Sunday, June 26, 2016

Dive? Wade? Submerge?

Charge into your novel without some sort of outline, synopsis, or series of turning points, and you’ve plunged headfirst into three feet of water: you could spend a lot of time recovering from sad mistakes and broken parts. Not a pretty sight.

So what about edging in? Great, except you might get so comfortable at the shoreline that you never progress. Some academics don’t complete the dissertation because they continue researching. And researching. Some novelists can boast a nifty outline, sleek synopsis, or glorious first twenty pages. They never advance: too cold. Too scary.

So if you’re not supposed to plummet or inch, what might you do instead? I discovered some answers a few days ago, when I enjoyed the privilege of a brilliant, talented group of writers discussing how to get started. What are the pitfalls and panaceas? What’s the antidote for angst?

You might call this The Submersion Theory.

Submersion Theory.

Enter swiftly, but not haphazardly.

  1. Plan first.
If you just pour your heart out, it might sound like—your diary. George Sand wrote that way, and despite her many attributes, today she’d have a tough time finding an agent, a publisher, or readers. Contemporary fiction requires not only the deep psychological insights she offered, but a causal, well-paced plot . Few novelists accomplish that without a plan. A flexible plan, certainly. But a plan, nonetheless. Unless you’re among those fortunate few, design a strategy. You can always change it as you go. In fact, by all means change it as you go.

  1. Don’t procrastinate.
Once you design an approach, avoid posing endless unanswerable questions, like “Is writing a stupid hobby/proclivity/career move?” “Will I be good enough?” “How will I ever get an agent?” Most writers require some time, say a few months, to see if the scenario works and the characters come to life. Will the joy of creating this protagonist’s world transcend the stress of perfecting it? Grant yourself some time without self-destructive questions. As Mark Twain said on the subject not of worry, but conscience, “It takes up more room than all the rest of a person’s insides, and yet ain’t no good nohow.” Will hesitating, shaming, or agonizing really make you a better writer?

  1. Revise as you go.
Completing the first draft empowers you to perceive the shape of your story, develop what you omitted, and delete all those fantastic middle-of-the-night stream of conscious ideas that—aren’t all that great in the clear light of day. But if you save all your revising for the end, you’ll not endure a series of obstacles, but could wind up with flat characters, empty dialogue, a coincidental plot, and lots of ugly sentences.

Tip: Writing is like pace in fiction; proceed neither hastily nor hesitatingly.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Oooh—Taboo: Rectitude versus Risk

Serious writers are usually seriously familiar with all the things they’re forbidden to do: Always “show.” Don’t let your character study herself in a mirror and report what she sees. Avoid anguish, yearning, stormy nights, flimsy nightwear, and rippling muscles. Never start a chapter with dialogue or a sentence with “and.”

Of course taboos originate with good reason. Members of a society agree that a particular behavior—even with language—is so sanctified or appalling that it’s forbidden. People don’t do it. Often, they won’t even mention it.

But what if you judiciously turn a prohibition on its head? One result is a fragrance from The House of Dana, marketed as “Tabu, the forbidden fragrance.” The ad showed a violinist interrupting his performance to bestow a passionate kiss on his accompanist. Pretty sexy, right? 

Follow every rule and you won’t evoke much passion. “She had provided her services as head librarian of the village for nearly five decades.” That’s very sound grammatically, but more fun to mock than to read.

Aside from the stiff formality unsuitable for contemporary fiction, there’s something tantalizing—for both author and reader—about breaking rules. Consider some of these.

~ Sentence fragments.
“It is possible to overuse the well-turned fragment …, but frags can also work beautifully to streamline narration, create clear images, and create tension as well as to vary the prose-line.” — Stephen King, On Writing

~ Weather.
Be careful. It’s easy to lapse into the painful personification of the smiling sun or the equally painful revisiting of the full moon, the rumbling thunder, the unforgiving sky. But make the familiar unfamiliar, and you have a warm, sunny winter day.

~ Dreams
This, too, is quite dangerous, and “It was only a dream” possibly unforgivable. But if a brief, vivid dream lyrically foreshadows, it can add texture, perhaps even humor, irony, or drama.

~ Backstory.
A little goes a long way. But none at all? That thins plot.

            “Show everything” and it might never be clear where your 5000- page novel is set.

Exclamation points!!!
            This one’s for real. Don’t.

Tip: Know the rules so you can choose when to follow and when to flirt.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Sentence

The sentences that compose novels aren’t analogous to the ingredients in cupcakes.  Because some wonderful sentences say very little. Others convey a great deal despite cliché, repetition, clumsiness, or worse. The good news? While there’s no manual for acquiring voice and vision, everyone can improve at syntax. And probably everyone should. Who wants to bake cupcakes with inferior ingredients?  Or write a novel deadened with a lousy sentence here or there?

Folks agree more about quality in cupcakes than sentences. Genre, reading rate, tolerance for ambiguity, enthusiasm about complexity, ear for rhythm, and other factors all contribute. And novelists won’t improve syntax by saying, “Well, it sounds okay to me.” A writer’s tolerance for “okay” is often greater than a reader’s. Put yourself in the ear of someone who didn’t write the sentence.

Listen. Really listen. Without rationalizing or shrugging off. That’s the first step toward prose like Neil Gaiman’s description of Fat Charlie seeking a more accurate name:

He would introduce himself as Charles or, in his early twenties, Chaz, or, in writing, as C. Nancy, but it was no use: the name would creep in, infiltrating the new part of his life just as cockroaches invade the cracks and the world behind the fridge in a new kitchen, and like it or not—and he didn’t—he would be Fat Charlie again. — Anansi Boys,

Sentences needn’t be long or complex to resonate. In Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier uses the external world to capture the internal:  “The memory passed on as the light from the window rose toward day.” Tracy Chevalier’s creates character in The Lady and the Unicorn with “Jean Le Viste’s jaw is like a hatchet, his eyes like knife blades.”

Which elements do all these sentences share in common?

Create sound patterns without relying on passive voice or words that fail to supply both meaning and sound. Read authors you love aloud. Read your own work aloud.

            If it’s not adding, it’s subtracting. Make every word work.

            One good verb can replace a chain of adjectives and adverbs. Energize.

In the end, though, the sentence is as elusive as Amy Tan’s description of love in The Hundred Secret Senses

It floods the cells that transmit worry and better sense, drowns them with biochemical bliss. You can know all these things about love, yet it remains irresistible, as beguiling as the floating arms of long sleep.

A lovely sentence floods the senses, too, by wedding content to presentation. What makes some sentences “irresistible”? That’s beguilingly unknowable. But the mystery of sentence beauty isn’t permission to disregard it. Keep chasing the solution to that mystery. By revising.

Tip: Make your sentences as “beguiling” as possible. All of your sentences.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Taken by Surprise?

What astonishes you enough to stop and notice your world? It could be the ivy shadows on the bricks at dusk. Or a shining moment of generosity from your cheapskate brother. Or a hideous smirk of jealousy in this woman who’s always kind. 

Surprise happens when the outcome contradicts the assumptions or expectations. Who knew that evening light could make the house look so exquisite? Or that Mike could be so great, or Eve so naughty?

Aristotle said that “the secret to humor is surprise.” It’s also the secret to momentum. If readers can anticipate everything ahead, why continue reading?

Forward propulsion depends on wondering what happens next and worrying whether the character who magnetizes you will make the right choice. Surprise intensifies both wondering and worrying.

According to Dr. LeeAnn Renninger, co-author of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, “Research shows that surprise intensifies our emotions by about 400 percent, which explains why we love positive surprises and hate negative surprises.”

Whenever you astound your reader, you intensify emotion. Astound your character also ramps up emotional response, in turn, eliciting an even greater emotional response from the reader rooting for—or against—that character.

But why limit surprise to plot and characterization? Why not startle readers by planting it everywhere?  In your syntax, your imagery, what you omit and what you include.

For example, here’s Richard Powers from Galatea 2.2 on a highly advanced computer attempting to grasp human communication:

She balked at metaphor. I felt the annoyance of her weighted vectors as they readjusted themselves, trying to accommodate my latest caprice. You're hungry enough to eat a horse. A word from a friend ties your stomach in knots. Embarrassment shrinks you, amazement strikes you dead. Wasn't the miracle enough? Why do humans need to say everything in speech’s stockhouse except what they mean?”

Ashwin Sanghi observes that “Surprise is when a prime minister is assassinated during his speech. Suspense is when an assassin lurks while the prime minister speaks. Balancing surprise and suspense is the job of the thriller writer.” Absolutely. Except that the principle applies not just to authors of thrillers but to every novelist.

In the reality, there’s no correlation between surprise and causality. In fiction, though, set up makes surprise plausible.  Prepare the stage for surprise so readers can simply enjoy that 400 % increase in emotion without feeling manipulated by the improbable, convenient, contrived, forced, or false.

Tip: Readers adore surprises, but only if they never feel like cheating.