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.