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.”