begins as one flavor and ends with another. That can’t happen with a simplistic taste or sound. Instead, it’s an immersion in sensation: the result seems as original as it is familiar.

The source of this rich stuff is a combination of elements: innovation plus tradition, inventive plus archetypal, subjective and socio-political, and not just dramatic or poetic or side-splittingly hilarious, but the magic of seamlessly interweaving those.

Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall call their book Finding Your Writers’ Voice. This implies that it must be lost, so you must you find it. But how can you with that “must” daring you to screw up? Threatening not only humiliation, but the consequences of lacking the fresh and innovative sound that every agent, publisher, editor, and reader seeks? Voice synthesizes “must” and “can.”

In fiction, great voices suggest not one singer with a guitar, but an entire band or orchestra. How do you avoid sounding like a one-note wonder?

~ Personality.

How do you sound when you’re really yourself? Uncensored, and thus possibly whiney or arrogant or meticulous or—the person no one else can earth can be. This fosters sound enhancing language while imagery enhances meaning. It comes from going deep inside yourself while remembering that you’re not doing this just for yourself:

The issue in most manuscripts, then, is not whether the author has a voice but whether they are using it to maximum effect. Does the language of the novel light it up? Does the story stab our hearts? Does its passion grip us? Do we see the world in new ways? – Don Maass

~ Impersonality.

“The individual voice is the communal voice,” Joyce Carol Oates reminds. Want to be so much yourself that you write only for yourself? Fine, just don’t ask anyone else to read it.

Tip: Ironically, voice is the paradoxical merger of tightening up and letting loose.