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.