Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Secrets of Fiction 1 – Spoiler alert!

Who doesn’t love a good secret? When a friend shares one, it’s an intimate expression of trust. Secrets can provide advantages that lead to power and wealth (think insider trading). When science unlocks nature’s secrets it can reshape our view of reality and upset the social order (think Copernicus). And, of course, a secret revealed can shatter relationships (not so fun) or lead to healing.
It’s no wonder fiction writers love secrets. They turn plot points, build anticipation, and twist endings.  O. Henry’s finales amuse. James Joyce’s epiphanies enlighten. The secret baby trope in romances throws relationships into chaos, and the reveal at the end of a mystery puts a murderer in jail and explains all.
For writers, secrets can be spice or the main meal. They are both powerful and dangerous because, as with sensitive information disclosed by a friend, trust is everything. Handling secrets, hints, clues, telltales, explanations, and revelations well can make the difference between readers who are enthralled and readers who are disappointed.
The first thing to know about secrets is two varieties exist in fiction. There are secrets kept from the readers (story secrets) and secrets kept from the characters (ironic secrets). Generally, the reader doesn’t know who-done-it in murder mystery until the final scene when the detective adds the last piece of the puzzle (though we love to guess along the way). By contrast, in a romantic comedy, the reader generally knows the secret of one of the lovers early on, and the other lover (along with other key characters) is left in the dark. Hitchcock loved irony. Almost all his films had danger looming in the background, creating suspense. He called this his bomb theory
I’ll discuss irony next time. This post will focus on story secrets.
The reason we have spoiler alerts is because much of the fun of story secrets comes from the surprise. We are sense-making beings, and nature rewards our efforts with a thrill (probably endorphin-based) when we put the puzzle together.
Clues Readers can only solve the puzzle, or properly appreciate its solution, if the storyteller provides clues. Now, obviously, the job isn’t done if a list of clues is provided at the beginning of the story. Clues must be sprinkled throughout the story in a way that seems natural and supports the pacing of the story.  Before any revelation, all the clues for that disclosure must be available to the reader. And the visibility of the clue must be appropriate to the story and the genre. In a challenging mystery, clues usually need to be carefully hidden. In a comedy, they may be obvious to everyone but the fool at the center of the action.
Sometimes the clues come from the behavior of characters. This can be a subtle thing, but the key to doing it successfully is to make the behavior consistent with the character’s knowledge, motivation, stakes, and personality. This may mean the character acts “out of character,” appropriately raising red flags. Often characters will seem to overreact when someone comes too close to a secret. But, by the end of the story, the actions and reactions of the characters must be justified by the facts, as known, at any given time. (Getting this right often requires subtle rewriting. It is rare that a first draft achieves the right balance.)
Revelations A revelation can be any piece of accepted information. It can be a fact that creates a turning point, redirecting action. It can be a key element of a resolution. It can be the resolution itself. Revelations expose character, shift power, point to solutions, explain, and can flip an ending (think of poor Oedipus).
An effective revelation is exquisitely sensitive to the timing. Too soon, and the impact is muted. Too late and the reader feels cheated (or has already ceased to care). Most writers make the first mistake (especially in early drafts). They are eager to share the information ahead of time, often as soon as they discover it. Withholding is good. Moving the revelation as late as possible in the story usually creates more tension. One more thing is essential: the revelation must be clear. This should be obvious, but sometimes, having lived with the story, the writer doesn’t know more explanation is needed. And sometimes the writer is too busy being clever and mysterious.
Resolution There is no more effective way to anger readers than in messing up the disclosure of a secret at the end of a story. The secret must be fair. It must make sense within the story world and fit the clues. It must be material. If it doesn’t matter much, you’ve created a shaggy dog story. It must be surprising. If readers have figured it out and are sure of what’s coming, it will be a disappointment.
For extra points, make the resolution evoke strong emotions. And, if you aspire to greatness, go the James Joyce route and make it meaningful.
Upcoming courses
Endings That Buzz - Answering the story question with clarity, emotion, and power (Feb. 3-16) Online
Endings are your last chance to make a good impression. A great ending can close the sale with an editor, satisfy a reader, and get people talking. Learn the four essentials of a strong ending. Find out how to reach "The End" and what to do if you paint yourself into a corner. Test your finale and discover how to finish your story in a way that will resonate with readers.
How to Write Fast  (Mar. 3-28)  Online
Crank up the efficiency and get that novel, short story, article or script DONE. Through exercises, evaluations, tips and technologies, you can learn to write faster. Discover how to break through blocks, get ideas, develop plots, draft and polish in less time without losing quality.
Write Flash Fiction (Mar. 11-25) Face-to-face
Flash fiction is hot, with over 300 paying markets looking for well-formed stories of 1000 words or less. Learn how to write, market and sell these tiny tales.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Endings That Suck - How to drive away readers

Hi, all
I'm blogging about endings over at the Savvy Authors site today. I provide a look at how things can go wrong. Understanding these potential problems is a good step toward creating wonderful endings.

I'll be teaching a course on Endings That Buzz at Savvy Feb 3-16.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Writer’s Guide to Procrastination

Procrastination keeps coming up in the How To Write Fast course I’m teaching, so I thought I’d take it on here. Writers are creative folks, but I’m not sure they’ve exhausted the possible excuses for avoiding their works in progress. I take it as an obligation to provide some help.
Dodging writing before you start
  • Prioritization – Put writing at the top of your to-do list, but make it the last thing you take on in the day. If you do this, you might be so tired that it’s impossible to write.
  • Distractions – The path between you and your notebook, laptop, or journal is strewn with TV shows to watch, phone calls and chats, and especially social media. Don’t pass of any of these. They have the great virtue of making time pass without your noticing.
  • Saying yes – Clever people always have tasks to hand out. That gives them more time to do the things they love. All you have to do is approach them, and you’ll be asked to pitch in. This combines the virtues of giving you a good excuse not to write and generosity.
  • Research – You can always find out more about your subject, and maybe you’ll get the chance to see some great cat videos along the way (see Distractions, above).
  • Rumination – Let’s face it, the story will be so much if you take more time thinking it over. Rumination works best when you are watching cat videos. Yay!
  • Too big a job – You are absolutely prepared to put your time in, but today’s work on your manuscript needs a big block of time. Better put it off until you have enough consecutive hours to do it justice.

Dodging writing when your fingers are poised over the keyboard
  • Adjusting the chair – Or cleaning your computer display. Or straightening up your desk. Or optimizing the lighting. Or changing the thermostat. Something in your environment is out of whack and needs fixing, that’s for sure.
  • I’m hungry – Thirsty. In need of caffeine. Feeling a headache coming on. Worn out (see Prioritization above). Time to get up and get a snack, drink of water, cup of coffee, aspirin or nap. Naps are really good. Time really passes.
  • Bored! – I hate rewriting, proofing, composing, whatever anyway. Maybe another manuscript offers more fun (see Distractions, above).
  • Not ready – I need to fix the last chapter before I move on. I don’t have this thought out (see Rumination above).
  • Need to know more -- I need to do some research first (see Research, above).
  • I need to check on something important – The kids. Email. Dinner. Stock prices. Sports scores. Weather.

There. I'm happy to provide this list as a public service. No need to thank me (unless it’s a good distraction for you). If I’ve left anything out, please let me know. I’m sure you can burn some time thinking of new ways to procrastinate.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Four Tips to Help You Get More Out of Feedback

I got dumped on. Another writer read the entirety of a manuscript of mine and came to the conclusion the the protagonists was completely unlikable, the antagonist was made of cardboard, the plot had no logic, the dialogue was on the nose, and she didn't like it very much.

Oh, but some of the descriptions she'd found confusing earlier were clear now. Have a nice day.

So far, this is the ONLY reading of this full manuscript so, even though I've gotten lots of praise for portions of it by many other people, I was knocked off the rails. I actually stepped away from the work, and I have applied my efforts to another project.

Now my critic in this case didn't like the portions she'd read before, but, even though I have made my living writing for decades, I let it get to me. In part. It did not stop me from writing, and I will get back to the manuscript in question no later than February 15. I know this because it is written on my calendar.

So my first tip is be prepared for disaster. In this case, I had a fallback plan of another manuscript and a specific date to resume work. Critiques can do more harm than good. I've seen people both give up writing and avoid all feedback as the result of a scathing review, comment, or contest score. Mostly, this feedback was unjust. And even when every criticism is justified, that feedback says nothing about the writer or other works. Marvelous writers create clunkers all the time. So what.

My second tip is show gratitude. I will thank the woman who reamed me out. After all, she took the time to read my whole manuscript. Judging from her reaction, those hours were torture. She deserves my thanks. Selfishly, however, it requires me (a calmer, more prepared me) to look over her comments again and see if I can discover something specific that is of value.

I began to do this as a regular practice when I was entering a lot of contests. It's easy to be overcome by a wide range of often conflicting comments when you submit works into competitions. The temptation is to wallow in the compliments and reject the rest. I forced myself to write thank you notes citing the value I got for everyone who offered more than a score. It wasn't easy, but it led to my getting a better understanding of where I could improve.

Tip #3 -- Listen, but don't do what they say. People are very good at putting their fingers on problems. They know when they got bored or confused. They react when they think you pulled a cheap trick and cheated them and the story. And if more than one critic has the same problem, it is almost certainly time to try it a different way. But what readers, even those who are writers, do not do well is prescribe solutions. No one knows the intent of the story as well as you do. So grabbing at a proffered solution is usually a mistake.

Tip #4 -- Sometimes they really don't get it. I knew a marketing person who kept a stack of T-shirts in her office that she would throw at executives when they complained about a promotion. They said, "I'm not the target audience." Your best move is to not give a writer who loves romances and hates SF your latest space opera. And don't give your passionate historical novel about love between a Boston Brahmin and a refugee from the Irish famine to technothriller fans. It just won't work.

With that said, you may put your mystery into the hands of an avid mystery fan and it may fall flat. If that happens, do not assume you have failed. There are horror readers who hate everything Stephen King writes and SF devotees who are deaf to Terry Pratchett's humor. So put their review aside, go out and get more feedback and suspend judgment of your work until you hear what others have to say. That's what I've done with my latest dose of poison.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Five First Draft Essentials

I did NaNoWriMo this year, and that's one of the reasons why I haven't been posting lately. That was 60,000 words in thirty days, and it got me thinking about what we should expect out of a first draft. Too many fellow writers, it seemed, looked for too much out of their first attempts at a story, and many of them gave up, even though their novels showed promise. It's terrific if magic happens, and the words that pour forth are glorious, but it's more likely the first draft will be a mess. That, in itself is not a problem, but it can go too far.

If the manuscript too disconnected and shabby, it's hard to move forward and get any traction. Some drafts resemble automatic writing too much, so the first requirement is storytelling. Also, if the characters are all one-dimensional, even a well-plotted story will be difficult to rewrite in a way that becomes something vivid and real.

Striking a balance between sloppiness and perfectionism may be the toughest part of getting a draft on paper. You need to do enough without aspiring to such a perfect draft that you get stuck. So, as a guide, here are the essentials I expect of a first draft.

  • Somewhere within the first 50 pages or so, the protagonist must be locked into a tangible goal. This is a goal, as Michael Hauge says, that you could photograph -- lovers kissing, the hero crossing the finish line, a Death Star exploding. It is okay (desirable, in fact) for the protagonist to have an internal goal or to get what he/she needs in terms of emotions, perspectives, and spiritual growth. But commercial fiction demands an external goal.
  • The protagonist needs to emerge as a real character, not a cardboard cutout. For me, that means I hear his/her voice. In fact, before I get too many chapters done, I usually have the character talking to me. But the main point is that the character needs to be, in at least a few chapters, distinctive and someone you'd like to spend time with.
  • By the end, the premise needs to have proven itself. You don't need to have a great ending, and the draft probably will start in the wrong place, but the concept that caught you as a writer needs to have demonstrated that it can fulfill its promise.
  • The story needs to have strong conflict (often in the form of an antagonist). The hero needs to have setbacks. There needs to be real doubt about whether the goal can be achieved. There needs to be potential for rising stakes. Oh, and the villain needs to be one person, not a corporation, a cabal, or society. Even if there are many enemies, one enemy must step forward to personify the forces aligned against the protagonist. Note: In a love story, the opponent may be the object of desire.
  • Something needs to happen. Preferably something unexpected that engages you as the writer. I usually peruse a first draft for three to four scenes that hook me. If everything else is dodgy, that's enough to build a new draft on. These do not need to come in the right order in the first draft, but they need to be there.
When I write nowadays, it is by the seat of my pants and the scenes often come out of order. I try to achieve forward momentum, so I don't rewrite along the way and I insert the word "bagel" in places where I can't come up with a name, a location, a fact, or a word. I keep my enthusiasm for the work, even when it is frustrating me and the words aren't coming easily, by referring to a list of reasons on why I should be writing this book. (This list is created before I go very far with the story, when I still feel that this is a story that must be told.)

Soon, I will sit down to look over the 60,000 words I wrote in November. Some of the prose will be awful (possibly even incoherent). I will have to fix the bagels and fill in missing scenes. I'll need to take a good look at the structure to make sure the beats are all there and it begins in the right place. I'll need to move scenes around to ensure the stakes rise. I'll have many conversations with the protagonist and a few other characters who came to life. I'll do a lot of cutting.

My rewriting effort will be difficult, but, because the draft has all the essentials, I know a complete story will emerge. I hope some scenes will be so wonderful, I'll only need to polish them. But even if massive redrafting is called for, this will be a book that will be completed. When a first draft offers a writer that, it's enough. It has done its job.