Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What's Wrong with Your Story? You Already Know.

As I was panning for ideas on writing, I came up with this gem. You already know. This came from a freelance editor (whose name I can't recall). The most common response she gets from professionals when she offers her biggest points of criticism is, "Yeah. I guess I knew that."

And you probably know what's wrong with your story, too. I'm not talking about typos or dialogue that needs sharpening. Good stories that aren't quite ready have other problems. Missed logic. The wrong starting place. Weak endings. Awkward back story. Secondary characters who take over or flit in and out. Dodged emotions.

All of these are fixable, but not without pain. It's tough to take a finished manuscript, completely rewrite a fifty-page section, and repair whatever that breaks in the rest of the work. A subplot-ectomy can be almost impossible without causing nerve damage. Killing off a favorite character or deleting the first three chapters? Agonizing.

Here's what I did: I took ten complete longer works and forced myself to quickly write what I feared most about each of them. I noted the unthinkable, without allowing any arguments. It was a little like going to confession, and that gave me the idea of listing problems to reflect on.

Big Ugly Story Problems
  • The story starts in the wrong place - It needs to begin as late as possible.
  • Beats are missing - These can be generic story beats or those for a specific genre, like romance.
  • Undigested back story - Those things the reader may need to know, but stated too baldly. (Or maybe they really don't need to know them at all.)
  • Tension that slacks - This can be because of a weak back story, plateauing stakes, or fun scenes that just don't belong in the book.
  • Experiments gone awry - For me, this comes from playing with structure or fancy prose.
  • World-building mistakes - Problems with logic, or rules made up during drafting that don't quite add up.
  • Tone and mood shifts - Inconsistency, often caused by inserting humor, passion, and sudden changes in pacing.
  • The ending doesn't satisfy - Too fast, too slow, illogical, not set up properly, too obvious.
  • Muted emotion - Not going as far with emotional responses as the circumstances and character dictate (often to protect the writer).
  • Pulled punches - Avoiding extremes and not going as far as the premise or set up suggests (often to protect the protagonist).
Yes. I found all of these among my works. Some stories have more than one. It's a very difficult thing to recognize, and it's even harder to accept. My suggestion is that you 1) examine your own stories for these problems, 2) force rank from worst to least all of these so you are certain you have really thought about each one, and 3) accept the first or first few problems as real and get to work on them.

This might be a way to get to "Yeah. I guess I knew that" without outside help so you can bring your writing to the next level. As a special bonus, if you have a half-written manuscript you still love, this approach might give you a clue as to where to fix it.

Oh, by the way. Please feel free to add to my list. And if you come up with good ones, I'd be delighted if you'd share them here.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Delay Tactics

Do you keep your story going by making characters wait? In Cheryl St. John's Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict, I found a list of delays (Conflict is not delay), and I quote:
  • The protagonist can't find someone or something.
  • She falls in a mud puddle.
  • She loses her keys.
  • She misses a bus.
  • She arrives late at an important event.
Since I'm in the middle of judging manuscript for novel competitions, these resonated with me. It's possible to get away with some delay within the book, especially if the writer plants hints ahead of time. ("Don't forget to put your keys in the key tray. If you lose them tomorrow, there will be horrible consequences.") Unfortunately, I'm seeing delay -- in place of conflict -- within the first pages of manuscripts.

I'm sure this comes out naturally in the drafting process, and I don't have any objections to writers filling pages with these weak moments in a draft. But, by the time the manuscript is sent out to contests, agents, and editors, these should be (mostly) eradicated. They create plateaus in the story where nothing much happens. They do not raise the stakes or (usually) test the protagonists in a fundamental way.

And I've come to suspect these emerge not so much from a lack of imagination as from fear. In my own work, I tend to delay things for the  protagonist when I am avoiding an uncomfortable or emotionally challenging situation. I think there is a natural urge to protect the protagonist. In a way we are protecting ourselves.

So, as you rewrite, when you find a delay substituting for a real conflict, consider getting rid of it. But, more importantly, look to see if somewhere, at the periphery of your consciousness, there is something difficult, nasty, embarrassing, or too real for you. Because, if you identify that, you'll do more than remove a dull section, you'll find your way to the awful stuff that really good.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Great Questions, Crazy Answers - Brainstorming by proxy

One thing that sets writing apart is originality. This can stem from surprising combinations, a fresh premise, a new perspective, or a distinct manner of expression. Some people are born eccentric and never get mashed into society's boxes. Others escape categorization or are (often painfully) pushed out by life events.

The rest of us must rely on our curiosity. I wrote an article some years ago on curiosity for innovators (which I'm happy to share on request). It ends with a list of ways to develop curiosity:
  • Put yourself into new situations that challenge your worldview (and imagine they are true)
  • Actively observe, rigorously recording the input to all your senses
  • Come up with your own list of great questions
  • Question the status quo
  • Give yourself permission to look at things differently
  • Build your skills at investigating
  • Have a perspective
  • Make time for curiosity
  • Be persistent
  • Keep notes on your observations, insights and conclusions
  • Solve puzzles
  • Get other perspectives
As I look through that list, it occurs to me that there is often an interplay between the approaches and curiosity. In particular, asking great questions can develop your curiosity, but, as your curiosity is developed, you are more likely to ask better questions.

The best question of all is "why?" The second best is probably "why not?" One way to come up with great questions is to reject conventional explanations (which is safe in fiction, less so in real life). We often accept a word as an explanation. (Why do things fall? Gravity.) That's never a sufficient answer. Probing more deeply can help.

I always recommend brainstorming, often writing twenty answers to a question, as a way to get to something that is surprising or even unique. One thing I've found is this does not work for everyone. They have a very difficult time generating a lot of answers, and they often twist themselves into pretzels to get "reasonable" answers. They are not comfortable with crazy.

And sometimes even highly creative people just run out of energy or feel stale.

For either of these, a return to the original approach to brainstorming is in order. Bring together a group of people and have them throw out answers (with no judgment). Reminding them of the basic rules of brainstorming can be useful, giving them permission to provide wrong and crazy answers.

What if people aren't available? One technique I've used myself is to imagine people I know well (either in reality or through their work) answering the questions -- what I call brainstorming by proxy. At times, I've taken this so far, in the case of fiction writing, that I have composed beginnings and endings for stories in the voices of writers I've read until I can write in their voices. That's going a bit far, but just imagining the answers from others may open you up to a kind of craziness that can be engaging and inspiring.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Secrets of Fiction 2 – Isn’t it ironic?

Last time I wrote about story secrets. Generally these are the secrets left to the readers to unravel. Most mysteries are of this sort, with Columbo as a major exception.
For those who have missed Peter Falk’s finest moments (other than The Princess Bride), Columbo episodes always began with the criminal committing the murder in front of the audience. Each murder was carefully designed to make the murderer (usually someone who was clever, respected, and upper class – a one percent villain) seems unassailable. The audience was not in suspense as to who-done-it, only as to how Columbo would trip them up. These were ironic mysteries in that most of the people in the story did not know who the guilty party was. Only the murderer and Columbo knew that.
Careful viewers, however, might have another level of irony. They might see the mistake that the murderer made, something he or she was unaware of. The error was the secret hidden from the murderer, but obvious to a portion of the audience.
Irony is at work in other genres. As mentioned in the last post, Hitchcock was fond of creating suspense by showing a danger that the protagonist was unaware of. In horror films, the audience often sees the monster prowling or in wait for a hapless victim. (Don’t open that door!) 
In romantic comedies, we know one of the lovers has a secret while the other lover is in the dark. In some ways, irony is a close cousin of gossip. We get exclusive knowledge reflects our superiority. In fact, comedy usually requires that the audience be in a superior position, effectively looking down at the poor, clueless hero.
Perhaps the most joyful use of irony is the audience’s understanding that the hero has an unappreciated or unrecognized strength. One reason why this resonates is because for many of us, it took someone outside our families to point out that we had an important dimension, whether it was a teaching encouraging us to take up a profession or a lover appreciating our sex appeal. This can be life-changing, and it’s fun to relive it in fiction.
Whether someone gets caught, finds love, or changes direction, there are a few essentials for ironic secrets:
·      The audience cannot be informed in a way that is overly subtle. It is okay for people to feel smart because they caught on to the secret. But the more people who miss being brought in on the secret entirely, the less successful the work is.
·      There must be a reason for the secret. Ignorance. Social pressure. Confusion. In Some Like It Hot, the musicians keep their secrets to avoid being murdered.
·      There must be frustrated opportunities for the secret to be revealed.
·      The consequences of the secret staying secret must rise as the story progresses. It should become unbearable and lead to thoughts of, “Oh why didn’t I just tell the truth to begin with.”
·      The revelation or unmasking must be dramatic and risky. If it’s not a big moment, why bother. If things eke out bit by bit, the impact will be lost. We want burst balloons, not slow leaks.
·      There must be a sense of relief in the revelation. At last the truth can be told and the truth will set you free.
·      The revelation must create a power shift. In some older romantic comedies, there was a dramatic loss of power by the heroine. Nowadays, power tends to shift in either direction. But is also possible to make it a win-win.
It is possible to have stories that include both story secrets and ironic secrets. Mission Impossible did this in every episode (quite well in most cases). But the writer must consciously choose one or the other or both and execute either or both according to the specific needs without muddying the audience experience. The goal isn't to confuse. It's to thrill and delight.