Sunday, December 31, 2017

Resolutions for Writers

Perhaps you plan to make them about what you eat or how much you exercise. Doesn’t your novel deserve the same determination to replace lousy habits with nourishing ones?

But since the writing process differs for every writer, not all resolutions work for every writer. Nor are all resolutions equally successful. Not everything below will necessarily apply, but here are some ideas to get you started.


x Absurd goals.

Unrealistic deadlines often result in ignoring deadlines altogether—and actually writing less.

x Self-judgment.

Never disrespect your work or yourself, and adding humor to self-disparagement can’t entirely defeat the deleterious effect. The publication market has never been tighter, so it’s not fair to assess your talent based on what happens there (or doesn’t).

x Rationalization. 

This manifests in myriad ways; “The passage isn’t that bad,” “A dreadful sentence every so often isn’t a problem,” “So what if they have to reread a couple of lines to know who says what:” or “Tension on every page quickly gets tedious.” If you found it, fix it.

x Envy.

Someone will always be better, whether it’s plotting or prose, characterization or comedy. Comparing yourself to others accomplishes nothing. There’s only one person you’re competing with. That’s you.


~ Verbs. 

The best ones electrify by clarifying, inciting, deepening, intensifying and so on

~ Revision.

Instead of fiddling with synonyms, assess the deep structure. As Helen Dunmore notes:
Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn't work, throw it away. It's a nice feeling, and you don't want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.

~ Risk.

How will you know what you can do or who wants your book or what a review will say—unless you try? According to Soren Kierkegaard,
To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.
~ Strengths. 

And once you set your goals for yourself, whatever those are, you needn’t go it alone. As Anjali Sachdeva says, 
When you join forces with someone else, or even tell others about your goal, you are more likely to follow through.

Best of luck with your goals, your writing, and everything else in this new year!

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Truth about Verisimilitude

The holiday season evokes numerous questions about what is “truly” spiritual, loving, generous, or joyful. Partial truths abound. Is everyone merry? Do gifts express love? If your mom wants you to play nice with her bigoted, alcoholic brother, is it true that you owe her that?

This time of year elicits as many questions as platitudes. For novelists, though, whatever the season, the big questions always matter, and drama is always the best way to present them.

Whether theater or fiction, drama originates in the gap between reality and an artistic presentation of it. To probe truth, that created reality must be more credible, causal, and moral than random everyday life. 

This concept goes all the way back to Plato calling art imitative, and Aristotle countering that, basically saying, yes, imitation is instinctive, but to create what we call “art,” something beyond replication is needed

That something is inextricably intertwined with fact versus truth.

Albert Camus was on Aristotle’s side, saying:
Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.
Let’s break that down. By definition, fiction isn’t true. But facts don’t always compel and can even mislead. In any case, empirical data rarely fosters deep empathy about those from other times, cultures, even worlds. 

Fiction is a more effective vehicle for inducing empathy, and with that comes a huge responsibility. Neil Gaiman is adamant about this: 
We writers–and especially writers for children, but all writers–have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were–to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are.
Ralph Waldo Emerson identified this same irony: 
Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.
Nor is this an observation meant for poets and philosophers. As Stephen King puts it, 
Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.
How does this lie/truth business apply? Consider a Christmas story. The starting point would not be a collection of facts about how many gifts people buy or return. Not even how many people fly or drive to convene with family. Because on its own, such data can’t probe for “truth.”

Instead, a story about one family’s holiday would be composed or at least embellished (not true) in order to reveal change in character (more true) caused by a dramatic event (also true and most compelling of all). 

The result? New truths—real ones—about this family, truths so universal that readers discover new truths about themselves. Isn’t that exactly why fiction simulates reality rather than merely reproducing it?

Tip: Fiction captures truth by replacing facts with plausible, causal, and suspenseful details.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

How NOT to Revise

Tip: Revising = reading + vision.

According to Susan Bell ( The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself ):
An editor doesn't just read, he reads well, and reading well is a creative, powerful act. The ancients knew this and it frightened them. Mesopotamian society, for instance, did not want great reading from its scribes, only great writing. Scribes had to submit to a curious ruse: they had to downplay their reading skills lest they antagonize their employer. The Attic poet Menander wrote: "those who can read see twice as well." Ancient autocrats did not want their subjects to see that well….      In their fear of readers, ancients understood something we have forgotten about the magnitude of readership. Reading breeds the power of an independent mind. When we read well, we are thinking hard for ourselves—this is the essence of freedom. It is also the essence of editing. Editors are scribes liberated to not simply record and disseminate information, but think hard about it, interpret, and ultimately, influence it. 

In exactly the same way, this applies to self-editing—to revising one’s manuscript. 

Still, maybe you’re willing to invest many hours “working” on your manuscript without really improving it. If so, try some of the following:

~ Read what you wanted to say instead of what you wrote.

If you can extrapolate what you meant to say, surely your readers will willingly do the same.

~ Ignore the deep structure.

Focus on changing one word at a time, probably with the assistance of a thesaurus. After all, aren’t structural issues like scenario and plot composed of individual words?

~ Work from the beginning of a scene or chapter straight through to the end. Every time.

This resembles playing a musical instrument and advancing from start to finish without ever improving the weakest parts. What will you get? The good parts will eventually become wonderful. And the parts that sound cacophonous, unrhythmic, or off key? Perhaps no one will notice.

~ Entertain yourself with personal references.

Sure, readers won’t know that your family loves jokes about hot dogs at Coney Island. But you love those jokes—and it’s your prerogative to share.

~ Avoid both speaker attribution and stage business.

Readers are smart and can figure out who said what. And if not? They’ll cheerfully count back so they know who’s talking.

~ Use all the words you want.

After all, words don’t cost a thing. What’s the hurry?

Composing a decent first draft may be hard, but completing a decent revision of it is that much harder. Real revision identifies what’s over- or under-done and accepts the challenge of fixing it. There’s no substitute for the heavy lifting that revision requires. But that heavy lifting makes writers writers.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Fiction as Transportation

This relationship is obvious in science fiction, where improbable vehicles ferry readers to improbable places. But all successful fiction—whatever the genre—always transports, and, ideally, in both senses of the term.

Readers choose fiction for the opportunity to travel somewhere new. Even if the setting is one’s hometown, this fictional world feels as tangible as the “real” one, only far more causal, credible, and compelling. Even better? You get there without the misery of heavy traffic, delayed planes, or cramped seating.

But because readers can suspend disbelief, fiction can even more miraculously transport them to the territory within a novel’s covers. And, if the creator of that world commits no gaffes that fling readers back into daily reality, the magic lingers long after the protagonist’s journey ends. Every time you recall the first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”), or wonder if anyone could really be as good as Harper Lee’s Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird, then you’ve confirmed that novels enchant even when you’re no longer reading them.

Tip: The novelist’s hard work makes transportation to a fictional world easy.

Perhaps that’s easier said than done. So what flings readers out of a fictional world?

~ Errors.

Novel readers want to believe in the world they’ve entered. If they didn’t, they’d choose nonfiction. But they can’t ignore the Plaza Hotel standing across the street from Grand Central Station, or female sea horses housing the developing eggs, or “All of it feels badly.” Fiction must be free from mistakes.

~ Motive.

In real life, people frequently behave irrationality. The novel’s job is letting readers escape that. Fiction must imply (though rarely directly explicate) the rationale underlying character decisions.

~ Sentimentality.

Why not leave that to greeting card writers? Fiction must “show” happiness, fear, or anger rather than using abstract generality to label any of these.

~ Conincidence.

Sometimes infants are born on the same day as their grandmothers, and lucky infants have grandmothers who materialize at exactly the right instant. Novels though, ought to avoid the response of “Oh, give me a break,” and accomplish that by setting up and foreshadowing. Fiction pleases most when it links the cause of one event with the subsequent one.

~ Tedium.

To illustrate, try typing up an actual conversation. If you think that’s painful, imagine reading one. Or a detailed description of how the detective arrived at the crime scene. Who cares? Fiction must suggest rather than replicate.

For many readers, a novel that truly transports brings incomparable joy. Don’t you want to write that book?

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Form/Content Connection

Unfortunately, a more typical title might be “Form versus Content.” How often teachers and critiquers isolate these components, as in “You have a beautiful voice, but I can’t relate to any of your characters,” or “An outstanding plot, but your sentences are wordy and clumsy.”

Of course there’s some truth in “Sounds good, but what does it mean?” Or “I wish your vocabulary matched the appealing plot twists you offer.”

So to a certain extent, everyone knows what everyone means by dividing fiction into what you say versus how you say it. But pause to reflect on novels you love, the ones you’d reread over and over if you had all the time in the world. Would you really separate what happens from how a talented author captures it? Aren’t form and content interwoven?

Unless an author consistently provides both, one senses something missing, no matter how powerful the voice or plot. To illustrate, most people enjoy gazing at bodies of water, just as those people enjoy light wherever it appears. But the synthesis of light shining on water grips more intensely than water or light alone.

Add two powerful elements, and the whole becomes far more than the sum of its parts. In We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes James Baldwin’s prose this way:
Baldwin’s beauty—like all real beauty—is not style apart from substance but indivisible from it. It is not the icing on the cake but the eggs within it, giving it texture, color and shape.
 And here are two examples of that beauty:
Love takes off the masks we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.
Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
If language and idea are inseparable, where would you start synthesizing?

~ Probe your novel’s structure deeply.

The more familiar with your plot and characters then the more nuanced both become.

~ Don’t get stuck in synonyms.

Sure it’s fun to substitute “crimson” for “scarlet.” But maybe a more useful task is finding the perfect word to transport readers where you want them to go.

~ Visualize the scene.

Incorporate your other four senses, as well. You’ll not only write a better scene but discover the words to convey it.

~ Fix every mediocre sentence.

Whenever you revise the words, you’re not just smoothing but envisioning more deeply.

Tip: Use style to enrich content—and vice versa.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

“B” Is for “Bling, But…”

     -- Diamonds from the Victoria and Albert Musuem

   -- Dark Amethyst

“Bling” went mainstream in 1999, with B.G’s rap song "Bling Bling.” As the term’s popularity swelled, its meanings diverged. On one hand, the term suggests glittering enticement, the thrill of light on water, sun on glass, or anything eye-catching and memorable, such as jewels and diamonds. 
But jewels and diamonds also engender devastation and death. That’s part of the “but,” as are  gentler but still offensive connotations, like garish gaudy, shallow, and tasteless. 

Considering that crude splashiness, why not just leave bling to those wearing glitter teeshirts or cheap jewelry? Or, to those who, like Edith Wharton’s nouveau riche, substitute ostentatious decor for class? 

But wait a second. Fear of bad bling, or bling without the self-censoring “but,” often inhibits style, resulting in flat prose and atonal sentences. The very concept underlying bling is flash, energy, and enthusiasm. Vitality. 

The term “bling” metaphorically combines the senses, as in the imagined sound of light striking a jewel, or a combination of “ring” and “bright.” You want to conjure strong sensations, to provide electricity, originality, and magnetism. Isn’t that the difference between “good” writing and “great”? None of that comes from playing it safe.

Unfortunately, though, there’s no bling barometer to reveal whether we’ve provided one form of bling or the other. Practice, accompanied by sound feedback, develops a sense of what’s sparkly fun and what’s offensive overstatement.

Want to experiment? Try for these.

~ Shock:
But the next day he returned to the basement to determine if he'd seen what he'd seen, and that night at dinner, ordinarily a somber affair during which his father related his business woes to an indifferent wife, Bernie muttered, “There's an old man in the meat freezer.”— Steve Stern, The Frozen Rabbi 
~ Syntactical Rhythm:
Eddie had come to understand that what a man saw and what actually existed int he natural world often were contradictory. The human eye was not capable of true sight, for it was constrained by its own humanness, clouded by regret, and opinion, and faith.― Alice Hoffman, The Museum of Extraordinary Things
~ Sound Combinations:
The forty days of the soul begin on the morning after death. That first night, before its forty days begin, the soul lies still against sweated-on pillows and watches the living fold the hands and close the eyes, choke the room with smoke and silence to keep the new soul from the doors and the windows and the cracks in the floor so that it does not run out of the house like a river.—Tea Obrecht, The Tiger’s Wife
Tip: “Bling” makes fiction sparkle, but only with moderation, understatement, and good taste.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Psychology of Imagery

It’s established that imagery/visualization helps athletes succeed, so imagine how imagery enhances the reader/writer connection. Even in print, and especially in fiction, a picture is still worth a thousand words. Used deftly, verbal evocation of the five senses creates a world where readers feel what the characters do, see what the novelist does.

Tip: Create not just a plot, but one readers can experience—through their five senses.

Here’s how that works. In The Sacred Wood, T.S. Eliot refers to the pedantic-sounding but not actually overwhelming concept of the “objective correlative”:
The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. 
This observation warrants some unpacking. An objective correlative can link (“correlate”) a subjective idea or emotion with the external world (“objective,” relating to something physical, like an object) in a neutral way (again “objective,” but this time in the sense of impersonal).

Eliot introduced the objective correlative to explain why Shakespeare failed to provide a visual image for Hamlet’s emotions. Although many would disagree, the objective correlative strategy has much to offer not just playwrights and poets, but novelists.

In Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Lisa Cron observes that 
what draws us into a story and keeps us there is the firing of our dopamine neurons, signaling that intriguing information is on the way.
And the more scientists learn how about the brain, the more they discover connections between plot or imagery and reader emotion. Want readers to keep reading? Integrate what happens with opportunity to vicariously interact. The source of  that interaction? Language summoning one or more of the five senses: in other words—imagery. 

Genuinely vibrant description provides additional benefits: 

~ Objectivity.

Concrete details eliminate “telling” what you ought to “show.”

~ Bridge from the familiar to the unfamiliar.

Need to explain something? The technique of analogy or metaphor is about as old as ideas are. Comparison helps readers grasp what’s unclear or difficult, which could be anything from quantum mechanics to the protagonist’s tragic flaw.

~ Contributions from your own subconscious:
one of the things you do as a writer and as a filmmaker is to grasp for resonant symbols and imagery without fully understanding it yourself. —Christopher Nolan
~ Engagement of reader emotion.

Readers identify with what they can see, hear, etc. But they can’t identify with references to “terrible agony” or “delightful happiness.” James Bonnet’s paraphrase of Carl Jung explains why abstraction deprives readers of the protagonist’s world and the events there: 
The auditor experiences some of the sensations but is not transformed. Their imaginations are stimulated: they go home and through personal fantasies begin the process of transformation for themselves.
Why not provide that possibility of transformation for your readers?

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Must Your Readers Unpack for You?

In fiction, as on vacation, traveling light frees you to appreciate the scenery. Few of us leave town to exhibit an immense wardrobe, and probably even fewer read novels in order to study. Still, you won’t enjoy the trip if everything you brought is excessively flimsy or bulky, and many readers prefer novels offering a bit of heft. In both cases, the trick is packing thoughtfully, and taking responsibility for the contents of the suitcase.

Your novel’s length determines the size of that suitcase. Yet fiction’s subject matter determines how much unpacking someone must do. Who’s that someone? The novelist—not the reader.

In one sense, “unpacking” involves revelation of the individual components that comprise a complex concept. It makes sense that writers should provide this, so one wonders why more of them—in every genre—sometimes omit the explanation readers need in order to follow. Anxiety plays a role. What if “just saying it” will irritate, bore, or condescend? 

The rest of the answer lies in what Steven Pinker calls “The Curse of Knowledge”: 
It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that readers haven’t learned their jargon, don’t seem to know the intermediate steps that seem to them to be too obvious to mention, and can’t visualize a scene currently in the writer’s mind’s eye. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the concrete details — even when writing for professional peers.—The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
Pinker blames unclear, densely packed passages on “chunking,” or storing details in clumps. Inside the writer’s head, this process works fine. But readers require “unchunking.” Without it, you offer A = B, A = C—without including that crucial middle step of B = C. 

Pinker also identifies another opponent of clarity: functional fixity. As with structural rigidity, the issue here is your ability to rearrange details for the reader’s benefit. Or are you stuck with whatever pattern you first conceived? That may not be the ideal way to explain.

Ready to unpack? Try these techniques.

~ Imagine your audience.

It’s not you! It’s doesn’t matter what you know—only what your readers do.

~ Be concrete.

It’s a common myth that difficult ideas require abstractions. But the greatest art is clarity without oversimplification.

~ Provide breaks.

Divide your sentences. Start new paragraphs. Both matter more than you think.

~ Use the familiar.

People usually learn by attaching new facts and concepts to more commonplace ones. Break down those big chunks, perhaps comparing them with the well-known.

Tip: For a smooth fictional journey, keep disorganized, overflowing baggage out of sight. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Voice: Constraint + Conviction

Writing coaches often urge novelists to “let it flow.” Go ahead and write as fast as you can type, which, for most of us, is faster than we can think. In The Basket Weaver, for example, Jan Marquart suggests: “Sit quietly, listen, listen again, then listen some more and write out everything the voice says with no censoring-–none-–not one word.”

For some novelists, there’s no better strategy. But this approach works only if you’re willing to discard everything—yup, everything—that’s self-indulgent, redundant, or second rate. That necessitates more courage than many writers, including yours truly, possess.

Tip: Voice balances wildness with convention.

You need both individuality and artistry. According to Patricia Lee Gauch,
A writer's voice is not character alone, it is not style alone; it is far more. A writer's voice like the stroke of an artist's brush—is the thumbprint of her whole person—her idea, wit, humor, passions, rhythms. 
If you accept that painters have “voices,” J. W. Turner beautifully illustrates freedom within restraint. He studied, mastered his craft, and produced solid conventional work like this:

But if that’s all he ever did, he’d never have his own gallery in London’s Tate Museum. Historians 
suspect eyesight played a role, but, in any case, here’s why he’s remembered:


Without command of the fundamental, how can you paint or write? Like everyone else, novelists can bore, pontificate, melodramatize, repeat, and confuse. If your voice includes any of that, keep it to yourself. Because “Whether crafting fiction or how-to manuals, self-expression is a negotiation” (Noah Berlatsky in “‘Voice’ Isn't the Point of Writing”).

Without command of the fundamental, how can you paint or write? Like everyone else, novelists can bore, pontificate, melodramatize, repeat, and confuse. If your voice includes any of that, keep it to yourself. Because “Whether crafting fiction or how-to manuals, self-expression is a negotiation” (Noah Berlatsky in “‘Voice’ Isn't the Point of Writing”).

This is where writing commandments apply. Your uncensored self belongs only in a journal. And although we cherish the personal writing of  “the greats,” this is usually due to what they crafted for public consumption—through that “negotiation.”

Writing rules not only reduce “telling,” meandering, and abruptly jolting. Consider your readers, and you create a sort of psychological safety net.  Thasia Frank and Dorothy Wall suggest that
Most writers struggle to unearth voice—not only because one’s own voice is simply too familiar, but also because to speak from your voice means confront your world, your dreams, and your entire life raw and unsoftened by explanations.
In the most exquisite sort of irony, you’re less vulnerable when your narrator and characters stand between your naked self and your readers. And without getting psychologically and linguistically naked, how can you find and use your voice?

And here’s why that’s where it’s at. According to David Malouf,
I've long come to the conclusion that when people say they can't put a book down, they don't mean they're interested in what's happening next; they mean they are so mesmerised by the writer's voice and the relationship that has been established that they don't want to break that.

Isn’t that exactly what you want your novel to do?

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Not Just “Writers Need to Read”—But Why

Tip:“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write.” — Stephen King

In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot observed, “Someone said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Precisely, and they are that which we know.”

Just as true today as almost a century ago. So much more to know—and to read. If this seems daunting, consider the opportunity. The art of fiction comes from who you are—and who you are comes from everything preceding you. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” 

On a more universal scale, curiosity like this drives people to explore their roots. Don't your cultural roots signify as least as much, whether from ancient Greece or DaVinci? 

Or all those classics that inform how every novelist thinks and writes? Reading reminds writers that the best fiction is timeless. James Baldwin:
You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
Here’s Evan Mahone in “The Best Advice for Writers? Read”
Last week the Guardian published a list of writerly rules donated by respected authors. Somewhat surprisingly, only a quarter of the authors advised aspiring writers to read. Perhaps reading is too obvious, too fundamental to be perceived as a rule–like advising chefs to eat if they want to learn how to cook. But despite the fact that most of the rule writers failed to advise people to read, I doubt any writer would argue that reading is not essential to the writing craft.
What does Mahone think reading writers (pun intended) get? Only vocabulary, models, inspiration, and escape from the difficulties of your profession/avocation. So the pursuit of books like the ones you want to write becomes quite serious.
You can't write seriously without reading the greats in that peculiar way that writers read, attentive to the particularities of the language, to the technical turns and twists of scene-making and plot, soaking up numerous narrative strategies and studying various approaches to that cave in the deep woods where the human heart hibernates. --Alan Cheus

J.K. Rowling got it right: “The most important thing is to read as much as you can…” Besides, as Neil Gaiman reminds: “Picking five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.” 

Can you afford not to find the time? 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

On Taking Time and Leaving Space

Exploit opportunity. That’s one distinction between good fiction and great. Sometimes, instead of faulty plotting or limp prose, the issue is timing. Let’s say the protagonist and hunky guy have been flirting for over two hundred pages. When he—and she or he—finally finish the chablis and hit the sack, why rush that? And you certainly don’t want to summarize, as in, “They had the greatest time ever.”

And in order to deliver optimal emotional and dramatic impact, maybe you can do even more. Whoops, someone has an asthma attack or breaks out in hives. Does the estranged spouse return for a heart-to-heart, courting interruptus? What about the cat, the dog, the teenage daughter? 

Go for the extra twist, never settling for the obvious. Then, develop the events that fulfill and startle readers—that haunt forever. Pause to think of your favorite moments in fiction. Are they ever ordinary? Rushed?

Be careful, though. Capitalizing involves a sort of tightrope between underdone and overwrought. To avoid the latter, watch out for these:

~ Stay subtle. 

Add vigorous and original events and details, not familiar or melodramatic ones.

~ Encourage inference.

Fiction thrives on hinting and suggesting, not clarifying or explaining. Which doesn’t, of course, mean you want confused readers.

~ Say it right the first time.

 Then you won’t be tempted to repeat, which usually frustrates more than it emphasizes. 

~ Slow down the good parts.

Writers tend to meander through detail, then zip through action and drama. Why? The humdrum and non-confrontational amass quickly,  not to mention more comfortably. Often, though, the scenes writers find most challenging are those their readers find most enchanting.

~ Carve out a space.

Don’t clog critical moments with layers of description or filler. Instead? Create a sort of pause-and-catch your breath moment. To illustrate, say a mother is awaiting news of her soldier son. Why not delineate her facial expression, the worry in her eyes before learning the truth? This delaying tactic prompts the reader to experience suspense along with her, to internalize the magnitude of a moment that resembles a mini-climax. How else will readers notice?

~ Set up.

Then always deliver.

As you move through the world beyond your novel (remember that one?), observe the reactions of people—and yourself—to momentous moments. Then you’ll have a better sense of how to time and design such moments in your fictional world.

Tip: Capitalize on the subterranean—not at all obvious—opportunities your novel offers.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

From Story Board to Storyboard

Today, storyboard connotes is a series of illustrations or key points illustrating the concept for a film or TV program. Like many techniques from the screenwriting world, this method is also wonderfully useful for novelists and so popular that you’ll find numerous online options for help. But the basic idea is actually much older. Much, much, much older.

Illiteracy, thankfully now far less widespread, was once the norm. If you wanted people to understand the story, you had to show it. Only pictures would do.

For example, in one of the oldest storyboards, the palace of the Neo-Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) at Nimrud (now in northern Iraq) had larger-than-life slabs depicting royal and religious ritual. In the photos below, a winged god drops offers pollen from the scared tree of life, insuring the fertility of the land and its people.

Though novelists use words, the storyboard can give the author an equally useful visual. As Candace Williams observes in “Storyboarding for Novelists,” 
Storyboarding is not a rigid plotting device. The whole point of the board is that it’s flexible. The greatest advantage is seeing exactly how your novel is “built,” just as an architect refers to a blueprint.
The storyboard is especially useful to these novelists:

~ Plotters and pantsers.

If you’re a plotter, this lets you assess pivot points even more efficiently. If you’re a pantser, a storyboard lets you see where you’re going with the least restriction possible.

~ Internal world addicts. Do you revel in oodles of talking and thinking and more of the same? 
Provide an image for each scene, and something will happen in the physical world.

~ Nonlinear writers.

a storyboard, you can write the fourth scene, sixteenth, then second and so on. Compose in any order you like and still see where you are.

In an interview, Rebecca Skloot, author of the complex and successful The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, addressed the complexity of her creative nonfiction with index cards. 

Chuck Sambuchino, in “Storyboarding For Success: Plotters vs. Pantsers,” reminds that:
The magic of a storyboard is turning a book idea into a visual tool, which makes the story’s structure much easier to grasp and handle. A storyboard can be drawn on a board, a piece of paper, or in a computer file.
The storyboard reveals where the climax is, and, in fact, whether you have a climax at all! The inciting incident and major moments that earn the ending are visible—and thus readily reparable. Use index cards, sticky notes, sheets of paper, an Excel spreadsheet, or the many free apps and templates.

Tip: Storyboarding’s been around for a long, long time. With good reason.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Motive and Movement

Inexperienced comedians and actors often wander the stage aimlessly. Sometimes that’s part of the schtick. More often, though, random action signals nervousness and simply distracts. So in theater, directors often warn actors that you can’t just cross the stage because you feel like you’ve been motionless for too long. Movement originates from motivation.

Tip: Never let your character say or do anything without a current, immediate motive.  

In “Motivation-Reaction Units: Cracking the Code of Good Writing, ” K.M. Weiland explains the “motivation-reaction units,” or MRU’s, that Dwight V. Swain introduces in Techniques of the Selling Writer:
In a story, everything that happens can be separated into two categories: causes (motivations) and effects (reactions). Once you grasp this, all you have to do to create solid and comprehensible prose is to make sure your MRUs are in the right order.
The First Gate blog explores this further. The:
Motivation-Reaction Unit is the fundamental building block of an action sequence (it’s important to stress that it does not apply do description, exposition, or reverie).  It’s pretty simple:  something happens, the hero reacts to it, the situation changes, and something else happens.  How characters react to events will largely determine their plausibility and how closely we bond with them. — 1/21/’11
If perhaps a stream of MRU’s seems like extra work, first consider how logical this is. Then consider all the areas you’ll improve.

~ Characterization. 

To link motive to action, you must clearly identify character psychology. 

~ Verisimilitude.

In real life, people do things for reasons. When they don’t, others ask, “Where are you going?” Or, “What’s suddenly bothering you?” Novels need to supply the answers readers might want to ask. This is especially true when characters change their minds or make major decisions. But. This isn’t permission for a paragraph or two of rumination, because there’s never permission for that. It does mean one sentence pinpointing explicit motive.

~ Stage business. 

A character hears something and thus does something. Causal and realistic. It also tests whether stage business serves some purpose beyond interrupting the dialogue.

~ Causality. 

Within the scene, these MR Units mirror what Linda Seger calls “pressure points”—the five or six turning points forming the spine of the novel. Use MRU’s, and the structure of each scene parallels the structure of the scenario.

~ Emotion.

In both characters and readers. Only characters that make sense elicit empathy, and characters can’t make sense unless the rationale underlying behavior is clear. 

Link motive to motion and action, and you enrich both plot and characterization. Because“why” has always been fiction’s most compelling component. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Do It with Verbs

But not just any old verb. Only so-called “strong” or “action” verbs propel, fire, and glide to accomplish what writers want and readers need. Verbs like “was” or “have,” though essential to communication, electrify writing no more than vague nouns, useless adverbs, or redundant adjectives.

Tip: Weak verbs produce weak sentences—which produce weak novels.  

In “Verbs: Spice Up Your Writing with Verbs that Rock,” Dave Bricker remarks:
If your writ­ing was an elec­tric gui­tar, your verbs would be the vol­ume, tone, and dis­tor­tion con­trols that shape the music of your sen­tences.
Johnson’s “Writing Style: Use Good Words, Not Bad Ones” suggests:
Strengthen your verbs by making them as specific as possible. Eat, for example, could also be nibble, devour and gobble, depending on what you want to convey. Likewise, sit could be slouch, spread out or recline.
Henneke concurs:
strong verbs add action, vitality, color, and zest. So, the “secret” to writing with gusto is to choose stronger verbs. — “99 Strong Verbs to Make Your Content Pop, Fizz and Sparkle”
Forget about adjectives -- they're as floppy as a gaggle of 98-lb weaklings. Verbs, on the other hand, are the muscle-men and women of the beach. After all, if your goal is to move readers (either literally or metaphorically), doesn't it make sense to focus on the ACTion words in your writing?— Daphne Gray-Grant, “Starve an Adjective, Feed a Verb”
Committed to verbs? Here’s how to work out with them so they work for you.

~ Expand your working verb vocabulary.
In conversation, we use the same verbs over and over: “Come here,” “Bring the popcorn,” ”Let the dog out.” The problem arises when the fiction writer accesses that same limited number of pedestrian verbs.  Start collecting intriguing verbs.  Check the many online action verb lists.
~ Ruminate.
Mull so readers needn’t. Not “Working through the many disagreements about how to spend money made their marriage that much stronger.” Instead? “Discussing money, instead of quarreling about it, strengthened their marriage.” Invest time in choosing weight-bearing verbs. The more you ponder and practice, then the easier this gets. 
~ Exercise and apply.
Chase different—and better—verbs, even when not actively writing. Notice great or ghastly verbs in everything you read and hear. Yes—everything. 
You can do it.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Secret Spaces inside the Scene

Fiction requires vividness, suspense, and empathy. But do you leave readers enough room for an intimate experience of detail, tension, and emotion?

As Charles Baxter puts it, 
A novel is not a summary of its plot but a collection of instances, of luminous specific details that take us in the direction of the unsaid and unseen.
That’s subtext, which, according to A.J. Humpage, 
is the implied meaning or theme within the narrative. It can also refer to the thoughts, actions and motives of characters that are not always so overt.
If everything is “overt,” from the character’s loneliness to the cold moss where she rests her tear-stained cheek on a fallen tree in the Southeast corner of the Olympic National forest, then perhaps ironically, fiction becomes drab, tepid, and dispassionate. 

Tip: Spell everything out, and you deprive readers of the chance to participate.

In Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence, Lisa Cron observes that:
When you put together large numbers of pieces and parts, the whole can become something larger than the sum.…The concept of emergent properties means that something new can be introduced that is not inherent in any of the parts.
What’s this new entity? In the best novels, it’s the synthesis of every aspect of fiction: plot makes detail more vivid, context builds characterization, and description intensifies suspense. But there’s more. That’s your readers feeling, wondering, interpreting, and analyzing. Until “The End,” those responses change frequently. And if the writer succeeds, many of those conclusions will prove irrelevant or inaccurate. Do you want surprised readers? Give them some freedom.

When readers can infer, fiction imitates life. There’s no circumstance where we reliably have all the information. So if fiction leaves nothing to the imagination, a novel is not only overloaded and oversimplified, but unrealistic. 

How can you encourage reader participation?

~ Subtext in dialogue.

      People rarely say exactly what they mean. Your characters shouldn’t, either.

~ Metaphor.

     When symbolism works, it replaces setting dense enough to overwhelm plot.

~ Emotional overload.

      Provide clues that let readers experience what the characters do.

~ Focus.

     If your goal is intense drama or suspense, don’t let anything compete with that.

Instead of walling readers out with excessive description and explanation, let readers take the journey along with your characters—instead of getting it secondhand.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Shopping Cart and the Novelist

Consider this random grocery list, left behind at a supermarket.

Anything strike you?

That’s what this blog’s about. Not a suggestion that if you can’t fix a passage or find a publisher, stock up on butter pecan ice cream, toffee peanuts, chocolate syrup, and marshmallow fluff for topping. Nor will the following suggest how to build a character from a mash-up of income, hair color, education, favorite TV show, and place of birth. Instead, here’s the deal.

Tip: The wonderfully unexpected is available everywhere; you only need to notice.

And that’s mostly a matter of habit. Because finding pattern in chaos approximates the age of humanity itself. Things have changed, though:  
Surprise, the unknown, is all around us, but due to the way human beings live now, our lives are built to streamline through, to desperately try and cut through surprise, mystery, or ignorance. All the information in the world is available from a computer screen. — J.P. Shiel, “The Element of Surprise: A Storyteller’s Secret Weapon”
For creators in any field, including fiction, the price paid for that instantaneous knowledge is high. We’re no longer continually on the hunt for the observations to protect our families, no longer sifting and sifting to recall a particular fact. It’s easier just to look it up, and that includes storm watches and warnings.

This means it’s harder for the cook or woodworker or novelist to surprise herself. That’s not good, because as Jane K. Cleland puts it, “The best surprises add significant insights to the characters involved in that surprise, while setting up future suspenseful situations.” It’s why people don’t want to know the ending of the book or movie in advance. Surprise is fun.

Now what’s this got to do wth shopping carts? Scrutinizing details is among the many potential strategies for perceiving pattern and producing surprise. For example, what can you infer from the list above?

     Lots of brand names

     Both fancy tortellini and pedestrian hamburger

     Few carbs

     No desserts

If you wanted to, couldn’t you use this list to build a profile, shape a character, compose a backstory? You probably don’t want to, because that’s unlikely to improve your novel. Here’s what will, though:

~ Notice everything around you. Seek the unfamiliar in the familiar.

~ Recognize “found art.” Ruminate on its meaning.

~ Check for patterns in the apparently random. This might take practice.

~ Look for potential organization in what seems totally chaotic.

~ Train yourself to brainstorm without censorship. Inhibition thwarts creativity.

Next time you find someone else’s list, imagine the story behind it. This will open you to a more insightful and original version of that story you really want to tell.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

“Awwww” versus Awe

Neither including the sound "awww" nor "telling about the concept "awe"is likely to evoke the desired reader response. But "showing" either?  Perhaps juxtaposed? Ahhhh. Here’s why.

Awe comes from perceiving perception, as in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See:
To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away.
Or from spirituality versus practicality in Colson Whitehead’sThe Underground Railroad
Poems were too close to prayer, rousing regrettable passions. Waiting for God to rescue you when it was up to you. Poetry and prayer put ideas in people's heads that got them killed, distracting them from the ruthless mechanism of the world.
Don’t you experience awe when someone explains the incomprehensible?
Looking a dead insect in the sack of basmati that had come all the way from Dehra Dun, he almost wept with sorrow and marvel at its journey, which was tenderness for his own journey. In India almost nobody would be able to afford this rice, and you had to travel around the world to be able to eat such things where they were cheap enough that you could gobble them down without being rich; and when you got home to the place where they grew, you couldn't afford them anymore. ― Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss
In contrast, “Awww,” like ice cream that never melts, is cleaner and happier: 
Although there are times I'd give anything to have her back, I'm glad she went first. Losing her was like being cleft down the middle. It was the moment it all ended for me, and I wouldn't have wanted her to go through that. — Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants
But perhaps most effective of all is an unexpected pivot. In Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Sabbathday River, the shift from “aww” to awe represents not a doll’s murder, but a child’s:
 She saw, freshly, the two blond little girls in smocked dresses on the television commercial; she could hear the happy jingle extolling the doll's mind-bending ability to wet. And her name: Sallie Smiles! (The exclamation mark thoughtfully provided by the manufacturer.) Naomi Roth's parents--they of the Little Red School House and Pete Seeger persuasion--had been horrified, naturally enough, but she must have had her fill of ant farms and nonsexist creative discovery objects. The small blond pixies on the television were the company she kept in her fantasy of the parallel childhood she was not leading. She coveted the doll.     
When it disappeared, less than a week after her birthday, she had waited before panicking.Then she approached her parents, whose unmistakable relief over her carelessness--the carelessness they assumed, despite her denials--was clear. Naomi's older brother declined to shed light on the situation, but months afterward it was from his window that she saw her doll again, grimy in city filth on the roof of the apartment building next door. It lay on its stomach against the asphalt, its bright face obscured, its fleshy pink hue bleached to stark white, and the legs between which it had wet so endearingly splayed to the extent of its somewhat limited hip sockets.
Tip: Expand your novel’s world by capturing rather than mentioning “aww” or awe.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Man Who Said Everything Twice

“Not much traffic today.” His wife nods, and they continue on. He lights a cigarette. “Nope. Not much traffic.” As their destination comes into view, she says nothing. He clears his throat. “Nice flat lake.” She turns away from him, toward the window, as he repeats, “Nice flat lake.”

Irritating as this man is, she probably won’t leave him for this reason alone. But if this pattern materializes in your novel, your reader will likely leave you.

Most writers know that they mustn’t repeat. So why do they?

~ Metaphorical throat clearing

Saying it again resembles “um” or “er” in conversation. Maybe details or events occurred twice in the first draft and were never deleted. It’s mostly habit—and you can break it.

~ Schooling

Over and over, writers heard: introduce what you’ll say, develop what you introduced, summarize what you said. This makes sense for teaching and learning. Is that what novels are about?

~ Distrust of the reader

This one is the most powerful. Good writers are nearly always insecure, comparing themselves to novelists they love and feeling they fall short. Very short. Concern that the metaphor is shaky, the subtext too subtle, or theme too understated, such writers clarify. Usually, though, they merely repeat what readers already absorbed.

What do writers repeat?

* General/specific

You know. First you comment on all dogs, then on individual breeds. You could also reverse the order to specific, then general. But don’t.

* Metaphor and explanation

If the metaphor can’t communicate without explanation, it’s not one you want.

* Transition

Yes, you must link each detail or idea or moment to the next. But, for example, don’t link each detail or idea or moment to the next by repeating the whole thing!

* Recent events

Never bring other characters up to date by repeating what readers already know. Hint. Condense.

How do you handle the repetition problem? You already know. About the lake and the traffic.

Tip: Once is enough.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

It’s Not a Dream!

Fiction is neither as long-winded, random, or forgettable as the scraps of stories that visit us during the night.  The novel’s achievement starts with the creation process that John Gardner describes:
In the writing state—the state of inspiration—the fictive dream springs up fully alive: the writer forgets the words he has written on the page and sees, instead, his characters moving around their rooms, hunting through cupboards, glancing irritably through their mail, setting mousetraps, loading pistols. The dream is as alive and compelling as one’s dreams at night, and when the writer writes down on paper what he has imagined, the words, however inadequate, do not distract his mind from the fictive dream but provide him with a fix on it, so that when the dream flags he can reread what he’s written and find the dream starting up again. 
This is narrative at its happiest and best—writing that gives readers a  world more dramatic, realistic and moral than daily routine. But the boundaries of this world are fragile. In fact, as Gardner points out, “one of the chief mistakes a writer can make is to allow or force the reader’s mind to be distracted, even momentarily, from the fictional dream.”

Those distractions come in many shapes and sizes, but the other kind of dreaming goes a long way toward explaining them.

~ Cliché.

If you’re gifted enough, of course it’s possible to write anything. But, for the most part, any version of “Henrietta woke, relieved that it was only a dream” won’t work. Dreams may be messages to the dreamer, but rarely to anyone else. If you want your novel to delight others, everything must seem new, starting with the plot and ending with the details capturing it. Cliches like waking from a bad dream? That is a bad dream. 

~ Grounding

Dreams let us fly out windows, land in foreign countries without deplaning, simultaneously chat with former lovers and elementary school teachers. If there’s anything fun about dreams, that’s probably it. But readers demand a fictional dream that, however invisibly, explains arrivals, departures, changes of location, and everything else that makes any world outside a dream clear, logical, sensible, and compelling. 

~ Credibility

In your nightmare, your patient and adoring Mama turns on you for no reason, viciously humiliating you in front of every teacher you encountered in your entire life. No wonder you can’t wait to wake up! But the point is that fiction, unlike dream, requires motive and causality. It’s logically true to itself. Anything else shatters the fictional dream that Gardner describes.

~ Pace

Often when we narrate our dreams (or are forced to hear someone else’s), events and details emerge with agonizing slowness. Trivia receives meticulous tedium, while grounding rarely arrives at all. In contrast, novels need momentum and context. Without those, readers doze off, blissfully escaping to the other kind of dream.

Tip: Dreaming is the first step for many writers. But it shouldn’t be the last.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Bridge It

San Francisco weather often hides part of the Golden Gate Bridge. Without the mid-portion, it resembles two ends of a structure—with only heavy mist in between. Omit the transitions in fiction, and readers might feel as if only mist joins one sentence to the next. With an important exception. California fog can seem mysterious and romantic, whereas two disconnected ideas or sentences or paragraphs are anything but.

How often do fiction readers need a bridge? Every time they sense a shift, and that’s in the reader’s mind—not the writer’s. Shifts include focus, time, space, speaker, mood, emotion, scene, or verb tense. And lack of connection isn’t among the surprises readers enjoy.

Tip: What seems linked to the writer doesn’t always seem linked to the reader.

Because most writers live with their story world until every relationship seems obvious. So those crucial transitions joining one observation or moment to the next often go missing. 

Here’s an example: 
Leaning back with a sigh, Abby surveyed everything she loved about the living room: white carpet versus drapes in a slightly different ivory tint, Danish modern furniture, hand-blown glass artfully catching the light in various corners.     Though her husband had only black socks, they always looked mismatched.
Whoops. How did we get from interior design to hubby Bill’s habits? For the writer, this might seem crystal-clear. The character muses on order and taste and how differing hues complement each other, unlike her husband’s mismated footwear. Abby might resent his slovenliness contrasting with her taste, which she clearly admires. Perhaps she wonders why she likes snow-white with ivory, but not brand-new black with three-years-old black. 

And, in fact, developing any of those would clarify why the passage abruptly shifted from decor to laundry. The crucial component you accidentally omit from the page perplexes readers. Huh?

Remedies exist:

~ Notice, even if you don’t want to fix this until later.

Consider capitalizing markers like LETTING HER MIND WANDER, or LATER THAT EVENING.  This reminds that you need to improve this temporary transition.

~ Collect transitions in your daily world.

Store effective links from what you read, hear, and see. This becomes part of noticing.

~ Identify the connections you thought of but never included.

This smooths the way while adding causality and suspense.

Let readers view the entire bridge—without something missing in the middle.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Allure of the Lure

What about these openings?

“When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had travelled across a desert of living sand.” —Kevin Brockmeier, A Brief History of the Dead 

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” —Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

“You better not never tell nobody but God.” —Alice Walker, The Color Purple

In every case, don’t you want to read on? Don’t you feel you can’t help it, even though you ought to walk the dog, empty the dishwasher, pack the lunches, turn out the light?

Tip: Start every scene—especially the first one—by enticing your reader. Irresistibly.

Because, as Paula Berinstein puts it, “We all know that if we don’t capture reader attention within a few seconds, we might as well kiss the sale of our work goodbye.”

K.M. Weiland adds: 

Readers are like fish. Smart fish. Fish who know authors are out to get them, reel them in, and capture them for the rest of their seagoing lives. But, like any self-respecting fish, readers aren’t caught easily. They aren’t about to surrender themselves to the lure of your story unless you’ve presented them with an irresistible hook.

Hooked on hooks yourself now? These tricks might work more often than not:

~ Check to see if your hook is already there—just not in the opening sentence. 

~ Emphasize what drives the scene. 

How will it intensify the obstacles from the previous one? What must the protagonist learn? What additional pressure will the antagonist exert? What single sentence propels the protagonist into the next difficulty or exacerbation of a previous one?

~ Value high stakes over context, which you can easily fill in after you’ve grabbed attention.

How can you crystallize huge tension right now? Can you provide enough grounding with a prepositional phrase or two?

~ Write vigorously. 

This means connotative nouns, active metaphorical verbs, and minimal modifiers.

~ Watch your sentence structure.

Don’t overdo any one technique. But compound sentences rarely coalesce the most energy. Strive for either short sentences or highly rhythmic long ones.

~ Use the ending of the scene to launch the subsequent one.

It’s often helpful to have that in mind before you even begin writing a scene. How will this one cause whatever’s next?

Like so many things about fiction writing, developing hooks is a skill that anyone can master, simply through lots and lots of practice. No magic involved. Doesn’t that challenge hook you?