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!