Sunday, October 21, 2018

Creativity and Constraint

Who likes rules? Who wants to be curtailed by limits? Or constraints. Most of us began rebelling against such things at about twenty-four months. And writers have spent years encountering commandments on everything from how often you “should” write to how often you “should” use a hook.

The smartest writers among us realize that there’s an exception to every rule. Because there definitely is. In certain instances, you absolutely need to “tell.”  Sometimes more detail is better, sometimes not. Reader expectations about point of view have changed radically and dramatically—even from what seemed acceptable a few decades back. Lots of exceptions.

Still, if you’d like to be an original and “good” writer, as opposed to being someone who writes, consider who benefits when you rebel. Yes, sometimes those exceptions are exactly what’s needed. More often, though, enormous opportunity lurks in addressing issues rather than disregarding them. When writers ignore this source of serendipity, readers pay.

Tip: The best brainstorming you’ll ever do comes from solving an apparently insoluble problem.

Consider this example.
Louella imagined popping the necklace that wasn’t pop-it beads while shrieking, “Don’t you dare comment on me or my kids ever again.”
“Easy there, girlfriend,” Hortense advised, as if reading Louella’s mind.
Is there a constraint here? You bet. The quotation marks in what Louella thinks precede identical quotation marks in what Hortense says aloud. Particularly back to back, two uses of one kind of punctuation are at best distracting, at worst, confusing.

A writer faced with this issue can choose from several options.
  1. Assume that most readers will get it, even if it stops them just for a minute.
  2. Cut the two sentences and make the point some other way.
  3. Decide that the creative response is addressing the issue rather than ignoring or deleting it.
Want to choose # 3? Here’s one alternative: 
Louella wanted to shriek, “Don’t you dare comment on me or my kids ever again.” She wanted to pop the necklace that wasn’t pop-it beads. She wanted to wreck Hortense’s sleek hairdo. She wanted to…
As if reading Louella’s mind, Hortense advised, “Easy there, girlfriend.”
More often than not, there’s an innovative way to follow the rules. So. Why not limit any rationalizing to what your characters say or think. Because the best writers follow very few rules all the time. Those same writers follow all reasonable rules a lot of time. And every writer needs to know those rules—and be able to justify precisely when and why it’s okay to break them. 

After all, as Anne Enright observes with painful candor: “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.”

Respect for constraints is among the best ways to make any writing better.

**** Laurel's new book, Beyond the First Draft, is now available from Amazon or Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing. ****

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Resonance in the Novel

What’s resonance? calls it “the quality in a sound of being deep, full, and reverberating” or “the reinforcement or prolongation of sound by reflection from a surface or by the synchronous vibration of a neighboring object.”

At least metaphorically, though, resonance isn’t limited to sound. In photography, we might consider resonance a layering (that “deep, full, and reverberating” aspect) and a connection through “a surface or by the synchronous vibration of a neighboring object.”

Obviously, undoctored photos capture only what’s there. But it’s all about the angle. Juxtaposition and reverberation reveal what isn’t immediately visible. 

This introduces the potential to see and perhaps feel something we hadn’t previously.  Fiction does its work this same way. 
To “resonate” literally means to bounce back and forth between two states or places. Resonate comes from the Latin word for “resound.” In sound, resonance is a prolonged response to something that caused things to vibrate….      Resonance in writing is something that affects us the same way. It’s an aura of significance, significance beyond the otherwise insignificant event taking place. It’s caused by a kind of psychic reverberation between two times, places, states, or spheres… — “Literary Resonance in the Art of Writing,” Lighthouse Writing Tips
Language and description are tools for layering comparison, contrast, texture, insight, and, above all, empathy—that “faculty to resonate with the feelings of others” (Matthieu Ricard). 

To illustrate, here’s a sentence without resonance: 
Her undiagnosed dementia only affects current recollections. 
The language is clinical. You encounter this character without much noticing, much less feeling, and as George R. R. Martin observes, “fiction is about emotional resonance, about making us feel things on a primal and  visceral level.” 

How does that happen? Resonance. In Dean’s novel, individual loss reflects the broader cultural one, because the primary plot merges with the subplot. Instantly comprehensible metaphor transforms an intellectual understanding into an empathetic one. Here’s the original sentence:
Whatever is eating her brain consumes only the fresher memories, the unripe moments― Debra Dean, The Madonnas of Leningrad
This no longer describes the plight of an individual. The portrait has become universal. Resonance accomplishes that via a metaphor that causes us to look differently, which is a primary purpose of fiction. Without losing focus on the protagonist, complete the picture by introducing reflection, background, or unexpected emphasis. What can you reveal to make readers stop and take notice? How can you make this feeling, this moment resonate?

Tip: Construct a fictional world that's fully dimensional rather than predictable and flat. 

**** Laurel's new book, Beyond the First Draft, is now available from Amazon or Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing. **** 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Verbless in Montreal

On a recent vacation, surrounded by French, I recovered bits of the language I’d considered lost forever. Amidst my gratified astonishment, I realized I could translate tons of nouns. Hardly any verbs. 

I pondered this. How do nouns and verbs influence perception of the world? And then, of course, how do parts of speech control the journey of readers through a novel’s world? 

People adore verbs. Stephen Fry claims that “We are not nouns, we are verbs.” Look up quotes on verbs and you’ll discover a lengthy list of nouns people transform into verbs: mother, paintings, NY, jazz, honesty, art, help, love, marriage, spirituality, and a whole lot more. 

What’s behind this? Appreciation of the dynamic, or—action.  Because most of us learned this definition back in elementary school, it seems elementary. It’s anything but.

Tip: Verbs move people and things, and who wants a static world? Give readers verbs.

~ Verbs capture.
Ramon cooed at the infanta.
~ Verbs insinuate.
The knife grazed Esmeralda’s elbow.
~ Verbs capture time.
Prudence will remember that storm forever.
~ Verbs illuminate.
“She longed for cutlasses, pistols, and brandy; she had to make do with coffee, and pencils, and verbs.”  — Philip Pullman
~ Verbs distill.
“Can one invent verbs? I want to tell you one: I sky you, so my wings extend so large to love you without measure.” — Frida Kahlo
~ Verbs expose.
Mirabelle eyed him from under her lashes. 
~ Verbs capitulate. 
You win.
As Michel Thomas put it,  “If you know how to handle the verbs, you know how to handle the language. Everything else is just vocabulary.” So if you’re struggling with a language, grasp whatever you can get. But unless you want readers struggling (or disappearing), verbs triumph. Find them. Use them.

**** Laurel's new book, Beyond the First Draft, is now available from Amazon or Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing. **** 

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Novel World: Deep rather than Broad

Novelists have numerous reasons for spreading out instead of digging down. For a start, it’s easier. More available territory lessens anxiety about lacking sufficient tension, or even lacking sufficient material. Perhaps novelists haven’t completed their homework—and everything they know about the character and plot is already on the page instead of supporting what appears there. But that world will be a shallow one—the opposite of what readers anticipate.

Instead, explore what you’ve already introduced rather than blissfully introducing more and more. And more.

Tip: Superficial plotting and characterization yield unoriginal plotting and characterization.
Originality can come only from what you bring of yourself to your story. In other words, originality is not a function of your novel; it is a quality in you.     Where so many manuscripts go wrong is that if they do not outright imitate, they at least do not go far enough in mining the author’s experience for what is distinctive and personal. So many manuscripts feel safe. They do not force me to see the world through a different lens. — Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great
In Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Maass emphasizes the need to reject the first two or four or even five twists and traits that come to mind. Why? Because they’re obvious; they stem from the surface rather than the depths. To counteract this, he offers a series of exercises geared to reveal the astonishing pleasure of the unexpected. 

Alternatively, you can increase the probability of surprise by asking yourself what is possible without being improbable. Nor is that a one-time question. Have you pushed each moment, conversation, scene, and confrontation as far as you can? On every page, do you give readers at least one apt yet refreshingly new detail or occurrence?

Too often, life feels predictable. Motives and responses, choices and obstacles seem redundant, mundane. Not only is the real world familiar, it’s unfocused. People and obligations compete for our attention. Few days offer any focal point, and most of us face not only significant concerns but inconsequential ones like will the milk make it one more day.

Such is life. In fiction, though, the last thing anyone wants is tedium or blur. After all, we read fiction to leave that behind. And fiction won’t provide escape when muddled with slow pace, tenuous tension, or panorama so sweeping that readers forget what’s at stake and for whom.
Any time story issues don’t contribute to the true challenges and conflicts of the main character, you’re directing a story’s energy and passion away from that character and her story. — The Editor’s Blog
However implicitly, this observation dispenses some friendly warnings:
  • Limit the number of characters.
  • Imply (rather than state or ignore) the focus of each scene.
  • Link subplots to issues that reflect or enhance the protagonist’s arc.
  • Let readers follow the character they’ve invested in.
Give your story resonance and focus by developing its primary ideas and characters. 

(**** Laurel's new book, Beyond the First Draft, is now available from Amazon or Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing. ****

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Self and Story

The relationship between them is ironic. Without sufficient ego to believe you have something to say, you can’t write a word. Yet value self over story, and you might be fine. But your story won’t be.

For one thing, if your ego transcends everything else, you’ll disregard legitimate feedback. And few writers succeed, either materially or artistically, without a courageous, creative response to insightful critique.

Curtailing your ego also reminds you who controls your story. Though the obvious answer is “You, of course,” it’s actually more complicated. The author (you) generates a cast of characters to dramatize the fiction and a narrator to guide readers as they follow those characters. Even in memoir, a persona, rather than an author, delivers the story.

What makes for a successful persona? Focus on the readers. In both fiction and nonfiction, guiding readers is the narrator’s purpose. But if ego drowns out everything else, the author begins upstaging the more audience-oriented narrator.

Here’s Katerina Cosgrove on that subject:
I've found, over the fifteen-plus years of being a published writer, that I suffer intensely every time if I let my ego get in the way. Even if I give it permission to stick its tiny little toe out. It always trips me up. In fact, the only way for me to write at all is to let go of any expectations entirely. Otherwise, the disapproval of others, the hot shame of not being enough, the squirmy feeling of not making the grade—or of being simply ignored by the critics, pundits and gatekeepers—is enough to make me want to give up. — “Removing Your Ego From Your Art”
Ah. Though ego might seem to be one’s best ally, that’s rarely true. In “Art and the Ego,” Emma Welsh reminds that as writers
We’re seeking our true voice, our power, our authenticity as artists. We realize—through blood, sweat and tears—that betting on the ego is not going to get us there.
She feels strongly enough about this to pose an extremely challenging question about priorities:
To find out, check out this ultimate test to measure your ego—one that even I can’t pass yet. (Truthfully it may be impossible.) Ask yourself this: if your story was one day incredibly well-loved and highly regarded, would you care whether or not your name was on the project? 
How do you feel about your answer? Maybe you dislike the question, perhaps consider it unfair. Maybe you dislike your answer even more. Fortunately, this isn’t up to any fictitious narrator(s) or characters. You control your own ego.  Maybe a little scary, but also mighty satisfying. It’s your call.x

Tip: Value story over self.

**** Laurel's new book, Beyond the First Draft, is now available from Amazon or Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing. ****

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Your Characters and Their “Old Tapes”

Not those you insert in some machine, but the ones that, waking or dreaming,  play incessantly in one’s head.

You have your own. There’s the sports one: instead of making a double play in the last inning of a tied game, you drop the ball. Or you’re an  unprepared teacher, and, one by one, the students exit a classroom with multiple doors. The list goes on: you are—or aren’t—really pregnant. They’re taking your PhD back. You’ve lost your home, job, partner, etc.

If all that’s farfetched, why would you—or your character—fear it, consciously or otherwise? According to neurosurgeon Wilder Graves Penfield, most of us at least occasionally replay tapes from childhood that remain intact—without benefit of the experience and insight that’s happened since. So this syndrome in a character feels instinctively credible. 

Further, if those tapes surpass the superficial or trite, they engage readers quickly. Here’s why:
Characters must have emotional needs, wounds and skeletons in the closet. Factors like these will cause tension and keep the reader interested until the end.     
Readers are nosy; they want to delve into a character’s private affairs. In the real world, we’re rarely able to snoop to our heart’s content. In fiction, we have a license to look around, to open up the secret drawers and hiding places. Be sure to give your readers a chance to do just that. — Jessica Page Morrell, Between the Lines
In “A Character's Fatal Flaw: The Vital Element for Bringing Characters to Life,” Coach Dara Marks analyzes why people hang on and how this drives story: eves
This unyielding commitment to old, exhausted survival systems that have outlived their usefulness, and resistance to the rejuvenating energy of new, evolving levels of existence and consciousness is what I refer to as the fatal flaw of character….     
The FATAL FLAW is a struggle within a character to maintain a survival system long after it has outlived its usefulness….     
As essential as change is to renew life, most of us resist it and cling rigidly to old survival systems because they are familiar and "seem" safer. In reality, even if an old, obsolete survival system makes us feel alone, isolated, fearful, uninspired, unappreciated, and unloved, we will reason that it's easier to cope with what we know than with what we haven’t yet experienced….     
Identifying the fatal flaw instantly clarifies for the writer what the internal journey of the character will be. This is no small thing, because once the writer is clear about what the protagonist needs in terms of internal growth it will clarify the external conflict as well.
To delve deeply into the “Old Tapes” your characters play, explore your own. What do you cling to what’s no longer useful or relevant? Then ponder what freezes your character(s) in the past. How does that compulsion manifest in bad choices, misspent energy, and unattainable goals? In other words, what’s the “Fatal Flaw,” and how does it escalate both tension and microtension?

Tip: The “Old Tapes” your characters play propel plot, evoke emotion, and transmit theme.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Poetic Language for Novelists

Some poets disdain fiction writers, who, in turn, are too often fazed by a genre that seems distinct and distant.

Tip: As in the natural world, cross-pollination is good: for every writer in every genre.

To illustrate, a poem might open like this:
Blue vases of small flowers that don’t die sadlyclaim the sun, hold it—defy the notion of death.

The novelist might say, “Pretty, but not for my readers,” or “Interesting, but not in a novel,” or “I like it, but I couldn’t write that way even if I wanted to.” Couldn’t you? Here’s a prose example:
Staring at the image, Francine looked wistful, and turning away from him, whispered,  “I really like blue vases of small flowers that don’t die sadly. Aren’t they wonderful?”     They were in for it again. Pete could tell. Realizing he had to say something, her husband mumbled, “I guess.” 
Lines that sound poetic, but blend smoothly with prose, can enhance tension by setting up a lyrical mood with rhythm and language—then undercutting it with subtextual confrontation.

Or, especially if your voice and reputation are equally strong, you might try a passage something like this:
The candleflame and the image of the candleflame caught in the pierglass twisted and righted when he entered the hall and again when he shut the door. He took off his hat and came slowly forward. The floorboards creaked under his boots. In his black suit he stood in the dark glass where the lilies leaned so palely from their waisted cutglass vase. Along the cold hallway behind him hung the portraits of forebears only dimly known to him all framed in glass and dimly lit above the narrow wainscoting. He looked down at the guttered candlestub. He pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax pooled on the oak veneer. Lastly he looked at the face so caved and drawn among the folds of funeral cloth, the yellowed moustache, the eyelids paper thin. That was not sleeping. That was not sleeping.  — Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses
Sounds like poetry, doesn’t it?  The intentional rhythm and repetition reinforce each other, further enhanced by strong, visual verbs. The way McCarthy’s protagonist observes and moves intensifies the sensation of shock, delivering the characterizer’s emotion in a way readers experience themselves And it’s the poetry in prose that creates this.

Still, this wouldn’t work for every writer in every novel. Style mustn’t overpower content. Inadvertent repetition annoys. Overblown language fatigues. Self-conscious wording—whether in poetry or prose—drains suspense, emotion, and surprise.

The trick is a happy balance between lyricism and tension, language and momentum. Is this achieved easily? Probably not. Is it worth the effort? You bet.

**** Laurel's new book, Beyond the First Draft, is now available from Amazon or Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing. ****

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Composition: Harmony and Variety

In paintings or photos, balance creates attention and beauty. No single element should overwhelm any other, while those individual components echo, contrast, and complement. Finally, monotony of form, color, or anything else, muddies. Where’s the focal point?

These precepts also pertain to the novel, though, obviously, not in terms of color or shape. The fundamentals of fiction include:

* Action: Dramatization of cinematic scenes.

* Dialogue: Two or more characters conversing.

* Narrative: Transition and context grounding action and dialogue.

* Information: Backstory, exposition, facts, or intellectual stimulation.

Tip: Good fiction varies and harmoniously balances its components.

~ No one element should overwhelm the other
Unless sufficient narrative supports the action, you’ve dumped the reader in the stream without a life preserver.      Everything in fiction serves story. So even if this is an informative moment, it mustn’t overwhelm the characters’ journey. Still, too much action resembles a few crumbs of cake slathered with a quarter-can of frosting. In fiction and everything else, too much of a good thing remains—too much.
~ Individual components echo, contrast, and complement.
Fiction immerses readers when the whole’s more than the sum of its parts. The narrative adds irony or clarity to the dialogue. If the stage business simply repeats, such as “‘Get Out!’ Marge shrieked angrily,” you’ve neither contrasted nor complemented.     But, for example, if setting affects the action, or intensifies the dialogue, one element enhances another.      Contrast matters, too. When suspense is high, tease readers with an information break. Conversely, if you’ve just explained at length, appeal with humor, lyricism, or tension.
~ Monotony of form, color, or anything else, muddies.
Some writers treat dialogue like a faucet that stays off or on. Characters don’t say a thing for pages, but then talking floods everything else. A mess in either a novel or a painting.
Whether with fiction, photos, or paintings, audience satisfaction springs from balanced elements that each contribute without any one overpowering.

**** Laurel's new book, Beyond the First Draft, is now available from Amazon or Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing. 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Ambiguity versus Blur

The distinction  between them is largely in the mind of the reader. Still, one might call it teasing, pleasing uncertainty versus irritating, dispiriting confusion. Gregory Ciotti (“How to Write with Substance”) offers a useful way to view this: “Write to express, not to impress.”

He goes on to suggest that you 
Brainstorm horizontally, revise vertically.     What makes for a boring novel is the same as what makes for boring non-fiction: the story grows horizontally instead of vertically.      Writing that is “too wide” tries to explain everything but ends up saying nothing. 
In other words, it’s okay (though not necessarily optimal) to play with every possibility as you begin. But once you start to consider reader needs, which is what revision’s really about, then it’s time first to narrow and cut, then to develop not with glaring clarity, but enough of it so readers can feel intrigued rather than lost.

Lack of context loses readers faster than anything else. To the novelist, it’s always obvious how the story moved from one room to another, from one mind to another, or from one issue, connection, or symbol to another. But how obvious are those to anyone else? 

The potentially worst sources of blur include:

* Failing with setting.

  This is a fertile breeding ground for cliche and vagueness. Be swift and original.

* Introducing a new character.

  Pay special attention to characters who echo others in terms of roles, names, traits,
  or obstacles.

* Jolting readers by abruptly altering time, place, physicality, symbolism.

   Provide clear but subtle transitions.

Great novels are rarely immediately accessible. Establish essential guideposts. Then seek subtext.
~  Subtext is the unspoken but revealed feelings and history and dreams of your characters.
~  Subtext is strong because it reveals truth—true emotions and true thoughts and unfeigned motivations.
 Subtext that runs through a story brings depth and dimension. It ramps up tension and conflict. It’s much deeper, more fundamental to a character’s traits or personality than is surface revelation. Because what underlies the text is not explicitly stated, the reader might have to look harder, listen closer.  ~ Beth Hill,  “Subtext—Revelation of the Hidden”
Tip: The optimal level of clarity is less obvious than it seems. Pun intended.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Spring and the Novelist

Spring. Lots of possibilities there. The season of hope and rejuvenation. To grow leap, originate, open, force.  A renewal, an opening, a flexibility. And those are only the basics. Might a fiction writer put any of this to use?

~ Renewal.
I can shake off everything if I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn. But, and that is the greatest question, will I ever be able to write anything great… — Anne Frank
Why not use the awakening of the landscape to wake your passion for your own novel?

~ Serendipity
No tears in the writerNo tears in the reader.No surprise for the writer,No surprise for the reader. — Robert Frost
Why not use the startling nature of spring to discover something new about your scenario, protagonist, opening, ending, or even your own writing process?

~ Leap.

Characters only grow by sprinting out of lethargy and into the fray.

Why not try cornering them even more than usual?

~ Launch.

Without urgency, fiction falters. Readers seek propulsion, over and over: the start and end of each scene, the first chapter, the midpoint, and so on.
At your recent talk titled “Urgency and Momentum” you introduced a new theoretical framework you’ve been exploring, that you called “request moments.” You spoke about how much of the time, most if not all of us are doing not what we want to do but what other people ask of us either directly or indirectly. Your point was to arrive at a type of necessity, that creates, as you put it, “forces in narrative that make characters do what they do.” Many stories with real urgency and momentum grow out of a simple request; someone says to someone else, “There's something I want you to do.”  — Susan Tacent Interview with Charles Baxter 
Why not seek techniques that entice your readers?

Of course like other people, many novelists find spring addictive. Time to be outside—to row, or hike, or garden. But no matter how seductive that call, don’t let it overpower your muse.
Be ruthless about protecting writing days…  — J. K. Rowling
Tip: Spring isn’t just a season or a verb. It’s a process.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Plan to Keep the Plot Pot Boiling

If only you could add the right ingredients and without watching the flame, maintain a roiling, steam-producing rhythm without the flame rising too high or sinking too low. But more cooks can smoothly simmer spaghetti than writers can instinctively reach The End with optimal heat.

Fortunately, there’s a straightforward (though not necessarily painless) method every writer can use. And it’s easier than boiling an egg.

The answer is an outline, but a unique one. Novelists frequently associate outlining with the first draft, since a plans promotes credibility and causality from the start. Besides, if you get stuck, as often afflicts the novel’s middle, at least you know where you thought you were headed.

Useful as such can outline is, it won’t help you assess tension. Here’s something that will:

For each scene, complete first I then II. Because you want to focus on conflict,  it’s crucial to start with the obstacle, desire, force, or change driving the scene. Hint: verbs best express that.

I. Write one brief, non-detailed, super-short sentence that captures what the scene’s point of view character wants—or doesn’t. Here are a few examples:

     Abe covets Beth’s reassurance that their marriage remains sound.


     Carol fears humiliation if Don dismisses her flirtation as ridiculous. 


     Ed agonizes over Dr Fred sharing only part of the medical truth.

* Part I reflects tension and suspense. Passion, sexual or otherwise, is always involved. 

2. A brief contextual statement of where the characters are and what happens. Such as:

    Beth arrives late at the restaurant she reluctantly agreed to and leaves Abe there alone.


    Don ignores Carol rubbing herself against him during a study session at the college library.


    Dr Fred admits that Ed is ill but refuses details even when Ed insists.

* Part II is context. It’s where the characters are and what happens to them.

Like most things, this technique gets faster and easier with practice. Stick with it, though, and you’ll have a way to evaluate whether each scene possesses the oomph to be a scene. More important, you’ll not only know what happens, but what matters. Readers choose fiction for the emotion it evokes, and that comes from—high stakes.

Tip: Whichever method you choose, assess the tension in every scene of your novel.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Plot Pot

Writers and writing coaches can argue passionately about whether story springs from plot or characters. The divide has become particularly pronounced since the appearance of “literary” fiction, a genre which implies it might be okay to write a novel where a gorgeous voice and memorable characters compensate for lots of stasis. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some novels offer escalating danger, but it befalls characters whom readers can’t relate to and don’t care about. 

Isn’t it the mesh of character and plot that propels story? After all, adversity is the best way to meet characters—to test their mettle. 

As K.M. Weiland puts it in “Plot vs. Character: Which Is More Important?”:

Fiction is about balance—in so many ways—and certainly nowhere more so than in the matter of plot vs. character. Good writing should not be about pitting plot against character, but rather about finding the harmony between them. 

The indivisible integration of plot + character has always built narrative. And isn’t that still, despite numerous experiments, what the novel is for? After all,

In our modern age, there are writers who have heaped scorn on the very idea of the primacy of story. I'd rather warm my hands on a sunlit ice floe than try to coax fire from the books they carve from glaciers. ― Pat Conroy, My Reading Life

Tip: Story comes from what happens to characters readers are invested in.

You probably agree. But what if, like many novelists, you’re either fantastic at tension-rich events or fantastic at characters sufficiently full-fleshed to cast shadows. Perhaps you worry that you'’ll never be equally skilled at both. 

The remedy? Quit viewing character and plot as separate entities. Happily, this works whether you’re starting a first draft, halfway through it, or at any point in the revision process. 

Perhaps the best way to visualize characters in context is some version of a Scene Goal Outline. So what’s a Scene Goal, anyway? An “Intense, explicit character desire that impels choice and action” (Laurel Yourke, Beyond the First Draft).

For each scene, distill the goal down into as few words as possible. How else can you assess whether you’re revealing characters and propelling the story forward causally rather than causally?

Watch your verbs. Contrast “was worried about the next hour” versus “terrified about the phone ringing.” The latter verb reflects character emotion and thus causes action. Since scenes are about tension, a Scene Goal always involves forcing characters to act rather than think or react.

How many Scene Goals do you need? Ideally, one for each scene. Keep those goals super-short and harness verbs to reveal character feelings, since that’s what connects readers to story.

Use the Scene Goal Outline to make the plot and dramatic personae intertwine inseparably. Because, as Heraclitus put it, “Character is fate.”

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Writing: Solitude and Sociability

Thanks to Wyatt-Mackenzie publishing and Purcell Agency. Equally important, here’s a thank you note to every writer I’ve worked with, whether online, over a weekend, during a retreat, or in a university department or critique group. Maybe you and I barely remember each other, but still I thank you. Because however much I taught you, you taught me much more. Each of you contributed to realizing the dream of composing, then publishing Beyond the Fist Draft: Deep Novel Revision.

Around the time I published my first book—Take Your Characters to Dinner—my colleague, Marshall Cook joked that “It takes a village to publish a book.” He was kidding, as he often did. But at the time neither of us realized how many sources of wisdom and inspiration contribute to the completion of any book.

That may seem counter-intuitive, because writing is customarily associated with seclusion. And it’s certainly true that when you’re at the notebook or keyboard, there’s only you and the space you hope to fill. Numerous complaints about this syndrome exist. Here’s Ernest Hemingway:
Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer's loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates. For he does his work alone and if he is a good enough writer he must face eternity, or the lack of it, each day.
Isaac Asimov agrees
Writing is a lonely job. Even if a writer socializes regularly, when he gets down to the real business of his life, it is he and his type writer or word processor. No one else is or can be involved in the matter.
Rachel Carson concludes that solitude is a phenomenon writers must embrace:
A writer’s occupation is one of the loneliest in the world, even if the loneliness is only an inner solitude and isolation, for that he must have at times if he is to be truly creative. And so I believe only the person who knows and is not afraid of loneliness should aspire to be a writer.
So it’s not whether writing is lonely, but whether you can mitigate that. Of course you can. 

Everyone agrees that writers must market. At a recent conference, Laurie Buchanan said to me, “Getting people to know about your book is a way of honoring it.” So whether you’re published or hope to be, make connections. Meet not only authors, but also agents, publishers, booksellers, bloggers, readers, and fans. 

Networking isn’t just for marketing; it’s for inspiration. Get yourself a writing partner. Join a critique group. Attend conferences, weekenders, and retreats. The support you’ll find there helps you write the best book you can.

My own antidote to loneliness is the blessed experience of working with writers in numerous venues. What could do a writer greater good than nourishing an addiction to books on writing, pondering the questions writers pose, and providing on the spot illustrations of technique. What better way to study the craft? What better way to become a better novelist? So thank you!

Tip: Keep the good company of writers so your own writing dreams can come true.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Revision: Rigor and Riches

Hard. Boring. Exhilarating. Scary. Inspiring. Painful. Transformative. Mention the word “revision,”and each novelist will respond differently. With one exception: writers either love revision or loathe it.

There’s plenty of reasons, many legitimate, why you might dislike the process. Writers don’t always know where to start or how to fix what they find.  When novelists accept the questionable advice to just spew out first draft, the result can be pretty awful. And then the fun’s over. Now it’s time to concentrate, to work. 

Besides, cutting can be painful. The expression, “Murder your darlings,” which has a long, complex history via such greats as F. Scoot Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, sums up the way writers often feel. It takes energy and effort to get the words down. What do you mean I have to discard them?

And yet, you do. Here’s why:

In my experience, cutting back is the crucial act that allows the vitality, precision and emotional heart of a piece of writing to emerge. ― Pamela Erens

So, usually, the first act of revision is eliminating everything you can willingly discard, and then a bit more. After all, if the great moments and sentences are buried, how can you know what to keep?

How to start cutting:

  • Repetition of words, details, and information readers already know
  • “Telling” and then “showing” or “showing” and then “telling”
  • Excessive or familiar description
  • Long set-ups before you reach “the good part”

The great news? Once you pare down, you can see how to proceed. These questions might help you get started:

~ Is the scenario original and substantial?
~ Do the characters seem both consistent and alive?
~ Is enough at stake?
~ Do chapters and scenes begin and end with hooks?
~ Do you capitalize on your novel’s point of view?

After addressing the fundamentals, you can smooth sentences and perfect word choice.

Is this hard work? Absolutely. Is it worth it? As Stephen King put it in a Writer's Digest interview

The writer must have a good imagination to begin with, but the imagination has to be muscular, which means it must be exercised in a disciplined way, day in and day out, by writing, failing, succeeding and revising

There you go. First rigor, then riches—at least in terms of craft, if not royalties.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Physics of Emotion

Physics explores the essence and behavior of matter and energy.  In terms of fiction, this parallels the distinction between how characters feel and what they do or say. The difference is crucial, because when you say that Nancy is “angry,” or worse, “incredibly angry,” you’re not saying much. You’re simply “telling.” To “show,” readers need to participate in what you want to convey. For that, you need subtext or physicality, whether literal or symbolic. 

Instead of abstractions like “rage” or “frustration,” let readers hear how a character via what she doesn’t say. For example, “I see. That’s all you have to say about it.” The two sentences subtly capture an entire history.

Alternatively, reveal Nancy’s fisted hands, fiery scowl, squinted eyes, or her tone—that whisper thinly veils the urge to shriek. 

Tip: Make emotion tangible.

In “Showing–and Telling—Emotion in Fiction,” Dave King observes that “All good writing starts with good watching,” and, yes, that’s a terrific place to begin. 

Waiting in line, passing time in the airport, or nibbling in a restaurant, subtly, of course, check out body language. Can you guess how people are feeling even if you can’t hear what they’re saying? And if you can, why? What did you observe?

For further revelation, consider the work of Auguste Rodin. According to Nicole Myers, associate curator of European Painting and Sculpture, 

Rodin’s capacity to capture the human spirit in all its nuances was unrivaled. He was one of the first artists to consider fragments and partial figures to be complete works of art capable of expressing even the most complex thoughts and emotions. 

Even without knowing the titles of these two works from the current Rodin exhibit at the Art Institute in Chicago, we can guess which emotions the artist wanted to convey. 

But how does that work in fiction? Actually, with remarkable similarity. Discard the notion that anything intangible, straightforward, and intellectual can capture feeling. In Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides describes this phenomenon:

Emotions, in my experience, aren’t covered by single words. I don’t believe in ‘sadness,’ ‘joy, or ‘regret.’ Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I'd like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one’s fantasy.’

When we’re feeling emotions rather than writing about them, the event happens in a body. It needn’t even be a human one. There’s no question about whether cats are bored or irritated or dogs grateful. No words needed.

Words, of course, are the writer’s only tool. But some words don’t do what they’re supposed to. A lot of fiction is summary, often quite abstract. Emotions, though, are born in the realm of sensation. So if you want readers to feel them, you can’t describe. You must make feelings live.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Compress it! Pace It!

For the fiction writer, repetition is a trap, and a tough one to avoid. Later events must be set up, new characters need to know what readers already do; and sometimes it takes a few mishaps—possibly in the same setting—to get the protagonist properly cornered. Writers often hope that so long as something’s slightly different, such as the same anger for the same reason but more intently, readers will find it new. Sadly, that’s rarely the case.

Nor will scene versus what’s known as summary/sequel/narrative entirely solve the redundancy problem. Summary can magnificently foreshadow or dispense information. But the high stakes that fiction needs frequently originate in scene rather than summary. Or between them.

Tip: Exploit the underused territory between scene and summary.

The mixture of narrative and scene creates the illusion of “live” fictional time, just at a faster pace. 

Because she hadn’t contacted him since returning to New York, Ed reared back when Anna tried to hug him.

That’s a really brief, somewhat oversimplified example of the landscape between a full-blown scene and an entirely collapsed summary. Yet the sentence illustrates a swift summary (the dependent opening clause) preceding the start of a scene (the independent final clause).

Combine scene with summary, and you can accelerate the pace, or speed at which events pass readers. Instead of revisiting what readers have already seen (she hasn’t contacted him since returning to New York), modify something. Did Anna start to call Ed? Did Anna run into her former fiancé? Did Ed’s voice mail quit functioning? Change helps pursue not only the original source of tension and perhaps something else entirely.

That’s because novelty is not only what readers want but what novelists need. Bypass the parallel or similar by shaking things up.  That’s a boundless source of tension, emotion, and originality, not to mention the potential for symbolism, suspense, and complex characterization.

What kinds of questions shake things up so that nothing ever feels exactly the same?

  • If the location feels identical, how has the place changed?
  • Could an email or phone call let you summarize part of a scene?
  • If the character’s emotion is similar, how can you add a contrary nuance or dimension?
  • Depending on your novel’s point of view, can you revisit a moment from another perspective?
  • Can the scene end very differently this time? 
  • Can you add a “ticking clock”?
  • Can you develop rather than merely repeat any symbolism?
  • What’s the effect of a similar place at a very different time?

These questions suggest ways to manage momentum. And in “5 Ways to Pace Your Story,” K.M. Weiland observes that

Pacing is like a dam. It allows the writer to control just how fast or how slow his plot flows through the riverbed of his story. 

Pace originates not just from syntax and rhythm, but also scene and summary. Explore the fertile territory between those last two.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Scene: The Big Picture

In a way, every scene resembles a bouquet. Individual elements compose both. The end result must offer a coherent whole with a clear yet unobtrusive focal point. When the elements complement each other, the totality becomes far more effective than a single contribution. It’s the difference between this:

and this:

No one would mistake a couple of flowers for a bouquet. With scenes, though, it’s less clear. Precisely what constitutes a scene?
A scene is a sequence of events that happens at a particular place and time and that moves the story forward. — Randy Ingermanson, “The Art and science of Writing Scenes”
Another slant on the scene comes from Jane Friedman:
A scene is a stylized, sharper simulacrum of reality.
Ideally, the scene integrates everything from both definitions. So a scene needs:

~ Tension.

Unless there’s substantial suspense, summarize instead.

~ Momentum.

The scene must contribute to character arc, or, again, wouldn’t summary be better?

~ Setting.

Although locale mustn’t dominate, characters need grounding. Always.

~ Artistry.

Along with drama, scenes need causality, propulsion, originality, and grace.

~ Credibility.

Only plausible characters and events evoke reader emotion. 

~ Focus.

Regardless of style or voice, tension is the crux of every scene.

Yet novelists conceptualize scenes differently. Drawn to setting or symbolism? You might disregard tension. Maybe you’re an action sort of gal. Will your characters be disembodied? Will you emphasize what they do and ignore why they do it?

Scenes work when novelists disregard personal predilection to provide the whole picture. Who wants a lopsided bouquet? 

Tip: Readers enjoy scenes that balance their elements—that complete the picture.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Your Voice, Please

The issue most novelists face isn’t a career like tinker, tailor, sailor, or spy, but, more likely, the residual from being or having been doctor, lawyer, or teacher. What might those last three share in common? A style slanted toward instruction coupled with “the curse of knowledge.”

First about that style. At least somewhat academic and professorial, there’s a plethora of multi-syllabic verbiage, as opposed to “lots of big words.”  The lofty tone is often characterized by passive voice, rather than “passive voice occurs frequently.” Contractions, unfortunately, are usually avoided. Sentences are long and complex but not necessarily rhythmic.

Determined to foster the meticulous understanding that previous professions demanded, novelists sometimes “tell” and then “show,” or “show” and then “tell”—just to make sure. Finally, educators and professionals often applaud this structure: Here’s what I’ll say, now I’ll speak my piece in detail, and, oh, since you perhaps missed it (possibly because you spaced out due to the endless repetition), I’ll just go over it one last time. 

First of all, novels need storytelling, suspense, and secrets. Edifying isn’t part of the recipe. In fact, what E.B. White said about poetry applies equally well to the novel: 

A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer... He unzips the veil from beauty, but does not remove it. A poet utterly clear is a trifle glaring.

And yet, ironically, the novelist obsessed with being clear at any cost might misstep anyway. Sadly, “the curse of knowledge” often interferes. As Steven Pinker explains,

I think the curse of knowledge is the chief contributor to opaque writing…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.

Although Pinker’s emphasis here is nonfiction, the task of guiding readers through a fictional world can present an even greater challenge. After all, to compose a scene, novelists must know tons about setting, background, arc, motive, stage business, and conflict. No scene will be successful unless writers collect far more than will ever make it into the book. 

But here’s the problem. The prepping that helps a novelist create a better page increases the difficulty of assessing what readers don’t know or can’t follow.

So what’s the solution? You can’t undo the fact that you used to win cases or still consult or occasionally volunteer to teach here and there. You can remember that a novel isn’t a brief, a lecture, a lesson plan, or a diagnosis. So.

~ Walk in your reader’s shoes as often as you can.

~ Informalize your voice. 

~ Build bridges.

~ Provide grounding.

Tip: Great storytellers neither teach nor preach.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Arithmetic of Fiction

Few novelists ponder the addition and subtraction of storytelling. But writers can gain a lot from doing so.

Tip: A novelist’s single best editing tool is a metaphorical scissors.

As Louise Brooks puts it, "Writing is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent elimination."

Anton Chekhov agrees: "Brevity is the sister of talent."

Dozens of writers have commented on economy, so this blog could offer endless examples. Since that seems painfully ironic, on to the next topic.

Tip: A novelist’s second best editing tool is adding metaphorical bridges when needed.

Those bridges are called transitions.

Transitions are words or phrases that carry the reader from one idea to the next. They help a reader see the connection or relationship between ideas and, just as important, transitions also prevent sudden, jarring mental leaps between sentences and paragraphs.  — Leah McClellan, “Why transitions are important in writing”
Novelists want readers to savor the story without the unpleasant reminder that they’re reading one. So not just any transition will do.
transitions move the story forward cleanly and seamlessly. Done skillfully, your reader will hardly notice the breaks. — “All Write Fiction Advice”
Few of us build those bridges instinctively. How to accomplish that? First, identify the connection that never got onto the paper. Second, integrate that transition into the narrative.

Tip: Excess disguises what matters, not only for the reader, but also for the novelist.

In an odd psychological quirk, novelists often assume that the fictional journey needs whatever they wrote. Why else would they record it? This takes a lot for granted. Details might repeat, wander off topic, waste words, or explain the obvious. In a cluttered passage, how would you know? Inefficiency masks significance.

If clutter buries, you won’t notice the leap you require readers to take between one scene or moment or paragraph or sentence and the next. Cut superfluous dialogue or description, and the landscape of your fictional world becomes visible. Now you’re ready to build bridges.

Subtract enough, and it all adds up.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Pattern and Surprise in Fiction

The relationship between convention and deviation, expectation and revelation drives fiction. That’s exhibited in the pattern of story that’s remained stable for centuries: conflict…development…resolution. Obviously, though, tweak the specifics and that pattern feels different every time. 

Dozens of other patterns also underlie fiction: the structure of the paragraph, the alternation between scene and narrative, the major character arcs, and the moods, moments, or memories that echo each other. 

All those components of fiction involve reader expectations, whether fulfilling them or adding tension and suspense by credibly failing to fulfill them. 

Lisa Cron’s superb blog—“A Reader’s Manifesto: 12 Hardwired Expectations Every Reader Has” (October 9, 2014)—identifies the most crucial reader expectations. What could be more important than how writers handle focus, empathy, pace, and plot? 

Yet, in every instance, the presentation of setting or symbol affects reader response to those critical aspects of fiction that Cron lists.

Tip: Revisit without merely repeating. This satisfies the desire for recurrence plus change.

So if you return readers to a completely parallel or symmetrical exchange, issue, or location, you’ll defeat reader expectations every time. If Taffy again confers with her mom about her husband’s unemployment, something must differ. Maybe Mom thinks it’s time to leave him, or hire him in dad’s factory, or have Taffy work there herself. 

Otherwise, the story feels static. And Jessica Page Morrell is exactly right that every scene captures a progression toward fulfillment of arc. How can that happen if the characters simply repeat what they said before with the same objects in the same place?

Nor can even a conversation with higher stakes occur in an unaltered location. Maybe Ernesto proposes to Tamilla--his gorgeous, ambivalent girlfriend—in a rowboat drifting on moonlit Lake Emerald. However magnificent Lake Emerald, readers will balk at returning there if everything looks identical. Instead, maybe thick storm clouds now hide the moon. Is this boat too old and creaky to be safe? Disgusted with Tamilla’s affairs, perhaps Ernesto’s ready to drown her? Or maybe she’s the one who wants to send a body somewhere the police won’t easily find it.

The need for modification also applies to symbolism. If Gram gave Ernestine an exquisite hand-woven shawl, don’t simply over and over mention the shawl—or the chandelier or the tennis racket. Instead, use symbolic objects to represent how the plot thickens. Does the wood stove scorch the shawl? Must the impoverished family sell their chandelier? Despite the racket that belonged to Albert's renown uncle, does the boy still lose the state championship? 

Things don’t stay the same, though in life, it might feel as if they do. Fiction readers seek the credibility and pleasure of experiencing both the pressure of time and the possibility of growth and catharsis. Meeting those apparently conflicting expectations of familiarity and evolution may not be as difficult as it seems. As Susan Dennard reminds, 

You’re a reader too, so when you go back and read your story from start to finish, you’ll be able to sense if you’re meeting expectations or not.

And variation is a terrific tool for accomplishing that.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Micro-tension: What Is It and Why You Care

Many novelists know about the need for “tension on every page.” How do you get that? Micro-tension, as Donald Maass explains in The Fire in Fiction:

Keeping readers constantly in your grip comes from the steady application of something else altogether: Micro-tension. That is the tension that constantly keeps your reader wondering what will happen—not in the story, but in the next few seconds. 

The April 19, 2009 “wordswimmer” blog adds

the term alone–-micro-tension–-implies a larger tension in a story, say, macro-tension, which in turn suggests two levels operating within the story simultaneously.

So the novelist is juggling, but juggling more than pure action. 

In a December 13, 2012 interview with Michael A. Ventrella, Maass elaborated on micro-tension:

Tension is not about action, explosions and shouting. It’s about generating unease in the mind of the reader. There are many ways to do that, many of them subtle. Even language itself can do it. When tension exists in the mind of the reader there’s only one way to relieve it: Read the next thing on the page. Do that constantly, on every page, and readers will read every word—you have a “page turner,” no matter what your style, intent or type of story.

Clear now? But of course you need to not only to understand the concept but apply it. Here are some strategies for accomplishing that.

~ Crisp details.

Less is more. Give readers lots of information, particularly at moments of high suspense, and you elicit thinking when feeling is the goal. Watch where you position your exposition.

~ Hard-working dialogue.

If characters talk the way people do, you get the same lack of tension that often fills daily life. Also, as Sol Stein puts in Stein on Stein, give your characters “different scripts.”

~ Time crunch.

The ticking clock keeps readers as worried as characters. What if it’s too late?

~ Internal dilemma

Little is more suspenseful than a cornered character unable to choose between two impossible options. Torment your characters. Readers will love you for it.

TIP: Novels need both broad overall tension and incessant, immediate edginess.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Time It

Who wants to snap the photo after the sun’s risen or the gull flown? Whether photography or proposal, wrestling or writing, it’s all about finding the moment.

At its best, fiction gives both writer and reader the astonishing power to control time. Boring moments whizz by while anticipation becomes thrill instead of anxiety. 

But like everything else about storytelling, time management requires a deft hand. Here’s why:

A work of literature can be thought of as involving four different and potentially quite separate time frames: author time (when the work was originally written or published); narrator time (when the narrator in a work of fiction supposedly narrates the story); plot time (when the action depicted actually takes place); and reader or audience time (when a reader reads the work or sees it performed). — Beth Hill, “Marking Time with the Viewpoint Character”

Of these categories, audience perception matters most. So if you want readers to grasp significance, proceed as if 

Length is weight in fiction, pretty much. —Joan Silber, The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes

~ Don’t linger over detail that contributes only to this moment rather than the big picture. 

Ideally, that big picture divides the characters’ journey between time collapsed into summary or savored within scenes.

Time perception refers to the subjective experience of the passage of time, or the perceived duration of events, which can differ significantly between different individuals and/or in different circumstances. Although physical time appears to be more or less objective, psychological time is subjective and potentially malleable. — “Exactly What Is Time” Blog

~ Manage pace by speeding or slowing to maximize suspense and emotion.

How long events last matters as much as how quickly the plot proceeds.

~ Always start the scene at the last possible moment.

The best scenes and chapters begin when something’s at stake—immediately at stake.

And control of fictional time also involves when scenes end. Too soon, and readers might feel bewildered or disappointed. But too late, and neither writer nor reader has the oomph for what’s next.

~ End every scene except the final one with the next obstacle the protagonist faces.

Tip: In fiction, time should offer the opportunities that reality lacks.