Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Fish Out of Water: Worldbuilding contemporary stories

Hi, all. I did an entry (associated with my upcoming course) for the Savvy Authors blog. Here's how it begins...

Science fiction and fantasy writers have no excuse for not making every page compelling and original. They have a universe (or multiverse) of possibilities. If you’re writing a contemporary story, it can be a lot harder to find ways to discover points of interest in setting that are filled with the commonplace and familiar. But you can borrow techniques from speculative writers to make even the most humdrum locale imaginative and enticing.

For more, go to the Savvy Authors site.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Notes to Yourself: Collecting treasures for your writing

I like the quirky. The unexpected. The anomalies. Fun facts were made for me, and they spice up any novel I read. Often that means that I spend long hours hunting down details online, and chasing down the truth and its context.

I suspect many readers love to stumble across oddities, corrections to misperceptions, and bits of overlooked reality. Putting them into your writing can add spice and build trust with readers.

Many people run across the peculiar without any effort, just as some people naturally see life differently and are born humorists. For other people, it's an occupational hazard. Visual artists look for details and reframe reality. Scientists observe the world around them with an array of tools and techniques. Historians visit strange worlds on a daily basis.

If you don't have these advantages, don't despair. You can still collect a treasure chest of gems for later use. Develop your own approach, or try these:

Find surprises -- Build your powers of observation intentionally. One exercise is to look around you, right now, and find something you never noticed or you can't explain. If you are sitting in a familiar space, this might be difficult, but it's not impossible. It doesn't need to be a thing, it can be the shape of a shadow, the pattern of dust on a tabletop, or the sound of a motor.

Or, you can make it easy on yourself by sitting in a natural setting or a park. I have a bird feeder, and I've gone from identifying its visitors to discovering new things about the behavior of the different species that stop by. Sitting in a train station, the food court at a mall, or the stands of a sporting event can provide surprises, too. People will amaze you, if you actively pay attention.

And don't hesitate to use all your senses. Close your eyes from time to time and see what you discover. The important thing is to find one notable observation each day.

Collect details -- In addition to writing down surprises (in full sentences), don't forget to makes notes on things that catch your interest that you overhear, find in Web searches, or come in your wanderings. Write down questions, insights, and whatever engages your sense of wonder.

These may have nothing to do with current projects. You may never use them in a story. But they will be a treasure chest to draw upon (often years later) as you write. And you'll discover odd connections that will inspire you. To make these even more effective, develop a way to sort these so you can find them easily. As a start, try animal, vegetable, mineral, behavior, history, patterns, and behaviors.

Pursue questions and ideas -- If you want to enrich your collection, learn a little more about a nugget that fascinates you. Find an article or an opinion you can attach to it. Even better, mention it to other people and see how they react. If you tell friends Napoleon was average height, some will be delighted to learn this, and others will declare war. For a few, this will trigger an idea that surprised them. Add this to your collection.

Reflect on what it means -- Everything you collect has something to say about you and what matters to you in the world. Otherwise, why would you have selected it? See if you can figure out why it appealed to you. As an advanced exercise, try to connect the dots of several observations.

Apply judiciously -- Okay, here's the tough part. Don't take a shovel full of fun facts and dump them into your manuscript. This will drive your readers crazy and kill your story. (I've seen this happen most often in historical novels and science fiction. These writers just can't bear not to share. Too much information -- indeed.) Be selective. Make sure any added facts fit the story. My preference is to only add them in an organic way, when they occur to me in the draft stage.

Of course, keen observation, research skills, generating questions, and keeping organized notes are excellent capabilities across the spectrum of writing activities. By filling your treasure chest with gems, you become a better writer. Not a bad side effect.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Reading to Write: Mining the best for ideas and approaches

Stephen King wrote, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that." Many of us write because reading opened up a vital dimension in our lives. Some of us took up storytelling after reading less than successful efforts and deciding we could do better.

I enjoy being sucked into a new tale, just one more fan. But, as a writer, there's more. Reading regularly keeps me tuned in to the form, inspires me, and challenges me. It provides different perspectives on content, style, and language. My normal practice is to alternate between classic and contemporary works and to sample unfamiliar genres and new writers, which allows me to explore my own limits.

A lot of what I learn seeps in automatically. My brain seems to grab nuggets and classify them without my being conscious of them. Later (and it can be decades later), I'll hit a problem in my writing, a light will go on, and I'll wander over to a bookshelf. Barely knowing why, I'll snatch a book off, open it to a specific page and find a terrific example of a writer solving my problem. I don't have definitive advice on how to make this happen for you if it's not, but I suspect reading a lot and reading attentively are part of the process.

I also have deliberate approaches to reading for better writing. Here are five suggestions:

Analyze your genre - Find several books (preferably brief) you've already read and enjoyed in your chosen genre. Reread them one after another, and take notes. As you find interesting elements record them and note the page numbers. What are the turning points? What are the payoffs? Describe key characters. And, as you go along, keep looking for commonalities. What you want to do is distill out guidance on what readers of the genre (you audience) will expect in terms of elements, characters, and pacing.

Learn how emotion is evoked - Whenever you read to learn about writing, it is critical to keep track of your emotions. It can be valuable to note what you are feeling page by page, but, as a minimum, mark down surprises and big emotional turns. And go back again and see if you can determine how the writer did that. Write down what you learned, along with a specific reference.

Explore pacing - One of the best compliments you can get as a writer is for a reader to say it's a page-turner. Take a novel that carries you along and mark it up. Look for hooks and changing stakes (which tug you along) and backstory and narrative (which slow things down). It is helpful to actually highlight these in different colors so you get a visual sense of the structure.  Look at them in detail to see what lessons the author is offering. It's also useful just to note how the lengths of scenes and chapters change as the book progresses.

Learn from mistakes - Many works I read (yes, classics, too) include failures. Why does a good writer go bad? How would you redo it? Do you make the same mistake?

Write like your favorite author - Here's a useful exercise that will take some time. In longhand, copy out an especially effective part of a book, preferably a whole scene you wish you'd written. Take the gist of that scene and, without referring back to it, rewrite it using the same voice and pacing, but different words. Compare the two. Finally, take a comparable scene in your own work and rewrite it using your favorite author's voice and pacing.

For all the analysis I do, I still get lost in wonderful works. It would break my heart if I couldn't disappear into novels, and I think I'd lose something as a writer. Don't spend all your reading time looking for the man behind the curtain. Experience the joy and wonder. But, as a writer, dedicate part of your reading to learning from master storytellers.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Narration and Backstory Blues, Part 2

Commercial fiction needs to be overwhelmingly moment-to-moment, with just enough narration and backstory to add texture and to maintain clarity. The temptation is always to provide too much, which creates a great excuse for readers to put the story down.

For some, pacing comes naturally. I've noticed that people who gossip and tell jokes seem to just know when to drop in information that becomes more important, to slip in asides that put people off guard, and to add commentary and reflection that directs or redirects the audience.

Of course naturally here doesn't necessarily mean genetics. Culture plays a part. One of the most magical occurrences in my life was when a roommate woke me up in the middle of the night and spirited me off to the backwoods of Virginia for storytelling and moonshine. Many (U.S.) Southerners are brought up in an environment of storytelling, and they seem to weave tales effortlessly.

For the rest of us, it may be work. One effective method is to mark all the digressions, descriptions, explanations, and reminiscences in your text and eliminate them all. If the story still makes sense without them, you may be done. Or you may add back in a few to season the mix.

More likely, you will find that some of them are essential to understanding the story. Add these back in. Ideally, a reader tells you this. (It is far too easy for the writers to see every bit of backstory and narration as vital.) When these pieces are resurrected consider two things:

First, do you need every word? Less is more here. Cut any backstory you need to the absolute minimum needed for clarity and texture. Avoid the temptation to keep it all.

Second, does this piece occur as late as possible in the text? The longer the readers wait for revelations and explanations, the more likely they'll seize on them. Put the material in late enough in the work, and there will be no sense of it slowing the story at all. The words will be snapped up and gobbled down.

I'll add one more proviso: The need for, and tolerance of, these relatively static elements depends upon the genre. Some readers look for more sensual elements and a more stately pace. Rushing them along is a mistake. So read widely in the genre you're writing in. And, when in doubt, make your story slightly more spare in narration and backstory than your favorite works.