Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Writer's Resolution 1 - Be ready for tomorrow

Could half the battle of becoming a productive writer be being prepared? That's my conclusion, based on teaching hundreds of students. Most people who freeze up or don't get around to writing on a regular basis have not gotten ready to write ahead of time. You can find your own way to do this, but here's what I recommend for the composition phase.

To set up your writing:

Commit to writing. Give yourself the gift of 15 minutes (or 200 words) a day, five days a week. Set this time aside as appointments that trump all other activity. You deserve it don't you?

Commit to one project. You don't need to write sequentially. You can jump around to "good parts" or places that are working or even write scenes you suspect will be cut. But the words should add to the story you have chosen to write, not be part of another project. (It's okay to work on other projects, but only if you keep your promise to add to the chosen story.) And you need to finish the project you committed to.

Write down what you will work on the next time you write. If you outline, this is already done. If you write by the seat of your pants, this barely intrudes on your creative process (and you are welcome to write something else in addition to what you stated). These words written ahead of time will set a specific goal and get your mind working on the job. Make sure this note to yourself is in one sentence or a few clear words.

"I will write the scene in which..."
"I will describe the place where..."
"I will record the character's reaction to..."

That's it. Do these three things -- set aside a time to write, choose the project you'll see to completion, and give yourself the assignment beforehand -- and you'll be ready to write tomorrow (or the next time you're committed to write).  The words might not flow every day, but you'll make progress on your story and get it finished. 

You may want to use this approach as the bones for your New Year's resolution. Begin by putting a start date on your calendar. 

What should you write? Most writers I know already have a project in mind or in progress, so that may be what you use to try out this approach. If you don't have a project or can't choose between them, select the shortest viable project on your list or write a short story based on an online prompt to get yourself going.

If this is half the battle to becoming a productive writer, what's the other half? These are the questions I get from students:

How do I choose a project?
How do I know what to write?
What about research?
What if what I'm writing stinks?
What about story logic?

These point to aspects of planning, selection, exploration, and revision, and all of them are essential to creating stories that are publishable. I'll discuss these in the coming weeks (and I welcome your questions and suggestions for topics). But, with what is above, I think I've provided enough for you to build good habits of productive writing and to develop a process that fits your time, personality, and style.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Joy to the Writer - 5 Ways to have fun

When you're grinding through a rewrite or stuck in the middle of a manuscript, it can be hard to remember (or even imagine) what a delight putting together stories can be. Yes. Sometimes you just have to trudge on through to "the end." But you might try a few exercises that can help you get the spark back.
  • Write a pastiche. Go reread a few pages of a favorite writer. Choose one with a strong, identifiable voice. Then write a page that sounds like it came from that author. If a scene comes to mind, jump in and get it down on paper. If not, write a scene that comes immediately after the conclusion of the story you sampled. For extra fun, insert a character from your work in progress (WIP). Don't fret over decisions here, just be playful.
  • Write from a prompt. There are a lot of these online. Writers Digest posts one each week. Grab a prompt that appeals to you and take it on a test drive.
  • Write a gift. This past summer, in celebration of my father's 100th birthday, I started up what I called The Missives Project - one hundred illustrated, one-page notes mailed to him, counting up to his party. Other family members contributed, but I wrote dozens of these, remembering events or recounting thematic experiences (like Christmases). Each one energized my writing and made me feel good about the process. So choose someone to send a note to and get to work.
  • Write for luck. Choose a happy moment in your life when things turned out better than you expected them to, by chance. Tell that story in a page.
  • Write on a dare. That scene that rattles around in your head and can't find a home? Or that you feel you're not ready to write? Get it out. Put it onto a page. Make it a dance like nobody's watching moment. 
The point here is to get your juices flowing and to recapture the good feelings writing can provide to you. This is not about creating distractions, so don't abandon your WIP to turn a fun exercise into another unfinished novel. Don't sacrifice too much writing time to this. Make it an appetizer, not a meal. (I set a timer for no more than 45 minutes, and I don't do one of these more than one hour per week.) Don't take it too seriously. Don't think about monetizing this work. Don't stress. Have fun. Find the joy.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Brag and Boast Your Way to Better Fiction

Every time my wife and I picked up my son from summer Boy Scout camp, we were treated to a ceremony that included wonderful, outrageous boasts. Each troop tried to outdo the others with ridiculous bragging. The object seemed to be both a manly exercise and a test of language skills. For me it was simply fun.

I've always been attracted to tall tales, out-sized insults, and boasts. They show up a lot in Shakespeare. I watched Henry V this weekend, and they inspired this blog's subject. This from the feckless Dauphin:

“When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk: he trots the air; the earth sings when he touches it; the basest horn of his hoof is more musical than the pipe of Hermes.”

From someone else, it might come off as dignified, but he is revealed to be delusional. His soldiers don't believe a word of what he says, and the audience is encouraged to be as skeptical. So boasts, and how they are set in a story, can both reveal character and can foreshadow later action (the Dauphin's defeat at Agincourt).

A well-crafted boast can be a memorable part of a story, but I've found boasts useful in developing characters before I write scenes. By its nature, a boast is exaggerated. It captures the public voice of the character in a way that is intended to draw attention. And it often reveals weaknesses between the lines. 

Of course, you can take a boast in the opposite direction. In the New Testament, there's a nice turn by St. Paul:

"If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness."

A reverse boast goes in the opposite direction, often revealing fears and insecurities, but it also can reveal hidden strengths. I usually try both kinds of boasts as I explore a character.

Boasts often include powerful comparisons and metaphors: Eyes of an eagle, a mountain of a man, lion-hearted. "I am a hawk." But the best, most useful boasts are about doing things, often tangible, even visceral things like eating, spitting, having sex, and fighting. Powerful verbs combined with elemental forces -- stamping mountains into gravel -- make great boasts.

Again, it's likely most boasts you develop won't make it into your stories, but they can provide fresh perspectives on characters and help you to explore their limits. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Putting Stories in Motion - Activating your imagination

If you want to remember the face of a friend, think of a time when he or she was doing something. Often, memories are not snapshots, they're movies.

I was given this advice at a time of distress, when I was having difficulty coming up with any memories, and it proved to be invaluable. I found the features of friends and loved ones came more easily to mind. I also found I could hear their voices, and it became easier to relive the most emotionally evocative events we'd shared.

From a personal standpoint, this was a real boon. From the perspective of writing, it was invaluable. Whenever a scene needs to be deeply felt or requires a texture that eludes me, I can immerse myself in memories that otherwise feel rehearsed and stale.

The same thing is true for places. While I get a thrill out of looking at pictures from a visit to India, it can't compare to envisioning a turbaned man on a white stallion riding up to my taxi in New Delhi, leaning down to get a better look at me. A photo of my grandfather's farmhouse can't match the detail and sense of being there I have when I recall climbing onto the antique tractor, starting it up, and mowing the long field where we played baseball and golf.

I am not limited to memories. Once I am into a story, I make a point of imagining characters doing mundane things like buttoning a shirt or eating an ice cream cone. This almost always segues into something more dramatic, revealing who they are and, sometimes, adding scenes I hadn't planned. When I am working on scenes, I don't just take a picture or even stroll through them. I give myself an active job, like repairing an engine on a rocket ship or digging a grave on a moonless night.

Of course, research, especially when it is hands-on and active, feeds imagination, but don't stop there. Remember the adage,"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand"? Focusing "I do" or "he/she does" when delving for memories and exploring scenes and characters can  make your story more vivid and compelling.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Controlled Flow - Your story in motion/moments

In athletics, form -- the shape and fluidity of motion -- can make the difference between success and failure. This is obviously true in kinetic arts, like dance, as well. Is it true for writing? Is this an element that can make the difference in your writing?

I believe it is, and I think it would be better recognized if form didn't already have a different meaning (article, short story, novel, poem, etc.) in writing. Some of the controlled flow of words, sounds, story, and content is assumed within discussions of style and voice, but looking at it in isolation might be useful. Let's look at each of the elements of controlled flow.

Goal and design - A mason wants to build a wall that serves a purpose (supporting a roof), has aesthetic value, and satisfies the client. From many choices, he chooses a design that will satisfy these needs. My goal for a scene of a commercial novel could be a number of things -- to reveal a clue, to create an obstacle for the protagonist, to reveal character. Scenes fit in to a larger story, usually with logic, and bring the story forward in ways that keep the reader engaged. The overall goal of most scenes is to create emotion within the reader.

Content - The bricks of a scene are the events, discussions, narrations, viewpoint character's thoughts, and facts that are used to build it.

Order - Taking those scene elements and sequencing them may be obvious, tied to cause and effect or assembled like arguments. But many of the best works put the elements together in ways that create surprises, pace reveals, and, most importantly, build toward an emotional ending. The best way to understand how order can freshen a scene and change the impact on readers is by looking at what your favorite authors do in the scenes that mean the most to you.

Transitions -These are the mortar between your bricks. How do you move effectively from dialogue to narration? From action to the thoughts of a character? From paragraph to paragraph. These shifts can be smooth and barely noticeable or harsh and abrupt. I like to think of these in terms of film, where dissolves, cuts, changes in perspective, and many other transitions help to direct attention, moderate energy, and alter the mood of the scene. Or observe how a gymnast doing floor exercise controls the story of the movement by pausing, turning her head, or cocking her hip.

Pace - Some of the above directly impacts the pace at which a scene evolves, but direct attention to how the overall pace goes is essential to controlled flow. Here, paying attention to sentence and paragraph lengths, echoes and repetition of words and images, and placement of reveals can give you the power to time the reader experience in a way that meets your goals.

Music - Read the words out loud. How to they flow? How do they meet each other and what currents do they create? Would they do the emotional job even if they were in a different language?

Structure - Much of the structure is created in the design, but, once the scene is finished, the experienced structure emerges. I find that I can't see this structure immediately after I'm finished. It shows itself to me after I have the chance to get away from the manuscript for awhile and forget my design. This is one way letting the story rest for a month or so pays off.

While I have dealt with scenes here, much of the above could be adapted to control the flow, on the one hand, of elements within a scene, and, on the other hand, larger units like sequences, chapters, and the story as a whole.

Overall, I'm talking here about your story in motion and how its moments engage the head, the heart, and the body. Go back to choreography. Dance, at its best does this, and watching a master dancer share his of her art captures your attention, stops your breathing, and makes it impossible to sit still. Do that with your story.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Grateful Writer - 5 things to be thankful for

It's hard to write something fresh and authentic about gratitude and the writer. The mind veers from the obvious (imagination, readers, insights) to cliched attempts to turn negatives (rejections, blocks) into positives (determination, freedom).

I suspect the heart may be a better guide to gratitude than the brain. Here are ten things my heart tells me I should be grateful for as a writer.
  1. Good words. Simply coming up with the right word as I write or in a rewrite can unlock whole chapters for me. In fact, I routinely collect words and short phrases that resonate with me even when they don't have stories to go with them. Many of my favorite works came from these scribbled notes, sometimes years later.
  2. Starting points. The true beginnings of my stories are often one, two, or three chapters into a manuscript. Sometimes I can spot this, but, more often, they are discovered by other writers reading my drafts. Once I have those beginnings, it becomes clear which scenes can be dropped and where the major holes are. I can hear the music of the story come through.
  3. OMG moments. I don't know how to create the best of these, and I often reject them. They bubble up from my subconscious while I am doing something mindless, and it always feels like I've something found disturbing, like a lump under my skin. (Perhaps they represent examples of one of Ray Bradbury's rules, "Don't be afraid to explore the attic.") Most of these are horrible turns of events for my characters. Some are ideas that, if I used them, would trash big chunks of my manuscripts. All of them take me into areas and feelings I'd rather stay away from. But when I have the courage to say yes, I always learn something. And some of my best stories include these. 
  4. Secret doors. I tend to find these when I'm revising a manuscript. I'll run across a comment from a character or a bit of description that doesn't fit. I wonder why I wrote it in the first place. Then, before I can wipe it away, my mind reframes it or adds a new element, and I'm off. Before I know what's happening, I've written a big block of text, and it's magical. Usually, this has to be put elsewhere in the manuscript. Sometimes it has to be broken up and sprinkled among the other scenes. Occasionally, it gets cut and used in a different story. But I always find something wonderful and useful when I spot those secret doors and open them up.
  5. The perfect model. When I was a kid playing baseball, I used to watch how the professionals did things like swing a bat or catch a ball, and I'd practice doing it their way. Usually, it didn't work for me, but all my best plays came from finding a move that felt good and adapting it to my body. Today, this happens with writing. I can purposely observe how a great writer does something and do an exercise that changes my process. More often, as I'm revising a manuscript, I suddenly realize it has similar intentions to a book or movie. I rush to review that work, and the best approaches to solving story problems become obvious.
I'm happy with this list, and writing it improved my mood. (Thanks, heart.) Apparently, gratitude is one path to happiness, and making a weekly list of things to be thankful for increases life satisfaction. Since writers are often a depressed bunch, this might be worth trying. What do you think? And what are you thankful for?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Opening Windows - Ways storytellers can be present

For most people, the driving force of the story is the plot, which is often worked out in detail beforehand. For many others, the characters lead the way, filling the pages with action and chatter that seems to come from nowhere.

I'm all in favor of moving a story forward by either means. The way to get to "the end," so you have something complete and ready for revisions and, ultimately readers, is to keep things moving. But sometimes this can be taken too far. When the pace is too frantic, when the characters never pause, and when the mechanisms of story production dominate, beauty, grace, life, and art can be sacrificed.

Depending on the tale you're trying to tell, it might be wise to dedicate some time - say half a session twice a week - to opening the windows of your story and letting the fresh air in. The idea is to step away from the plot and give your characters space to take a deep breath. Then sit in the moment of the story and see what happens.

The exterior space - I am not somewhat who likes to describe sunsets in my stories. I just try to make the locations clear enough to keep readers oriented. So, as a discipline, I make myself wander through key settings and experience them before and after the characters show up. I make an effort to engage all my senses. And, once I've fully imagined the space, I sit and wait. I let the quality of the location and the sensory experience flood over me and tell me about itself. I write about what I notice, what captures my interest, and what surprises me. Instead of creating lists of impressions, I look for those few words that can convey the whole to readers.

When I do this, I find I am more present when I get back to telling the story. The setting becomes more important and plays a bigger role. I connect more deeply with the themes of the story, and the language becomes more poetic.

The interior space - Something similar happens when I first calm the protagonist (or other key character) and then inhabit him or her as fully as I can. I still their minds. I breathe their breaths. I live with them in wordless moments. And once I have come as close to the character at rest as I can, I note what I've discovered. I jot down scattered words and see if I can assemble them to make a few sentences that communicate substance and quality without action.

I open other windows - releasing the perfumes of emotion, the bebop rhythms of engagement, the dance of wordplay. All of these are apart from telling the tale and essential to it.

Experiencing story outside of story can be energizing. It can deepen commitment. It can reveal secrets. It can answer questions. It takes time and patience to do well, but the rewards are great.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Disturb Me - One way to get out of the slush pile

For some people, reading fiction is like listening to a familiar pop song on the radio -- minimally engaging, pleasant, and soon forgotten. There are established writers who manage to deliver such reliable products again and again and make careers out of literary junk food.

I don't have any problem with this. I like the comfortable, the calm, and the easy at times, too. There are plenty of times when life brings all the challenges you need, and a few hours of escape are a blessing. The problem for a new writer is that this does not provide an opportunity to stand out.
With few exceptions, something easy and pleasant in a slush pile doesn't look much like a big hit to an agent or editor.

Strategically (and probably artistically), a work that is disturbing, topical, surprising, high concept, or from a fresh perspective is more likely to catch the attention of a gatekeeper. I'll focus here on what might be disturbing.

Certainly, subject matter can make a story stand out. Anything that touches on the seven deadly sins will, if done with honesty and directness, draw readers in. Pornography, which taps into lust, has a long, successful tradition as an area of literary endeavor. Lots of SF writers in the past got there start and paid bills thanks to this very open and insatiable market for manuscripts. (I don't know what the current market is like, but I note that Playboy's magazine can no longer get nude pictures to pay off. The world changes.)

One trick that works well is to move subject matter into unexpected places when the timing is right. Present bondage in a suitable way to interest suburban housewives and you can have a hit like Fifty Shades of Grey. Other examples have been adding sex to YAs, anti-heroes to Westerns, torture to high fantasy, etc. when the zeitgeist has called for it. Breaking Bad dared to bring genuine tragedy back to drama, and it will be interesting to see if this is repeated.

Speaking of anti-heroes, I was re-watching You've Got Mail recently. It occurred to me that, unlike its source material (The Little Shop Around the Corner), the main characters in this story are not very nice. In fact, Tom Hanks's character is appalling. If a less lovable actor had taken the role, the movie would have collapsed. But Meg Ryan's character, despite the unjust jeopardy she's in, is stepping out on her committed relationship with an emotional affair that is intimate and secretive. Her deep unfaithfulness might have been less visible when the world was not as savvy about the Internet, but today, we know over a third of women in committed relationships admit to having online affairs. These affairs are ending those relationships, so audiences might see her as less innocent now.

All protagonists should have flaws. There is room for protagonists with bigger flaws. If you bring Tom Hanks in, you might get away with a lovable mass murderer. (Dexter, anyone?) Handle it well, and your manuscript will be reviled by some editors and agents, but it will get picked out of the slush. I have a novel where a transfer student brings his humor and pranks to a school that has suffered a shooting. I have many notes of interest and praise from agents and editors, but some people have seen fit to write me long letters about how awful my character is and how awful I am. So make this choice with your eyes wide open.

I think the best way to disturb readers and make an impact is by creating villains they identify with. Naturally, you want to have three-dimensional antagonists who are motivated and have positive traits. Hannibal Lector (Silence of the Lambs) fulfills this and succeeds in eclipsing Clarisse in many readers' minds. To me, Gordon Gekko (Wall Street) is more disturbing. When I first watched the movie, I found myself almost being sold by him. He is complete, confident, and corrupt. He might have been the hero of the story.

While I found Gekko to be disturbing, others didn't. A lot of the people who caused the financial crisis in 2008 had become his disciples, studying him and justifying their actions based on his philosophy. Oliver Stone got attention and made a hit movie with a villain people could identify with, but he may have been too successful. There's a meme that says, "1984 was meant to be a warning, not an instruction manual." So, if you take this route to success, be aware of the unintended consequences.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Be a Beloved Writer - Creating a compelling persona

Sometimes reading a novel is like making a friend. Within the words, beyond the story and the characters, the author seems to be present and available with endearing qualities that make you want to get to know him or her better.

At book signings and conferences, you can see this effect in action as readers line up to meet, chat with, touch, and take selfies with writers they believe they know. I was the one who could barely mutter a word to Maurice Sendak when I got a couple of books signed by him. At the other extreme, I've had the privilege of being mentored and taught by writers I admired, but  long before I reached out to say hello, I felt I knew them. And I devoured their work.

As a writer, you want this. You want readers to pick up your books because they want to spend time with you as well as your characters. It's said that people buy the salesman, not the product. That seems crass in terms of the literary world, but people will read and recommend you if they connect with the persona they come to know in your work.

Note - Your persona as a writer is not you. It is an aspect of you. While I have liked most writers I met in person after reading their novels, none have been exactly what I expected. Some have been, shall we say, less than wonderful in person.

How do you create an engaging persona that shows through your writing? Lots of articles on charm and likability may be helpful here. Just as you can approach other people face-to-face in ways that engage them, you can put moments and language into your stories that connect with readers. It's worth a look to see how you can adapt Winning Friends and Influencing People to the literary world. But rather than reframe that advice, I'll share here what I attempt to do when I write fiction:
  • Have emotions. Ray Bradbury said we always read fiction for the emotional experience. While technique can get you there, I favor the method acting approach of bringing back emotional experiences that are close to what my character would feel and infusing my storytelling with those feelings. I also look at the overall emotions of the story so they flow in a way that is natural. It is too easy to assemble them in ways that clash.
  • Have opinions. It can be rude to disagree with others and speaking your mind can create conflict. But writing is not about being polite. And conflict is at the heart of storytelling. 
  • Be specific. It may seem contradictory, but the path to universal appeal goes through what is unique and individual. The more generic you are, the less interesting. The choices your make and the details you provide reveal the world you know, allowing the reader to bring that world into his or her own. This allows your readers to recognize your humanity as the same as theirs and to connect with you.
  • Address what matters. We all have needs. We all face tough choices. We all have to deal with the pain of loss, abandonment, confusion, humiliation, and guilt. And we all celebrate what is joyful and life-affirming.
  • Be authentic. Dare to tell the truth. Dare to share what you believe. Dare to present an aspect of yourself that is real (and ugly and beautiful). People may respond to a phony in the short term, but it's hard to build a writing career on lies.
  • Care. Respect what you are writing about and need to write it. Respect your readers and want the best for them. Choose your subjects judiciously. Be nurturing. Bring your best. Earn trust. 
  • Be vulnerable. Take risks. Reveal your flaws. Expose your heart. Lay yourself open.
  • Be funny. If you can.
  • Show your talent. Be aware of your natural strengths as a writer and feature them. It might be observation. It might be lyrical prose. It might be twisty plotting. Whatever you do best, share it in every work. Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses.
  • Have integrity. Yes, it's good to be honorable. But the main point here is working toward consistency across the novel. I hinted at this above when I mentioned the emotions across the book must flow in a natural way. With any long work, you'll come to each writing session in different states. Sometimes, almost as different people. This shows in a lot of work. While each of us is complex and contradictory in real life, your writer's persona connects most effectively when it comes across in a more or less unified way.  
This is not a comprehensive list, and you don't need to do everything on the list to engage with readers as a writer. My hope is that it will turn your mind toward this opportunity and encourage you to be more deliberate about this aspect of your work.

There are parts of this process that are difficult and even painful. For me, if it had turned out to be just frosting on the cake, I probably would have stopped working on my writing persona. The most important gift a novelist gives readers is a good story with a satisfying ending. And I've found this focus on creating a compelling persona makes the stories richer. They deliver more. That makes the work worth it.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

HTWF NaNoWriMo Series - Again

I'm replaying my popular NaNoWriMo series.

While a number of HTWF posts might be of some help (see especially the Fast Drafting series), here are the ones that I wrote specifically to help make your NaNoWriMo a success. I've included a guest post from NaNoWriMo guru Rochelle Melander. (I guest posted on her blog on November 8, 2012, with my NaNoWriMo Survival Kit.)

Good luck, writers!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Reinventing Yourself as a Writer - 10 questions

Sometimes, you need to put everything on the table. Usually, writing that is meant to delight, provoke, and provide intense experiences does not come from incremental changes to your approach. It comes from daring change. It comes from reinvention.

If your writing life isn't everything you ever dreamed it would be, have the courage to leap into the unknown. Take a fresh look at yourself as a writer. Here are ten questions that might help:
  1. Are you confident? Voice may be the most valuable commodity for a writer, and it does not emerge if you are tentative. Yes, writers are moody. They have ups and downs. They have doubts. But finding a route to reckless abandonment and audacity at least one out of three times you sit down to write will transform your writing. Get mad. Get careless. Get your heart beating fast. And get the words down.
  2. Are you writing enough? Bad habits get in the way. Words become too precious. The internal editor comes alive. I have hundreds of posts in this blog to help you get the words flowing. Find a few to try. Then get to work. If your goal is 200 words, push yourself to write 300. If it is 2,000, write 3,000. At least once a week, write half again as many words as is your goal. Shake yourself up.
  3. Are you writing in the genre you should own? Almost all successful writers stick to one genre. It isn't necessarily the genre they love. It is the one where their talents show and they can stand out. Reconsider your choice in these terms, not imagined terms. Not based on friendships. Not based on sunk investments. Then read, write, and work toward mastery of the genre that fits who you are as a writer.
  4. Are you writing the best stories? Great stories are based on great concepts. With one sentence, you should be able to get someone from the chosen audience to say "wow." And "gimme." It's fine to write some chapters and do some plotting without working out what the logline should be, but don't write a whole book unless you have the time to restart it from scratch (which, apparently, is what Stephen King does). Pay real attention to that premise.
  5. Are you demanding enough? Writing is rewriting. Kristan Higgins says one of the most common mistakes for writers is sending out the manuscript before it's done. And done means getting the distance to look at your work objectively (usually by putting the manuscript aside), and then making it as good as it possibly can be. And keeping at it even when you are anxious to show it to the world.
  6. Are you taking chances? Write what you don't know how to write. Write things that will shock you family and friends. Write what hurts. Write what embarrasses you. If you spend a week without writing a scene that upsets you, feels wrong, scares you, or makes you squirm, you have wasted that week and taken a step backward in your life as a writer. It's supposed to be fun most of the time, but not all of the time.
  7. Is writing integrated into your life and identity? Do you see yourself as a real writer? Do you make notes, explore new issues, chat with fellow writers, tell people you're a writer, and find ways to turn your day-to-day chores into opportunities to grow as a writer? This is not a hobby or an avocation. It is who you are.
  8. Does writing matter enough? Your work should provide insights to you and your readers. It should change lives and lead to reinterpretations of your past. It should point toward the future. If your writing is not remaking you as a person, take up gardening
  9. Is writing the priority? Writing needs to be first on your to-do list most of the time. Yes, life can get in the way, but this is your calling. Treat the work as sacred. Don't let it become secondary for long.
  10. Are you reading challenging work in your genre? I believe in beach reads, and I have my own list of writers I turn to when I just want to have fun. But I also explore new writers and take on ones I know will be difficult, will impress me, will accomplish things that seem impossible, and will make we dissatisfied with my own work. At least half of everything you read should make you want to try something new, awaken you to higher standards, and goad you into pushing your limits.
In my own work, I look beyond these ten questions and challenge every aspect of my writing and my writing life. I create new plans and look for new books and courses. I put myself in uncomfortable positions. I invite disaster. Sometimes, things fall apart for a while. I stumble. I miss deadlines. I get frustrated. And scared. But I don't regret any of these attempts at reinvention, and I often discover talents, skills, and themes that I hadn't imagined. Art is so big, getting stuck in a rut -- even one that is bringing success -- is cheating yourself. Don't get comfortable.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Prizes and Props - Objects that enhance your story

One way to bring a reader into a story is through specific objects. In film, you just have propmaster gin up an impressive Ark of the Covenant or a sled named Rosebud. In a novel, you need to imagine the item well, get the words right, and feature it in the right context. Before The Maltese Falcon was a film, Hammett had created the bird in his novel. Before film existed, Arthur needed to extract a sword from a stone.

When the object is central to the plot, it might be considered a prize. Prizes need to be described in ways that is clear enough to capture the imagination while still leaving out enough details so the reader can gain some ownership. Ideally, such an object will not be mundane. It will connect with myth as surely as the Holy Grail. Getting the words right means including materials, textures, and perhaps a sense of weight.

Oddly enough, the prize also needs to have good, strong, active verbs attached to it. Usually, this is connected with what the prize can do for whomever can capture it.

The context in which an object is presented is also vital to making it memorable. One tradition is to reveal a little bit at a time, but, as with Raiders of the Lost Ark, it may be that a mini-lecture of the history and properties would be needed.

INDY It all has to do with the Ark of the Covenant.
(The Army guys look mystified)
The chest the Hebrews used to carry around the Ten Commandments.

Now it’s the Army men who are impressed. 

An Egyptian pharoah stole the Ark
from Jerusalem and took it back to the city of Tanis. A short time later, Tanis was consumed by the desert in a sandstorm that lasted a year. But before that, the Pharoah had the Ark hidden away in a secret chamber called the Well of the Souls. Which is where the Staff of Ra comes in.

Indy moves to the blackboard and makes a quick sketch to give a rough idea of the system as he describes it. (And we get a glimpse of what an interesting and enthusiastic teacher he must be)

The timing has to be early enough so the readers are not frustrated but not before it would be interesting or understood to be important. As a writer, this is where the best choices for narration need to be made. The narration may need to take place in a fresh setting and it may need to be broken up in some way. In dialogue, arguments and confusion between characters can help you to avoid lumps and add turns that engage the reader.

What I call props are other things that are not at the center of the story but raise questions, identify characters, provide a clue, refocus attention (and, in a mystery, my legitimately mislead the reader), and make space more specific.

Props, in some way, draw attention to themselves. While they shouldn't overwhelm the story, they are meant to be noticed. The same aspects used to make a prize distinctive can be used to make props stand out. A few good props, handled with care, can add pop to a story as surely as a powerful metaphor, a poetic line of narration, and a memorable quip. And, like these other items in your literary bag of tricks, they need to be used with restraint and placed where they can enhance rather than distract from the story. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Fast Revision 4: Language and mechanics

With the aim of more productive rewriting, we've looked at taking stock of the completed draft, reviewing plot, missed opportunities, story holes, and story logic, and using theme to unify and taking a fresh look at characters, pacing, and scene construction. Most of the rest is easy. In fact, much of the remaining work can be handled by engaging good freelance editors to point out needed fixes.

The major exception is language. At this stage, the manuscript is in good enough shape to consider all the wonderful possibilities for metaphor, similes, imagery, alliteration, and a host of other literary and rhetorical devices. Like too much spice, these can be overused. A good rule of thumb is to work them into the most critical moments of the story and to make them appear natural. A device that stops the reader and stands out works against your storytelling.

Although the whole manuscript deserves another reading (aloud) where you polish the language, it is probably okay to move onto the mechanical areas now.
  • Run a spelling and grammar check, but don't count on these to identify all the problems.
  • Ruthlessly delete adverbs and improve the verbs as needed.
  • Get rid of junk words like just, a bit, some, and very.
  • Root out repetitions of words, especially unusual words that call attention to themselves. 
  • Look at variation of sentence length. Too much of the same can be a problem.
As I work through this step in revision, I use Autocrit as a quick way to highlight potential problems. I do not let its suggestions rule my choices. I consider them judiciously. In practice, I probably accept about a third of the suggestions.

When I've done all this, I have the computer read the full manuscript (text-to-speech) to me. This always reveals more problems I've missed, most of which are easily fixed. Then I read the document aloud one more time and do a final polish of the language.

That's it. My process may not look much like your process. And I'm continuously updating my process, adding in new steps that might help, and reworking those that might be improved. I also don't let my process stand in the way of what feels right for the manuscript. As with raising children, developing a story depends on the individual and requires a lot of creativity and improvisation.

I hope, however, that this series on Fast Revision has provided a useful example of what a process looks like and a few details that you might consider as you work to go from first draft to a manuscript you're proud to submit.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Fast Revision 3 - Tuning the tale

If you've been following along through Revision 1 and Revision 2, you now have a good, solid, mostly consistent story. I call this the green copy, meaning you could do a quick spellcheck and send it to early, tolerant readers. At this stage, they could answer key questions -- does it grab my attention, does it lose my attention, does it confuse me anywhere, and is the ending satisfying.

Anyone who reads in your genre should be able to answer these questions and their answers should be valuable. They will all highlight what's working and what's not working. What you should not worry about is any suggestions on how to fix the problems. Even if the suggestions come from writers, they are not likely to be useful.

Whether you choose to expose your work to people at this point or not, you need to keep working. The next thing I usually do is try to identify the theme. It should be visible, and, once identified, it can be used to evaluate the scenes in the story to see whether they contribute to the theme, could contribute with rewriting, or don't contribute or work against the theme. Themes are frustrating because they tend to devolve into truisms like "there's no place like home," but going scene-by-scene to bring the story into alignment promotes unity, which smooths the tale in a way that is otherwise difficult or even impossible.

I'm plot-centric, so my next step is focusing on scene construction. Does each one have a beginning, middle, and end? Are there enough beats or turns and do they come often enough? Does each one have a hook (even a soft hook) at the beginning and something at the end (it need not be a cliffhanger) to keep the reader turning pages? Is there the right mix of action, narrative, and reflection? Does the character act in a way that creates change? Does the change foil or complicate the character's quest?

You may wish instead to focus on your characters at this point. Do they act reasonably? Does the protagonist grow and change? Do supporting characters highlight the struggle the character is going through? Does the protagonist have agency throughout, or do things "just happen" to him or her? Does the character feel strong emotions the reader can relate to? Does the character avoid advancing the plot through stupidity?

Once the work on scene construction and characters is completed, the whole manuscript probably needs a full reading. Chances are more inconsistencies have cropped up, and there will be new opportunities worth developing. These can be marked during the reading and then fixed. Also, during this stage, attention should be paid to the pacing. Generally, the pacing should increase as you move toward the ending. This can be accomplished through shortening scenes and chapters, but also through including less narrative and streamlining the language. Mostly, the changes and emotions need to come at a more rapid pace.

Next time, I'll conclude this series by digging into polish and mechanics. And, as a caveat lector, please remember, my way is not the only way or necessary the right way for you. Respect your own process and what your intuition says about how you should revise your manuscript. Use this as a prompt to develop new ideas and make sure you aren't skipping any steps.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Fast Revision 2 - Pencils ready for big stuff only

Last time, I finished up with a printed manuscript marked up to show story problems, including unnecessary passages, major inconsistencies, holes, dull parts, failures of story logic, and missed opportunities. Let's tackle these one at a time.

The first and easiest thing to do is to strike out passages that are not needed. Note, I never obliterate them and strike them from memory. Rarely, they reveal their value later, entering the story with different intent, prompting new ideas, or as the bases for scenes in a different manuscript. So I just put lines through these on the paper manuscript now. (Later on, I will cut and paste them into a clearly labeled deletions file.)

Next, I fix the major inconsistencies. Some of these, like time and calendar problems, can be avoided entirely by planning and note-taking during the composition phase. But I always seem to end up with someone acting out of character, inadvertently revealing a clue too early, or acting familiar with a character who's new. I get lucky at times and come across easy fixes to these problems, but, in most cases, they are pieces that impact other scenes. So I take them on, one by one, most important to least, and make the repairs. I have had my intuition jump in with one key change that can fix several of these. It happens more that you might expect, so be open to getting a break like this. It makes things easier and helps to give a more organic feel to the fixes.

Filling holes comes next, and these rarely solve themselves at this stage. Often, I just write what needs to happen in synopsis form, rather than composing the whole scenes.

Dull parts make me cringe. It is always easier to quiet things down than it is to amp things up. Often, I have to rewrite the whole passage without looking at the original. But before I move to that, I do something that is much simpler. I read the chapter (or chapters) as if the scene is not there, simply edited out. About half the time, the scene turns out to be unneeded or to have only a few elements that are required but can be put into other passages. So don't do the rewriting unless you have to.

My go-to method to check story logic is an approach from Jeffrey Kitchen, who uses Writing Backwards This only works if you know your story well enough to do a detailed outline, but now is not a bad time to be ready to do that. 

I actually do the story logic with a numbered list, so I can easily create lists that go forward or backward. This has many uses as I continue revision (including checking pacing and writing a synopsis), but there is one of immediate interest. With this simplified view of your story (a list of 50 to 100 scenes), you have an overview that reveals opportunities -- scenes you can hit harder, twists that are nascent, and places where you can drop in tougher challenges for your protagonist.  

At this point, I'm getting into the gorp of rewriting. While most of what I've mentioned is likely to apply to your manuscript, this is not the ultimate set of instructions. Some of my ordering has to do with how I like to work and how my mind works. You're a different person, so play around with these ideas and create your own path to revision. 

More on this next week. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fast Revision 1 - What do we have here?

There is a concept in economics called sunk costs. These are the dollars you have already invested and cannot recover. Bad behavior, like continuing to repair a car that's a lemon or pouring money into a doomed business, come out of the psychological attachment to these lost investments.

Revisions are the sunk costs of writing. The time you spent cleaning up grammar, making dialogue sparkle, and adding hooks to scenes and chapters that are not needed are lost, but the investment can make writers hold onto these with both hands. (The same is true for doomed books, but that's too depressing to consider.)

Of course, time spent is not completely lost. Learning takes place, especially early in a writer's life. But a productive writer finds way to approach the material that reduce big investments in time that won't pay off and are likely to create too much devotion to words that must be cut.

This is why are recommend a "big to small" approach to revision. Essentially, this means beginning by looking at the story as a whole -- whether it works at all and whether there are scenes or chapters that must be cut or added. Then following through with reexaminations of things like character, conflict, and scene construction. Looking at pacing, and ending with polish and the mechanical elements (spelling, grammar, wordiness, etc.).

Your order may not be my order. For instance, some people need to do a spellcheck of the roughest manuscript before they return to it. But, overall, going through dedicated drafts is much more efficient for most people than taking on all the elements of revision in one draft.

For me, the first step is preparing myself. I need to let the manuscript cool off for a month or so, otherwise, I can't see it clearly. I need to accept that lots of wonderful scenes I fell in love with are really a mess -- and fixing them is what revision is for. I need to be prepared to cut, cut, cut.

My second step is printing out the whole manuscript, and then sitting down and reading it from beginning to end in as short a time as possible. I take notes, but as few as possible. I actually budget myself to what I can fit on one page. I don't write on the manuscript itself.

My third step is firing up the computer and having the manuscript read to me (text-to-speech is available to everyone, and it is marvelous), about ten pages at a time, while I follow along and make small notes -- usually just check marks -- on the printed copy. I am looking for story, holes, unnecessary passages, inconsistencies, missed opportunities, dull parts, and failures of story logic. But I'm doing it at warp speed. I actually have text-to-speech cranked up to its fastest rate.

When I have done all of this, I make a copy of the manuscript file, label it with the revision number (2.0) and usually the date, and begin to change the text.

I'll talk about more steps next time.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Or Else – How to raise the stakes in a story

A thief escaping from the police and the stolen car hears a baby crying in the backseat. A woman applying for her dream job is fired from her current position, which she needs to keep her home. A baseball player who has to get a hit to win the game finds out his estranged son is in the stands.

Stories need stakes. And they need to be vital to the protagonist. But they also need to be important to readersand made more important as the story progresses.

Even good writers who always get the fundamentals of goal, motivation, and conflict right, often dont pay enough attention to stakes. From the very beginning of the story, stakes need to be high enough and universal enough in their appeal to engage the audience. While we all want to win, a story about a kid who wants to win a spelling bee is not compelling in and of itself. There has to be a downside. There have to be consequences for failure.

Sometimes, as with a survival struggle, the consequences are obvious and real to the audience. There may be opportunities to raise the stakes by, for instance, highlighting unfinished business like an apology that needs to be said, but the audience is likely to hang on to the end even without alteration of stakes because the obstacles get tougher. But this doesn't work for many stories. So here are some thoughts on ways you can raise stakes.

Now it's personal. This is tried-and-true, and you can almost set your watch to the time in a show like Law & Order where are the search for justice becomes personal because one of the characters has a building relationship with a victim or the crime becomes associated with a family member or a partner gets hurt and must be avenged.

Investment. In the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy first reaches the Emerald City and is denied entrance, she says, "But we've already come such a long way." We know what she means because we've been along for the journey. Her making this investment explicit is brilliant and precludes a search for other options.

The goal becomes more valuable. The Ark of the Covenant isn't just a prize artifact, It's a doomsday machine.

The character is more vulnerable. This is a standard for the romance genre. As the story goes on, the love interest becomes more essential to happiness and the protagonist is more exposed in terms of revealed needs. It is common for needs to go from physical to emotional to something that touches on fate, identity and the soul. Life without this person becomes unimaginable.

There are a lot of other ways to raise stakes shifts in power, changes in what the characters value, adding a potential loss of something vital through failure to potential gains coming from success, and moving down Maslows Pyramid to more fundamental needs. (Adding trivial, me too stakes not helpful is not helpful and can dilute the story. It's important not to diminish stakes or to add new ones that are less vital than those that are already known.

One more pointall mistakes must be clear to the reader. It is good to do what Dorothy did and make them explicit. This is not a place to get artful.

Stakes and rising stakes provide one of the most effective ways to keep readers turning the pages. Get them to fret. Get them to worry. Make it excruciating. They'll love you for it.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Balance of Powers - Thoughts on building sexual tension

A friend of mine from Hollywood -- after looking at a query tied to a book series I'm working on with my wife -- suggested I watch Castle. She recommended that I write a TV pilot because our work has the potential for the kind of sustained sexual tension that's found in that popular TV series.

Now, while ideas may be the currency of science fiction and puzzles may be the currency of mysteries, sexual tension is the El Dorado of romance. What could I learn by watching this series? It turns out, the answer was pretty obvious. There is a power struggle between the two romantic leads. Both have things the other wants and both have vulnerabilities. And, most importantly, if either were to surrender to romance, the exposure in terms of prestige, employment, and self-identity would be too much. The stakes, without deep and abiding trust between the two parties, are just too high.

Spoiler alert: let me get specific about Castle. With his writing career at a crossroads, and writers block threatening, Rick Castle needs the inspiration of real crimes and enough participation in and appreciation of the real process of solving crimes to create the stories in his next series—featuring a stand-in for Detective Kate Beckett.

Detective Beckett benefits (somewhat) from Rick Castle's wealth and connections. She also is under orders by her boss (and apparently up the line) to show Castle consideration.

When each enters fully into the other person's world, there is potential for humiliation. Detective Beckett can be demeaned in front of her peers by Castle's remarks and actions. And we see that happen, so the threat is not idle. Detective Beckett makes a point to going to a book signing where she's able to show her power to knock Castle off track in his world. (And, with such a powerful hero, the writers are very clever to include his family members who are able to ground him and expose his weaknesses.)

So, both characters need each other and both characters are vulnerable in an interlocking relationship that is not optional and ongoing. It is this relationship that both ensures interactions over a long period of time, with interesting variations, and makes full commitment to romance (and sex) problematic. Any time they edge up to the line between work and love, they get reminded of how badly things could go. They feel pain.

Of course, this sort of a guide to sexual tension has uses beyond romance. Most obviously, a buddy movie has the same elements with friendship replacing love. An argument could be made as well for stories where the bond between an individual and the group or between competitors or between a hero and the villain is central to the narrative.

For me, an immediate outcome of this analysis was an understanding that both characters throughout need many opportunities to take action that matters. Their agency must be demonstrated. In addition, the stakes need to be present and clear in almost every interaction.

So, I've taken my lesson, and I hope you'll take the opportunity to watch a story that has sexual tension (or at least, tension around the friendship), and see what it has to tell you about your own work.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Pseudonym - Who are you, really?

There are lots of practical reasons for using a pen name. Alice Sheldon renamed herself James Tiptree Jr to get past a bias in SF against female writers. Paul Linebarger became Cordwainer Smith because his role in international affairs and psychological warfare might have been compromised if some people had read his novels. When Nora Roberts is not writing traditional romances, her name becomes JD Robb, and that spares her readers confusion.

All of this is valid and provides some fun for those in the know, but, often, a pseudonym is freeing. Obviously, for those who write edgy work, like erotica, the anonymity can be of value. (It can be essential for those who write both erotica and kids' books -- yes, I know these people.) But I'm looking beyond that. A pen name can allow an author to discover and explore a different part of him or herself.
  • A character - Cary Grant (Archibald Leach) said, "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant." All writers like to create characters. Why not write as one? Using a pseudonym provides the opportunity to build a complex character and to use that character as a vehicle for creating art.  
  • A focus - Your name might not be appropriate to your chosen genre. Mario Puzo probably wouldn't have worked as the name of a romance writer. Could you imagine picking up a picture book written by John le CarrĂ©? Would Delilah Marvelle, a regency romance author, make sense as a writer of thrillers? The right pen name can brand an author for readers and help the writer (especially one who writes in different genres) get into role, switch perspectives, and find an appropriate voice.
  • A might have been - We all have made essential decisions in our lives. Using a pen name is an invitation to try out a different life, one that has very different boundaries and strings attached.
  • An alter ego - A pen name can become a springboard for exploring a dark, embarrassing, or extreme aspect of ourselves. (Or for dark people, the opposite, perhaps.) 
This last is the most intriguing because it provides permission that might otherwise be lacking. And, without the inhibitions and expectations tied to the personas and obligatory roles we have in the real world, something new -- and authentic -- might emerge. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Precious Words - Cut, cut, cut

The way a great idea becomes a great story is through rewriting. And, ironically, the biggest obstacle to rewriting is “good” writing. The more polished the prose, the more apt the metaphor, the more memorable the line of dialogue is, the more likely the writer will sacrifice story to hold onto it unchanged.
There are, of course, exceptions. Sometimes, the muse is generous and prose pours out with almost no need for editing.  Some writers polish and shape as they go along with an uncanny sense of story direction that makes the first completed draft the last. When you get a gift from the universe, don’t turn it down. If you are what a friend of mine calls a “freak of nature” whose stories emerge whole and entire, I wish you a good life.
Most of us need to cut, mold, shape, and polish. It’s easier to do this if the words don’t get in the way. Precious chapters, scenes, phrases, and words are difficult to rework and delete. And they are almost impossible to write around and make organic with the rest of the story.
This is one of the reasons why I advocate quick drafting. It’s easier to cut a thousand words written in an hour than a thousand words written in a week of writing sessions. If you can draft a novel in 90 days, tossing chapters or even putting the whole manuscript aside is easier than doing the same with work that has taken a year or more to produce.
It is possible to get too sloppy. Automatic writing and writing that is so diffuse it means nothing when you return to it is going too far. But many people sweat over every word and phrase when close enough is good enough – perhaps best -- for a draft. 
Here’s my point:
Invest in story, not in words.
I love well-turned phrases, beautiful images, and scintillating dialogue. Like most writers, I’m an avid reader. Words delight me, and I’ll even read pieces I don’t quite understand if the sound values charm me. But people come to commercial fiction for story, so, in my own work, that’s what I’m committed to providing.
I’ve worked with and without an outline, but, for me, even when the storytelling is structured and planned, the story evolves, develops, and reveals itself in the drafting. That makes the rewriting critical. Without a willingness to make radical changes, the best story cannot be told.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Using Your Powers for Good - Writing with integrity

Writers want to attract readers. They want them to keep turning the pages and to have wonderful experiences. They want the last pages of any work to be satisfying, and often provocative. And, okay, sometimes they want to be liked, too.

Part of developing the craft of writing is developing the tools to connect with readers. This starts with understanding who the readers are and what the concepts and concerns are that are apt to make good stories for them. What characters do they want to read about? How far can you stretch reality and still be authentic? What are their expectations, and where is it okay to push the boundaries? Vocabulary, mood, genre, attention span, and pacing are all, largely, dictated by the intended reader.

Blurbs, titles, hooks and glorious language can get the readers started. Character, worldbuilding, beats, cliffhangers, dialogue, and twists and turns immerse the reader in the story and keep him or her up past their bedtimes.

Endings answer the story question and often do more by resonating with readers so effectively they often can't wait to talk to friends about the story and they seek out other works by the same author.

Everything in the tale is clear, seamless, and filled with emotion. There is nothing extraneous.

When you've mastered these powers, you have the ability to entertain and possibly educate. You may be able to do things like comfort the afflicted, influence, inform, advise, provoke, and guide. You can use your power for good in a world of wonders, but also a world of confusion, malice, ignorance, deception, fear, and anxiety.

You can also use your power recklessly, selfishly, and in support of evil. And you probably will. After all, writers are embedded in a world of confusion, malice, ignorance, deception, fear, and anxiety. If you read classic literature, you'll see that even the most faithful, brilliant, and enlightened writers were sometimes blind to the bigotry, unfairness, and falsehoods of their times. You will, with good intentions, do the same.

Don't do it on purpose. Don't use what you've learned as a writer and communicator to write propaganda (not even for the side you believe in). Don't pander to the worst and most ignorant aspects of your readers. Don't sell out.

There is honor in constructing a well-formed argument in a speech, but not in providing false context or intentional omissions that "spin" an idea. You can write an article spelling out an new idea in business, but the flaws and problems need to be noted. You can make a point of filling your novel with characters that portray the diversity of human experience, but the characters need to live and breathe, not just fill a quota.

There is a line between engaging and manipulating, and it's often difficult to define. My guide is never to violate the trust readers have in me. I must write to the limit of my skill and talent. I must tell the truth as I know it. And I must have the best interests of readers and those in the audience in mind.

Wherever you are in your writer's journey, if you keep this in mind, you'll be acting with integrity. You'll, on the whole, be using your powers for good.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Handling the Truth - Villains and the status quo

Villains wreak havoc so we tend to see them as agents of chaos. Heath Ledger's Joker even declares himself as such.

The Joker: Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I'm an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It's fair! (The Dark Knight)
But villains are often agents of the status quo, as well. This often appears in their dialogue, which can include lines that many politicians would (and do) feel comfortable saying.

The Joker: I'm a man of my word.

The Joker: If you're good at something, never do it for free.
Hannibal Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do, this man you seek? (The Silence of the Lambs)
Nurse Ratched: The best thing we can do is go on with our daily routine. (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)
Bill the Butcher: This is a night for Americans! (Gangs of New York)
Bill the Butcher: A *real* native is someone who is willing to die fighting for his country. There's nothing more to it.
Bill the Butcher: Thank God. I die a true American.

They even quote scripture.

Hannibal Lecter: All good things to those who wait.
Bill the Butcher: I know your works. You are neither cold nor hot. So because you are lukewarm, I will spew you out of my mouth. 

But villains can also support a status quo that is uncomfortable, challenging, difficult to accept, and at odds with the hero's aspirations (and ours).

The Joker: You can't rely on anybody these days, you gotta do everything yourself, don't we?
The Joker: You see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push!
Bill the Butcher: Civilization is crumbling
Nurse Ratched: You know, Billy, what worries me is how your mother is going to take this.
Nurse Ratched: Mr. McMurphy, the meeting was adjourned and the vote was closed.
Hannibal Lecter: You know what you look like to me, with your good bag and your cheap shoes? You look like a rube. A well scrubbed, hustling rube with a little taste. Good nutrition's given you some length of bone, but you're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you, Agent Starling?
The Joker: Don't talk like one of them. You're not! Even if you'd like to be. To them, you're just a freak, like me! They need you right now, but when they don't, they'll cast you out, like a leper! You see, their morals, their code, it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be.
The Joker: The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.

These statements, which may be complete truths or have enough truth to be disturbing may be used to justify the villain. They may show that the villain is in living in the real world while most other people are maladapted because they "can't handle the truth" (Colonel Jessep, A Few Good Men).

Recognizing this can help you to create a more rounded and a more terrifying villain -- one who shifts the ground beneath readers' feet. This villain has more power, and we know he or she will not be a pushover. The hero will be tested to the limits and need to change to counter such a villain.

In addition, a villain who has roots sunk deep into the status quo and both speaks and acts based on this provides the perfect mechanism to present both the theme (although it maybe anti-theme) and the world of your story. Theme is usually stated explicitly and provides a key for the reader for a clear understanding of why the story was written.

As for worldbuilding and exposition, the villain's relationship to the status quo makes him or her one of the best resources for providing this essential information. While narrative lumps drag a story down, the statements and actions of villains that tell about the world are compelling, memorable, and  true

Darth Vader: I am your father (The Empire Strikes Back)

Friday, August 7, 2015

Tough Love - Criticism that matters

Feedback is essential for most writers. I've talked about how to receive criticism effectively and how to give positive criticism. Today, I have a few tips on how to critique a work in a way that matters.

The overall goals should be 1) to improve the work and 2) to help the writer improve. Ideally, a work is offered, sometimes tentatively or with trepidation, because the writers wants a different perspective and insights that will have positive effects. Now, admittedly, many writers are only looking for praise. Once you know this is the case, either look for opportunities for positive criticism or decline to review the work. You probably are not dealing with a serious artist, so the relationship is all that matters.

But in most cases, it's okay to find opportunities for improvement. Here's the process I use:
  • Gain/maintain trust. The key components of trust are altruism and competence. The writer must believe you are putting his or her interests first and that you know what you are doing. Otherwise, why accept what you have to say?
  • Find something positive to say. No matter what, the writer will need to know what he or she is doing well. This is both because it balances the critique and because (surprisingly) people often don't know. So study my positive criticism blog entry and come up with the best way to express good news.
  • Determine what insight will be the most valuable. (Hint: This won't have anything to do with spelling or grammar.) Figure out what advice would make the biggest positive impact in the way the writer writes or the work at hand. I usually make a list of three. A laundry list (other than nits) is too much to absorb for almost all writers. It is beyond the scope of the request for criticism.
  • Estimate what the writer is ready to hear. Occasionally, I determine that the most important feedback is something the writer cannot or will not be able to hear... yet. Sometimes, this is because of how in love they are with the work or an element (say, a character) in the story. Sometimes, it is because of pride. Sometimes, it's because of fixed views of what might be wrong. It is frustrating, a waste of time, and a violation of trust to proceed as if none of this matters and just blurt out the truth. I choose another point of criticism that can be heard or a small piece of the big criticism. Over time, with trust and experience, more opportunities to help usually open up.
  • Say it in a way they can hear it. You are not explaining what is needed to yourself. You are explaining it to someone else, so you must organize, express, and explain your criticism for that person. That means the words, anecdotes, and analogies must be carefully selected to provide clarity and support for this vulnerable person. No shooting from the hip. Often, the only way to go is to have a conversation where you ask lots of questions and do a lot of listening.  
Overall, it is best to proceed with compassion and care. I have seen people criticize to show how clever they are, acting in a cruel way with the excuse that they are being "frank" or helping the writer to toughen up. I've also seen tidal waves of criticism because critics don't want to leave anything out and perhaps don't know how to be selective. There also are those who seem to assume that being asked to read a less than perfect work in progress is a personal insult which deserves a crushing response. Worst of all are those critics who actively try to drive people away because "they have no business writing" or "have no talent."

Be generous, thoughtful, and wise. Work to be the critic everyone would love to have. In this way, you're likely to get the help you need with your own work.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Who's talking? - Dialogue and character

Have you ever had to re-read a page of dialogue because you were not clear who said what? There is a simple solution, of course. Use tags. "He said" and "she said" are the most common tags, and they get the job done without calling attention to themselves. The other tags (and there are many) need to be used sparingly. Don't overwhelm readers with he whispered, she shouted, he exclaimed, etc. And new writers are generally cautioned against modifying tags with adverbs period, so avoid "he said harshly."

If you're an experienced writer, all this is familiar to you. You also probably know that using a sentence that shows action and placing the quote next to it sufficiently identifies the speaker.

He strolled over to the window. "That mob is looking ugly."

Another thing writers do is include some sort of a tick. This could be a curse word or a favorite phrase("bless his heart") or a distinct approach to phrasing. (Any Star Wars fan would immediately identify a sentence spoken by Yoda.)

All of this is good, if used in moderation. But the best way to make it clear who is speaking is crafting sentences that reflect the character through motivation and goals, interests, perspectives, and concerns.

Motivation and goals. By definition, strong characters have goals with which they are obsessed. I had a roommate who spoke to everyone he came in contact with about whatever he was trying to acquire or figure out. This extended into unlikely situations where he was quite capable of asking not just mechanics about what oil he should using this car, but sorority girls he took out for ice cream. (He always got the answers he needed, by the way.) Your character is likely to direct conversation toward information that is useful to achieving his or her goals and to tell people how successful he or she is, and update them on progress and how he or she feels about it.

Interests. Similarly, less defining obsessions can work their ways into dialogue. This is most obvious in mysteries, where it seems every consulting detective lives for chess, opera, tobacco, oriental sculpture, antique cars, or some such hobby. I love baseball. You can easily get me to talk about it and its history. I'm also apt to draw a life lesson from a story about a player or a team and use that to make a point. And, of course, the jargon (throw him a curve,  strike out,  swing away) is something that slips into my normal speech (though less so since I've had occasion to speak to international audiences).

Perspectives. The points of view of characters feed into their interpretations of everything that goes on. Not only do these make it clear who is speaking, but these perspectives reveal the values and judgments of the speakers.

Concerns. If your character is neurotic, conversations are likely to be peppered with fear and ways to avoid dangers. The TV series Monk exploited this brilliantly. But it can be done more heroically and positively when your main character's concerns are about others. Making sure a sweetheart or children are taken care of reflects well on your character. Making sure strangers in need, such as panhandlers, get the help they require may be even more distinctively honorable.

The best way to make sure readers know who's talking, ultimately, is to create three-dimensional characters. That's a big job, and sometimes the whole of the character does not emerge until a draft is done. This is not a problem. Everything can be fixed in a rewrite. If you clearly articulate the motivations and goals, interests, perspectives, and concerns of your major characters after your first draft is completed, all of these can be used to rework the dialogue so there is never a question of who is talking.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Main Points - Clarity in its essence

I gave a reader the first 20 pages of a novel of mine and got lots of interesting feedback. Unfortunately, some of it completely confused me. Here's what I discovered -- She had missed the major conceit of the book, a special talent the protagonist had. Without that, there was no way to make sense of what I was up to and the main selling point for reading the book was lost.

Okay. Let's be fair. Rather than saying she missed the main point, I should say I did not convey it effectively. Either I was ambiguous or I did not highlight it properly. For a trait or pivotal fact about the character, this is easy to fix. Here are some approaches:
  • Looking for potential misreadings - Heinlein said the best class in writing he had was one on giving orders. He was at the U.S. Naval Academy, and, after providing a situation, the student of the day had to write and order. If it was completely unambiguous, he got and A for the day. If anyone in the class could find a way to misinterpret it, an F. Reread the key sentences with no mercy.
  • Repetition - If it's important, keep mentioning it, and it will stick. (This is painful for me to do.)
  • Providing a metaphor - If, for instance, I say that a character is a giant, you'll probably remember he or she is big for the rest of the book. Using an unusual word, like gargantuan, can work, too.
  • Making it consequential - If I tell you a character was abused as a child and then show him or her shirking away from a friendly touch, it's likely to stick in your mind.
Of course, there is more that must be clear and remembered in a story than a character's history or a specific trait. There may be social/magical rules or environmental challenges or alliances. These can be highlighted in the same ways and should be if they are pivotal.

A classically difficult way to deliver and emphasize important information is through dialogue. Often, the words are too obviously coming from the writer, put into some poor character's mouth. Even worse is every exchange of dialogue is an opportunity to build characters and make them come to life. Having them dump essential information and speak unnaturally degrades them and kills that opportunity.

One more point: Different readers often attend to different things. A reader of Regency Romances may see a character revealing himself to be a cad based on how he presents his card -- something other readers would miss. A reader of SF could be relied upon to understand an encounter with a minor, but unexpected, source of gravity by a spacecraft on a long mission could be fatal. Those who love Thrillers may be primed to note the failure to encrypt a text message.

But it is best not to assume your audience will detect subtle points. Test with readers to be sure. And don't do what many writers do. Don't tip off your early readers by providing a logline or summary that makes all the essential points. If you do, they may not notice that you did not do the job where it matters, in your story.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Bonus Scenes -- Less pressure, more fun

Ah, the middle of the book. Somewhere between the halfway mark and three fourths, things start to sour for most writers. This is the slog. One thing I have at the ready to keep me writing is my list of reasons. These remind me of why I need to/must write the novel, and do so in a convincing way. But having good reasons doesn't often make the experience more fun.

I've discovered another trick. It may seem counterintuitive, but I rescue myself my adding scenes.

Doesn't that eat up time and extend the agony of working toward the ending? Not really. While I spend time writing extra pages, what I learn expands my understanding of my characters and reveals the full potential of the plot. This exercise cuts time off of the rewrite and catapults me into the "required" pages that sit on my to-do list.

Here's my process (the first two steps are from an earlier post):
  1. I title the scene. This forces me to think about it holistically as opposed to as a series of exchanges.
  2. I add a subtitle that begins, "In which..." Anyone who has read a lot of older novels is familiar with these subtitles. "In which our heroine Beatrice steals Alexandra's locket." Beware of subtitles where a character "finds out" something or "insults" another character. Ask what finding out leads to. If she finds out her best friend has betrayed her, is she forced to flee Coventry? Ask about the results of that insult. Does Harold challenge Christopher to a duel at dawn?
  3. I write the scene that most engages me. This may be one that raises the most questions or one that is emotionally important. Either or both of these can build a connection with a work, especially if it is missing a vital piece. But, more often than not, the scene I choose to write is the one that promises to be the most fun.
  4. I allow myself to do a lousy job, race forward to parts that are calling to me, and get totally off track. I'll even jump around to write from different points of view if it feels right. After all, there's no pressure here. On paper, this scene is not essential to the story.
  5. I make sure to write any part that is difficult or unsettling, or at least to explore it through detailed notes.
If one bonus does not reconnect me with the work in progress, I'll write another and another until I'm back in the groove. If I need to, I'll write one in the voice of another author -- often the least appropriate with the most outrageous result.

This extra work forces me to dig deeper and to view my work in progress from fresh perspectives. It is a courtship exercise that helps me to fall back in love with the story and rediscover the fun. When I can't wait to get back to my real chapters, I'm done with the bonus scenes.

The value in the insights and rekindled enthusiasm always outweighs the investment in writing. In addition, I find the subsequent work goes faster, with the words spilling out with little hesitation. In general, I've found bits and pieces find their ways into the manuscript. (In one case, a block of a dozen pages fit in without changes.) While I've been reluctant to take detours into bonus scenes, I've never regretted it, and it always has added to the fun.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Making Friends With Your Characters -- Five tricks

If you're a novelist, you probably spend more time with your characters than with real people. In addition to putting their actions, words, and thoughts into prose, their needs, concerns, and tough choices probably occupy you mind all through the day and possibly in your dreams. If you're like me, they also talk to you, often at the most inopportune times.

I have no interest in devoting such a big chunk of my life to characters who repel or bore me. One of the secrets to productive writing is making the overall experience fun. If it is painful or unpleasant, it becomes something to avoid. And characters play a big part in the experience.

Naturally, the main character should be empathetic, even likable. The MC is the one who keeps the reader engaged. But, for the writer, all important characters should be engaging, even the villains. In most cases, even for pantsers, just telling the story isn't enough to make that connection. More is needed.

Some writers go through a great deal of character building and that becomes a basis for a relationship. To me, the classic fill-in-the-blanks exercises are sterile. Knowing a character in abstract terms isn't enough. I interview my characters, and often ask open-ended, even quirky questions. That does a lot of the job for me, but sometimes I need more. Here are a few other things I've tried:

Most embarrassing moment -- I think this is a sure way to build sympathy. We have all suffered from embarrassment, and the experience can be vivid and memorable. Now, what embarrasses me may not to embarrass some of my characters, so just putting a character through my embarrassing moments won't always work. But failed attempts usually point me toward something that will expose and distress even the most hardened characters.

Listening to the voice -- Sound is important to me. In my head, I hear the diction, intonation, timbre, and delivery of each character when I am involved with my work in progress. Almost always, these voices come to me spontaneously, but occasionally, I've had to keep my ears open as I've watched TV, sampled YouTube, or eavesdropped a the mall. I suspect some writers shanghai a voice they've heard, and, if the works for you, great. What happens for me is, after experiencing many voices, the character seems to select bits and pieces as his or her own, and I'll get the voice in a quiet moment, without choosing it.

Working together -- For me, the best way to get to know someone is to collaborate on a project. Many of my projects (like this blog) are in my head already, and it's easy for me to get a character to join in. Where they participate, how they need to be managed, and what insights they have reveal them in new ways. (For the less intellectual characters, I may need to imagine help with something physical like mowing a lawn or making a repair.)

Asking advice -- One thing that can get in the way of writing is having a worry or concern. Often, the problem will be interpersonal. Asking advice from characters can help me explore solutions and enlighten me about the character at the same time. Of course, if the character suggests a solution that is criminal, it is best not to put this into practice in the real world.

Introducing to a friend -- I like this best. I don't introduce my characters literally. It all happens in my imagination, so the friends don't need to be in recent contact or even among the living. The important thing is leveraging what I know about friends and how they're likely to react to elicit moments that tell me more about my characters. Often, this is so successful, I'll introduce the characters to a number of friends.

Overall, it's about inviting characters into my real life in some way that is vivid and compelling to me. Not every approach works for every character, and some of these can lead to unpleasant experiences (which can be useful later on). If they are dull through and through, I work to remove them from the story or minimize their participation. They fail the casting call. But, if they are unpleasant or repellant, I'm apt to keep trying exercises until I find one dimension that reveals what I need to empathize with the character, and that is enough.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Breathing Space - Time for readers to feel

My natural tendency is to write scenes that take little time to develop and pop along as quickly as I dare. While this is necessary for many short stories and often valuable for the first few pages of a novel, it can take away from the experience later on.

Lately, I've been exploring immersion because I want readers to get lost in my stories. My primary approach has been to ask myself after reading if I felt like I was in the world of the story. If yes, why? This has led to a lot of revisions where I have provided more cues to settings, more care with dialogue tags, and a little more description of characters. I'm still using less than many writers, but the results so far seem to be paying off for readers.

One surprise is how this affected the impact of emotional scenes. Because I often end a scene or a chapter with a turn that evokes fear, sadness, foreboding, or joy, the words in the next section do reach a reader who is experiencing these feeling. With quieter starts, building the sense of place, I've found readers have more time with the emotions. They aren't forced to switch gears abruptly and attack new questions or process new information. This settling time allows the reader to have enough time with the sharper emotion. It's more engaging and also deepens identification with the characters.

Since I've discovered this, I've begun to look to see where pacing is used to achieve this effect in the writing of my favorite authors. They do this throughout their stories, with more description and quieter sections prevalent where the emotions are most acute. But they also use this to provide beats, in smaller ways, for less dramatic emotions (such as amusement and emotion). It is an integral part of the pacing for most good authors.

Now that I'm aware of it, I am working to get the amount of quiet writing right throughout my manuscripts. The best clue that it is too much or too little? Reading out loud. I've read my work out loud to find errors, to discover rhythms, and to refine word choice in the past. And now I understand that I have unconsciously used it to get the quiet space right. But not enough.

Thankfully, now that I'm aware of this kind of pacing, I'm seeing (and hearing) more opportunities to get it right. My style will never be languid, but I'm hoping it will feel less hurried.