Thursday, March 23, 2017

Post-Birthday Blog

When’s yours? Mine just was, instigating some musing on the years passing, with the writing happening or not, the publishing happening or not. Whenever your birthday is, perhaps you also contemplate the questions that plague or enthrall me.

~ Why do you write?

Most of us aren’t in it for the moolah, because there’s generally little enough of that except, as in most areas these days, at the tippy-top. Some of the most talented writers I know rarely type or write—it’s too scary, painful, frustrating, or something they can’t or won’t identify. I love to write—creating, tinkering, revising brings me joy. I don’t have a goal or message or plan as much as the pure jubilation of the process. I understand how fortunate this is.
If writing doesn’t provide happiness or income, perhaps it’s not for you.
~ How much does publishing matter?

As you know already perfectly well, it’s a tough industry out there. Word has it that publishers no longer bother responding even to agents. So the supposed magic bullet of acquiring one offers no guarantee. You might have an agent on your side, and still have along wait till securing a publisher. 
Where does this leave you? Try this. A writer—an extremely talented one—recently told me that if she landed an agent and then a publisher, she’d love it. If she didn’t, so what? She confessed that she never expected to complete a novel, much less have one ready to sell. For her, that was enough. 
What’s enough for you?  If you don’t know, what you haven’t admitted might circle around and bite you in the foot. And then in the other foot.
~ How long should this current project of your take?

Many writers have externally imposed deadlines, and they must stick to them. If the novel isn’t quite ready, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s now June 1 or November 15, or whatever. I have the luxury of working on what I write until I feel it’s done. That consistently takes hours rather than minutes, and, more often than not, years rather than months. Does that matter? Not to me. It takes as long as it takes to make my writing what I want it to be. 
What about you?  How much time are you willing to give? When is it too much?
Tip: Writing is so personal; it’s crucial to understand—and accept—your own process.

How can you get what you want if you have no idea what that is? Figure that out. Then give yourself this particular present. After all, whenever your birthday was, there’s another right around the corner. Take advantage.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

To Reach, Neither Preach Nor Teach

This applies to many people, about many things, but especially so for novelists. No matter how literary or curious the reader, pleasure remains the novel’s purpose. If readers want judgment, there’s plenty of philosophy or scripture to peruse. If readers seek information or education, there’s plenty of stellar nonfiction out there. Where does fiction fall on this continuum?

Tip: Share what’s on your mind, so long as it doesn’t feel like school or synagogue.

Don’t let anything upstage the entertainment. That’s easy to forget, because storytelling grew from painfully didactic roots: Greek drama threatened the dire results of hubristic arrogance, and Samuel Richardson (Pamela) and Henry Fielding (Tom Jones) respectively outlined how to be a virtuous woman or man. These plays and novels remain historically and aesthetically valuable, but today’s audience usually rejects an onslaught of oversimplified morality.

Because many see a broad of expanse of gray where exclusive good or evil once resided. And even on polarized issues, today’s readers prefer understatement. According to playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America):
I go into any movie that's historical fiction thinking, 'OK, I'm here to watch a work of art, something delivering a series of opinions, and if it's a good work of art, these opinions become so deeply embedded in complexity and richness that I won't even be bothered by the opinions. I'll make my own mind up.
Some would insist that to accomplish this, you must never “tell.” But what exactly does that  mean? Most writers occasionally “tell,” sometimes quite intentionally. All but the most inexperienced writers know this already, so this judgment against judgment often sounds patronizing. The reminder to give your audience the exquisite pleasure of inference seems far more useful.

The “teaching” aspect of fiction is a more ambiguous than the “showing” component. After all, superb novels like Life Mask (Emma Donoghue), Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel), A Conspiracy of Paper (David Liss), or Galatea 2.2 (Richard Powers) convey vast amounts of information.  Does it feel like being educated? Not at all. Does it feel like school? Never.

And this is why.

~ Put characters foremost. 

Guy Vanderhaeghe reminds that “History tells us what people do; historical fiction helps us imagine how they felt.”

~ Harness the power of plot. 

Integrate facts about the environment with the events occurring there. As Hilary Mantel puts it:
Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world.
~ Stay in voice.

The thousands of superb creative nonfiction books out there prove that facts needn’t bore. It entirely depends on tension, characterization, tone, word choice, humor, lyricism, even sentence structure.

How do writers reach you? That’s no different from how readers want you to reach them.

Sunday, March 12, 2017


Banishment has a spicy etymology, associated with outlawed, cursed, prohibited, or exiled. 
Here’s the start of a list of what you might usefully banish from your novel.

~ Fatigued and fatiguing scene and especially chapter openings. 

Start with a hook. Every time. John Green opens The Fault in Our Stars this way:
Late in the winter of my seventeenth year, my mother decided I was depressed, presumably because I rarely left the house, spent quite a lot of time in bed, read the same book over and over, ate infrequently, and devoted quite a bit of my abundant free time to thinking about death.
Not “My mother’s appraisal was that I was depressed.”

~ Drooping middle.

Glen C. Strathy says that “The middle is just as important as the end.” You need subplots, varied settings, escalating tension, and foreshadowing of every character arc. Make the middle matter.

~ No deus ex machina.

Yes, agents and publishers prefer novels to come in under 100,000 words. You’re already past that, so you—just stop. Always convey at least some resolution, and without any cavalry.

~ Offstage action.

Tough as it might be to write sex, confrontation, explosion, or violence, let your readers experience the exciting parts in real time. Don’t collapse or summarize set scenes or drama.

~ An endless list of supporting characters.
How many is too many? That’s unanswerable. What is? Fewer characters are better.

~ Dead metaphors.

They offer all the imagery of stars on a summer night, and that truth is as good as gold.

~ Mixed metaphors.

They irritate like as an invisible memory glittering in your heart.

~ Passive voice.

There have not been found that many reasons for it to be used by you.

~ Double Negative.

It isn’t right not to use double negatives. See what happens?

Tip: Banish both listlessness and clutter. Exile them from the pages of your book.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

To Verb?

Not “verbalize,” but “verbify,” as only verbs can. Because they resuscitate, activate, renovate. Verbs definitely make love, definitely make great prose. As Constance Hale put it :
A sentence can offer a moment of quiet, it can crackle with energy or it can just lie there, listless and uninteresting. What makes the difference? The verb. 
Since verbs soar, burrow, compress, and energize, why would so many writers waste them? Lots of reasons, but mainly bad habits and worse word choices. Since verbs drive fiction’s engine, “So many problems are solved simply by knowing enough verbs.” (Teresa Nielsen Hayden)

Knowing them is almost enough. You must also choose which and when.

~ Verbs can electrify or lull.

Pedestrian verbs entice no better than the adjectives and adverbs generally employed to vivify those verbs. “Marshall turned,” “Penelope went,” “Byron responded,” “Andromeda moved,” “The quintuplets waited.” Yawn. 

However literary a story, action still pumps its heart. Harness verbs that tease, propel, and capture. Annie Dillard  believes that “Adverbs are a sign that you’ve used the wrong verb,” as in “She walked mincingly” (instead of “minced”); “He moved slowly” (instead of “trudged” or “sauntered”), or “They advanced stealthily” (instead of “tiptoed” or “crept”).

~ Verbs can act or just be.

As William Safire said, “If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.” William Safire  raises the stakes higher:
Root out all the “to be” verbs in your prose and bludgeon them until dead. No “It was” or “they are” or “I am.” Don’t let it be, make it happen. 
Characters must act and react rather merely “being scared” or “having doubts.” The best inciting incidents and climaxes still lag when the language conveying them describes rather than performs, analyzes rather than dramatizes.The writer’s task? Don’t block the reader’s view of the character, which, by definition, modifiers do.

~ Verbs can punctuate or falter.

Many writers learned (in contrast with “were taught”) to relish the grammatical accuracy of “I had been sobbing” in contrast with the current flood of tears. However correct, this distances the characters—and the scene they inhabit.  “I was sobbing,” produces the same effect, not to mention “I feared I would have been sobbing if my daughter had not been waiting downstairs for me.” Don’t emasculate what happens. 

~ Verbs can symbolize or confuse.

Verbs make miracles—highlighting themes, exposing subterfuge, feigning innocence, swelling tension. Often a barely visible metaphor cements this. If you strike an argumentative blow, it won’t override your adversary’s stamina. If mom illuminates an idea, her son can’t blot it out. If you dissolve a problem, its tentacles can’t rear up to haunt you. 

Tip: Select great verbs. Follow them to their logical conclusion. Then get out of their way.