Sunday, February 26, 2017

Glorious Sentences Are Made—Not Born

Novelists compose scads of unsuccessful sentences, and many stay that way. Hardly surprising, given decades of bad habits like thinking aloud, writing the way you talk, trying to sound “fancy,” avoiding confrontation via vagueness, or inflicting academic jargon.

Without pointing the finger at particular best sellers or prize winners, I’ll admit that rip-roaring scenarios or political correctness let many weakly written novels do extremely well.  But. Would  you rather compensate for lame sentence structure, or fix them? This checklist might help.

~ How many sentences (particularly at paragraph beginnings) start with a noun or pronoun? 
Constant use of subject-verb-object (“Hortense bewitched him”) drags. Eyeball the page to check this. Does the left margin languish with repetition? Variety spices not only life, but prose. Seriously. Experiment with fragments. Combine sentences. Divide them. Possibilities abound, and perfecting sentences simultaneously thickens plot and deepens characters. Such a bonus..
~ What’s with the auxiliary verbs? 
Not much, Avoid clutter with weak verbs like “is” or “had.” Action verbs deliver best: “strike,” “kiss,” “shred,” “blink,” “jump.” Exploit the rich heritage of English: whale road meant “ocean”; fire-hammer meant “sword.”
Electrify with symbolic verbs: “illuminate,” “decimate,” “infiltrate.” But follow the metaphor you introduced. Casual or not, it’s still a metaphor. 
~ Do you write tight?
Why say “drew tighter” when you can simply “tighten”?
~ Are you descending into the many ways there are for passive voice to be used by you?
Characters can “buy” stuff or pass “by” train terminals, and “by” also describes time. Dangerously, though, “by” builds this structure: “The ball was hit by the cheerleader.” This is rarely a good way for “by” to be used by you! Why not perform a search for “by”? Innocuous as seems, passive voice enervates, while distancing readers from the characters they follow.
~ If it can be a verb, is it?  
You emasculate prose with “Heraldo experienced fear of seagulls—even the small  ones,” instead of  “Heraldo feared seagulls—even the small ones.”
~ Do you overload the sentence opening?
Avoid constructions like “The reason that Mary can never get enough of lilac fragrance is that these flowers evoke happy childhood summers with Grandma.”  Choose accessible openings, but without creating a new habit, like starting them all with a conjunction (“but,” “because,” etc.) or “ing” phrase.
Tip: While delighting readers, sleek sentences give writers what they never knew they lacked.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

What Can Dogs Teach Novelists?

Most of us love dogs for attributes equally delightful in fiction writers. It’s easy to love someone who only wants to please, who would do most anything for most anyone. Novelist Nora Roberts claims that “Everything I know, I learned from dogs.” Perhaps not, but here are some canine secrets, anyway:

~ Tenderness

Charles Baxter was 100 % correct when he observed that “Hell is story friendly.” Kindness to readers involves unkindness to characters—often and viciously. This doesn’t mean that writers are cruel-hearted. If you want readers to bleed emotionally over these beings you’ve sent into their lives, the creator of those characters must bleed emotionally as well. 

This discomfort comes in two flavors. It’s painful to watch your good guys in trouble, yet also painful to sorrow over the pain your villains bring on themselves. Whenever this seems unendurable, contemplate the stoicism of dogs.
~ Loyalty

Even if punished, banished, struck repeatedly with a rolled up newspaper, they never give up on those they love. Don’t give up on your characters, however confusing, exhausting, or mortifying Don’t give up on making your novel everything it could be, either—no matter how many years that takes.

~ Passion

Consider how canines greet other canines, not to mention live or dead anything-in-motion, and definitely not food. Food!!! Everything, then, is delicious, captivating, magnetizing, and always new. What a terrific way to move through the world. What an even more terrific way to write about the world. Invite passion, whether about storms, ice hockey, or the bulging contours of a ripe tomato. There’s no better antidote for dismissing boredom, in your readers or yourself.
~ Shamelessness

Yes, naughty dogs droop their necks so they can look abjectly at you through half-raised eyes. It’s mostly show, however. Reach your hand down for a forgiving pat, and all’s forgotten. The next hamburger at the edge of the table will meet the same fate as those preceding it. You left it there. Do you truly expect the dog to ignore it?

“Dogs act exactly the way we would act if we had no shame,” Cynthia Heimel believes, and shame has no place in the novelist’s toolkit. Dogs teach us that having sex with strangers in broad daylight is no cause for chagrin. Neither is sniffing the foulest leavings that came from the foulest places. Don’t disrobe in public or play in the cat box. Please. Do probe humanity’s darkest places. That includes your own history, your own heart.

Tip: Dogs can be role models for the treatment of characters—and readers. 

Here’s Charles M. Schulz about being too hard on yourself: “All his life he tried to be a good person. Many times, however, he failed. For after all, he was only human. He wasn't a dog.”

Sunday, February 12, 2017

“The Decisive Moment”

In the preface to the book of that title, Henri Cartier-Bresson accompanied his photographs with commentary, including “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.” Unintentionally, of course, this idea applies not only to camera work, but to the engine that drives fiction. 

Tip: “Decisive Moments” structure your novel and the scenes (or summaries) composing its plot.

It starts with noticing. Whether with camera, computer, or pen, you need first to identify significance, then be certain that you capture it. After all, as he observed, “Once you miss it, it is gone forever.” 
Ready yourself to seize flashes of inspiration, whether they wake you at dawn, strike when you get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, or disrupt concentration on rush hour traffic. 

Don’t, needless to say, endanger yourself with sleep deprivation, eyes on your iPhone, or both. 

~ Do make sure you have a means to record even the most slender wisp of idea. Otherwise, how will you ever know how big it might have become?

Cartier-Bresson felt strongly about the impact of a single moment, saying, “To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.” 

~Don’t view this premise as unrelated to fiction.

~ Do harness the construct of the “decisive moment” to structure your novel and choose what you present in “live time” and what you summarize.

In fiction, those “decisive moments” are the pressure points that create character arc. The protagonist’s customary response, whether waiting, rationalizing, or denying, is now impossible. However painfully or foolishly, the character must act—and immediately. Just as photographers portray the external world, the novelist must accept that readers want to view the most intense moments through action and imagery. The best pressure points are photographable. This prevents the clutter of excessive rumination, review, or reconstruction. 

Once you recognize your novel’s events in terms of “decisive” or “significant,” you’re on track to decide what should unfold, detail by detail. The rest? Collapse it into a swift abbreviation of what readers need to know but have no need to watch.

The Cartier-Bresson phrase “proper expression” is already ambiguous, and more so when applied to prose. Yet in either fiction or photography, “proper expression” means that the portrayal says it all—no caption needed. If you’ve found the “decisive moments” of your protagonist’s journey, never deflate them by explaining what they mean. 

Haven’t found the “decisive moments” yet? How matter how many words, drafts, or themes you’ve amassed, it’s back to the storyboard. The best novels, no matter how historical or literary, always build from the moments when there’s no turning back. And it’s most fun for readers when these pivots, or turning points, are barely visible until the plot ends and readers grasp the how and why. 

Here’s to “decisive moments.”