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.