Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Touch a Nerve - Bringing honesty and courage to your work

The one thing you owe your readers, no matter what you write, is the truth. In nonfiction, this may be adherence to objectivity and use of verified facts. In fiction, it is the truth of the heart, of insight, and of the spirit that matters. Authenticity may be rooted in a few facts, but it is mostly connected to perceiving, recognizing, and communicating with honesty and courage.

Honesty in writing includes honesty with yourself. The things that matter to us and shape our lives are often uncomfortable and even frightening. We have many ways of protecting ourselves from seeing the truth -- mostly by focusing on what we expect or on received wisdom. Even when we recognize unfamiliar or dissonant elements of life, we can keep ourselves safe by false rationalizations, references to exceptions and coincidences, and inappropriate contextualization. If you find yourself explaining away something that didn't fit, it often means a coping mechanism is at work.

And, if your realization upsets the status quo, do you dare to communicate it in a way that could cause you trouble? Do you hide it in the language? Provide safety hatches for readers or escape clauses for yourself?

Now, the writer can make strategic and artistic choices. That's fair. Few writers have entertained or influenced without making their work interesting and appealing. And the needs of the audience. My cousin, writer/comedian Barry Crimmins said comedy and satire allow one to "smuggle in content."But, usually, most of the qualification and framing that allows access to an audience happens in revision. The first draft, in general, must be frank and unapologetic.

At each step along the way, there may be fear. Truth challenges us to move out of our comfort zones and change. And change engenders risk. This is where courage comes in. Anything you write will find opposition. But, when it starkly and clearly provides a fresh -- and accurate -- point of view, people will howl. They will go out of their way to undermine you and your work. On the other hand, it will touch people, defenders will rise, and the work itself will have value to individuals and society.

So how to you become more honest? Sometimes, you analyze an important point and find your way to the logical conclusion, careful to use (and not misuse) your critical thinking skills. I usually carry a question or theme in my head. Humility absorbed years of thought. The questions "what is hope?" has been a longtime companion. These fill up pages, require reading, and demand fresh examples from daily life. They are a lot of work.

The easier route for me is to make quick, unedited notes on what catches my attention or moves me emotionally in conversations, in calm moments, and in dreams. Necessarily, these must be complete so the observation is clear and accessible later on. The results and embarrassing, flat-footed, redundant, and never to be shared, but I take them all seriously -- even when I don't want to.

I try not to let these go by explaining them away. I look for the unexpected context that will make them resonate -- and often will make them more disturbing. This is when they begin to turn into story.

At this point, my craft could fail me or I might lose my nerve. But, if I continue with honesty and have the courage to complete the work, I'll have something that evokes strong emotion for me (and, I hope, for readers). And that will bring the truth into the light.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Ending with Courage -- The reader's reward

Getting endings right is tricky. Just making sure the story question is answered in a logical, satisfactory way is difficult enough. Making the ending memorable pushes a writer further and separates the best from the okay.

I provided some basics in three previous posts. Today, I'll focus on one aspect that, though not required, can really connect with readers -- Courage.

First, it's good to think about what courage means to you. Were you ever courageous? Did you observe or hear about acts of courage that meant something to you?

Here are a few ideas on courage I came up with:
  • Courage can only occur when the person is vulnerable. Physically taking on a bully isn't very courageous if you are bigger, stronger, and a black belt. It may if the challenge is verbal and you are inarticulate and face humiliation. The courageous person must have something big to lose.
  • The courageous act must be difficult and involve sacrifice.
  • A courageous act has an alternative and is freely chosen.
  • There is no hedging. The choice must be complete, absolute, and not a compromise.
  • The intent of a courageous act is benevolent. Though person acting might be doing something objectively harmful, the choice is made to achieve good. In the best of circumstances, it is a generous act providing a benefit or preventing harm to another.
  • In a story, courage needs to be expressed in an act (or a choice not to act) or a communication. In other words, it takes place in a moment of time. This does not mean there can't be a series of related acts in a story. What it means is that some real acts of courage, such as facing deteriorating health with dignity and grace, don't make good endings. The expression of courage in an ending must be a clear and singular event.
Once you have a courageous act in mind that fits your character, the sequence will be most powerful if it includes the following:

  • An explicit expression of stakes, preferably recently raised.
  • A clear and accessible indication of what the world without the courageous act would be like.
  • A chance to get away without personal consequences (and sometimes with a reward).
  • A clear rejection of the chance to escape.
  • Struggle and near failure in the act.
  • Merited and clear success without cheap tricks (such as a surprise weapon or a revelation that was not prepared for earlier).
That's the way I see it, and it points to opportunities to include courage in a powerful and effective way. Check to see how it matches a story you love. Could that ending be improved with courage or adding in missing elements? What about your own work?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Getting to Know Your Characters: An approach to learning their stories

I often get frustrated by conventional character development processes. The questions can be more like what a census agent would ask than what could benefit a writer. Now, bookkeeping questions have their place. Having answers to what eye color characters have, aspects of their education, where they fit into a family, etc. can come in handy around page 250 when you’ve forgotten. And these factual profiles are invaluable if you’re writing a series. But none of this says much about how the character will react under stress.
There are “prompt” questions like, what does your heroine carry in her purse? These can reveal some surprises in an indirect way, but only if they engage the imagination. Lists rarely are as informative as some teachers claim they are.
Then there are the flatfooted, mechanical questions. What’s your motivation? What’s your biggest fear? What’s you greatest talent? Biggest weakness? In context, these might tell you something about your character that’s important, and indirect answers can  lead to stories (which are good). Unfortunately, since the questions  always seem to be the same, the answers have the flavor of pop psychology or psychiatric evasion.
For me, the best way to gather information is to create an interview sheet for the individual character, keep things open ended, include what’s edgy, and listen. It’s okay to have a few fallback questions (or the equivalent) to get you going, but preparing thoroughly to interview your character is critical to success, just as it would be if you got the opportunity to interview a celebrity.
My most successful format is “tell me about,” with the focus being an experience that was bad. So here are some you might want to include:
  • Tell me about the worst date you ever had.       
  • Tell me about the most successful lie you ever told.   
  • Tell me about an adventure that went wrong.   
  • Tell me about a person whose loss left a hole in your life.
  • Tell me about your most embarrassing moment.  
  • Tell me about the time you remember when you came closest to death. 
  • Tell me about the biggest chance you screwed up.  

You can follow any of these up with, “Tell me about how that experience effects your behavior today.”
And most of these can be turned around to provide the character with the chance to reveal wonder, joy, honor, and insights. “Tell me about the best date you ever had.”
I always was entertained by the Pivot questions at the end of episodes of the Actor’s Studio. The answers were fun and, since the questions were known ahead of time, the interviewees were able to show off a bit. And I think, “What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?” led to some illuminating responses. But I always felt frustrated that I couldn’t ask my own questions. Perhaps they wouldn’t be answered by real people. In my experience, even characters need to be caught off guard.