Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Five Writing Mistakes Worth Making

I came to life as a writer after working as a research scientist. One lesson I brought with me was humility. No matter how elegant and pleasing your theory is, Nature’s answer may be, “No, you’re wrong.”

Another lesson was Don’t be afraid of making a mistake. Most of the best discoveries began with an error (penicillin) or a “failed” experiment. For the former, new knowledge follows if you pay attention and work to understand what happen. For the latter, you find out what doesn’t work. On a deeper level, the best surprises happen after the researcher mutters, “That can’t be true.” 

Try something you’re sure to make a mess of. Getting out of your comfort zone stretches your imagination and your craft. If you haven’t tried it, write in the point of the opposite sex. Compose an epic poem or song lyrics. Write a fight scene or a sex scene. Develop an argument for a point you disagree with. 

Do the work with integrity, bringing everything you have to it. You don’t have to submit it anywhere. You should make notes afterward about what you learned and how you felt.

Let your character lead you into a dark alley. When a character takes a story into a wrong direction, let him or her keep going for a few scenes. See what happens. At a minimum, you’ll know more about the character, but sometimes you’ll find a new angle for your story.

Write too fast. Jettison punctuation. Put down the wrong word. Write nonsense. Let it flow until all that’s left is your own distinctive voice. This is not for publication, it’s for self-discovery, so charge forward.

Submit a manuscript you think is wonderful even though it isn’t. In the days before electronic documents, this would have cost you money. Today, you can test the reactions to your story with a dozen editors and have a dozen more to send revised versions to. And even a form rejection is feedback. A manuscript that sits on your hard drive will never have any perspective but your own.

Write something you’re not ready to write. I think this idea from Stephen King. Often stories do have their own times, but it’s also possible that hesitation isn’t fear rather than a need for ripening. And any story you are not ready to write is more likely to be wonderful than one that comes with no effort.

This list is far from complete. Many of the most important mistakes are made inadvertently. To have those opportunities, you need to spend a lot of time at your keyboard. Recognize something that did not go as you hoped it would. Move past the frustration and discomfort of making a mistake and accept it. Analyze the situation. And learn the lesson.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Heart of the Story

Hemingway said, to get started on a story, "All you have to do is write one true sen­tence." Graeme Shimmin has an excellent exploration of this idea, in combination with others, but I'd like to stick with the main concept, a focal insight into why your story matters.

I prefer to call this the heart of the story because ideas can be abstract. Jurassic Park is about resurrecting dinosaurs. Groundhog Day is about a man living the same day over and over again. The idea or premise for a story is a kind of starting point that can be analyzed and embroidered. Though it might come with emotional elements for you, that isn't necessarily the case. Some people begin from an even more distant point, a prompt. The Web is full of writing prompts, which seem to do well for nonfiction, but can be unreliable for creating stories that matter. (You can even follow Twitter sites to get regular prompts.)

A premise has real value, but you often need to do a lot of hard work at finding the emotional connection. It's not often you can sit down and compose the story with the premise alone (although, the muse may, occasionally, cooperate).

In the same vein is the theme of a story. Themes, correctly articulated, can reveal meaning and provide help in rewriting and, sometimes, in development. Generally, they become accessible only after many words are written, so they aren't usually the best starting point.

But, if you know the heart, you have the idea and the emotion together at the start. How do you capture a heart?

Absence makes the heart grow - For me, this often comes from looking at a list of premises or titles I've stored away. What may have amused or intrigued me, with the passage of time, is likely to emerge with full power with a later visit. I think my subconscious picks up bit and pieces and endows them with meaning when I'm not looking.

Grand gestures - Watch for this in life. When someone surprises you by behaving out of character so they can have a big impact on someone else, notice. Absorb. Create your own version, and start writing. (I like to think of these as demonstrations of love, but, for the sake of a story, they can also be the opposite.)

Beauty - Nature and art can expose the world in startling new ways. The response is inevitably emotional. And, if we are paying attention, there is likely to be an accompanying insight that can be articulated.

To find the heart of the story, something must capture your own heart. You must allow yourself to be wooed by observations, experiences, and rich ideas. Explore, be open, treasure what you come across, and revisit whatever has touched you.

Upcoming classes

February 2-15 The Perfect Setting (online) http://ce.savvyauthors.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=Calendar.eventDetail&eventId=2149
February 25-March 11 How to Write FAST (face to face) Westchester Community College http://www.sunywcc.edu/continuing-ed/ce/
March 9-April 3 Career Planning for Writers (online) http://yarwa.com/programs/

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Revision Questions: Sandwich or record?

I think Motown's Berry Gordy may have had the best test for a work of commercial art. Each week, he'd review the new songs and ask employees this question: Would you buy the record or a sandwich if you were down to your last dollar?

If you're writing for yourself, your friends, or "high art," this question doesn't matter. But if you hope to make a living writing or make the bestsellers list, you must provide an experience that is emotional, entertaining, and free of distractions. While we may appreciate the information and insight, we read commercial fiction for the thrills, tears, and laughs. We expect to be immersed in the story and to be carried along through highs and lows by a need to know what happens next. We have little tolerance for malformed sentences, impenetrable prose, leaps of logic, inconsistent characters, or scenes that don't go anywhere.

Few people can create beautiful, enticing, and clean copy in a first draft. The jewels are cleaned, cut, and polished during revision. Below are ten questions aimed at helping you with this process. They are not comprehensive, but they might provide a starting checklist as you develop your own list. As always, successful analysis and reworking of your manuscript needs to take into account your target audience. The changes you make to engage with a young adult who loves well-constructed fantasies will not necessarily be the ones you'd make to reach a middle-aged fan of technothrillers.

OK. Here's your starter set of questions:
  1. Is it clear? Does it make sense? Does it confuse rather than raise interesting questions? Are elements (characters, world, plot) inconsistent?
  2. Is it fresh? Does the premise intrigue readers? Are there surprises? Does it avoid cliches? Does it raise questions?
  3. Is is it a page-turner? Is there a problem with the pacing? Where did you stop or slow down? Are their long blocks of backstory and narration? Do you raise the stakes? Does it have hooks?
  4. Is the ending satisfying? Does it pay off the story question? Are important loose ends tied up? Does it fulfill genre expectations?
  5. Does it have the right scenes? Are there important holes in the story? Could some scenes be cut?
  6. Is your main character someone readers can identify with? Is he or she likable? Someone readers can sympathize with? Are there any "too stupid to live" choices?
  7. Did you pull your punches? Could some scenes be bigger? Go further? Did you risk your own emotions?
  8. Does a clear voice come across? Does it sound like you? Or an amalgam of your favorite writers? Is the voice right for the story?
  9. Is it poetic? Did you read it aloud without stumbling over the words? Does it include images you can't forget and phrases that feel wonderful in your mouth?
  10. Is it a clean read? Do sentences work? Are verbs strong? Is it typo-free?
This doesn't address genre specifics (e.g., sparks flying in romance novels, clues in a mystery), and answering all of the questions satisfactorily does not ensure that you have a work that works as a whole. There is no formula. Instead, like Gordy's sandwich question, this provides a first-order quality control that can save you from errors and omissions that make editors say, "This is not for me."
Upcoming classes

January 20-February 17 Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing Workshop (face-to-face) https://writerscenter.org/courses/science-fiction-and-fantasy-writing-workshop
February 2-15 The Perfect Setting (online) http://ce.savvyauthors.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=Calendar.eventDetail&eventId=2149
Februrary 25-March 11 How to Write FAST (face to face) Westchester Community College http://www.sunywcc.edu/continuing-ed/ce/

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Clarity Is the Soul of Wit

Fundamentally, writing is communication. Yes, it includes sound values, wordplay, images, allusions, and a fair share of nonsense and fun. (Anyone who has ever listened to comedian Sid Caesar's gibberish knows how far you can go with no attention to syntax and still succeed.) But confusing readers is one of the fastest ways to drive them away.

Making everything you write clear and unambiguous isn't easy. Robert Heinlein claimed that the best writing course he ever took was one where, in the US Naval Academy, his teacher presented military situations to the students and asked them to write orders on the blackboard. If anyone else in the class could misinterpret an order, the day's work was a failure. A job I had early in my career was even harsher. I had to write procedures for purifying enzymes and nucleic acids. Errors could cost the company a lot of money, but, worse, they could threaten the health of the lab workers.

In that case, my readers often did not have English as their first languages, and it taught me lesson number one: Know your audience. What words do they know? Can simpler terms be used? What is their education? Are they familiar with your references? Expressions? I used the phrase "In for a penny, in for a pound" in a Young Adult novel I was writing, and my daughter called me on it. Your assumptions about what people know about history, songs, public figures, and scientific facts may be wrong. Which brings up another lesson...

Get another pair of eyes. If possible, find beta readers (non-writers who will read complete manuscripts), and explicitly ask them to mark places that are confusing, unclear, or need to be read more than once. Ideally, you want someone who is likely to enjoy what you are writing. Genres have different demands. When I write science fiction, I can count on readers to be more comfortable with learning about new terms and concepts as the story unfolds. (James Tiptree actually recommended writers "drop readers in dark holes, and then don't tell them.") On the other hand, romance readers who read SF romances often don't have the same tolerance for uncertainty. They want the SF concepts clearly explained as they are introduced. (These same people would attack you if you explained all the secrets keeping lovers apart right away.)

Story logic can be another stumbling block. Leaving out clues and essential concepts (or introducing them in the wrong order or at the wrong times) can leave readers scrambling to put the puzzle together. And the emphasis or context is important, too. Mysteries play with this notion by purposely introducing red herrings and by creating distractions to make important clues less obvious, but this is dangerous business. Do it outside a mystery, and your wit may not be appreciated. Do it wrong in a mystery and you'll frustrate even these readers, who will feel cheated. Revelations in all stories must be handled with care.

The most common failures of clarity I see are places where it isn't obvious who or what a pronoun refers to or where there's confusion in the dialogue as to who is speaking. Fix these.

It is reasonable to push your readers' vocabulary -- slightly. Coming up with a few new words in a book can be a delight, provided they are the best words for what is being conveyed. Dialogue that is "on-the-nose" sacrifices subtext and opportunities to express character. And all art seeks subtlety and ambiguity that can extend the range of interpretations. But there is no room for showing off your vocabulary, wit, and intelligence to the point where you are frustrating and humiliating your readers. Resist the urge.