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.