Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Put Poetry into Your Prose -- Adding impact to your manuscript

Often, it can take longer to read and appreciate a great poem than it can take to get the gist of many commercial novels. Great poems demand much of readers, but each reading reveals new delights.

Why do I bother saying this in a blog dedicated to productive writing? A fast draft novel and a carefully crafted poem seem to be at odds. But one can inform the other. Letting the words flow as you quickly compose a novel excises revealing images and insights from your subconscious. It requires a tolerance for uncomfortable ideas. And it practically compels you to write in your authentic voice.

Working as a poet slows you down. It forces you to allow sounds, ideas, emotions, and the delights of the senses to coalesce into something that finds its own perfect form. Then the work must be distilled down to its essentials and, finally, mercilessly polished so every facet shines.

Go fast. Go slow. Don't go at a pedestrian pace. Something will be revealed.

Because of this, I alternate between prose, in the form of novels and short stories, and poetry, in the form of songs and poems in my stories and scripts.

Scripts? Yes. Good scripts approach poetry. With a lot fewer words, they deliver a story that is as vivid as any novel's. Whole movie sets are constructed based on minimal descriptions. The tools you have to reveal character are limited to a few lines of description, actions, and dialogue -- and in the case of some roles supporting actors, Oscar-worthy performances have been based on no more than a few pages of writing. When you read the scripts for The Shawshank Redemption or Glengarry Glen Ross, you are, unmistakably, reading poetry.

Prose and poetry can become the yin and yang of a writer's life. Unfortunately, a lot of writers neglect the latter. But attention to slow work, not just fast, can raise the quality of whatever you are writing and make it stand out with descriptions, dialogue, and incidents that are unforgettable.

Interested? If you've neglected your poetic side, try these exercises to get started:
  • Write a line of dialogue for your protagonist or a two-line exchange that reveals who a character is.
  • Describe an important setting in 25 words or fewer. Make sure its importance comes through and the tone is clear. Make sure every word is essential.
  • Convey a strong emotional reaction in a fresh way... without mentioning the emotion. 
  • Write an action sequence where the lengths of the words and their sounds help immerse readers in the scene. 
If it's too difficult to do this with your own work, build your skills by trying these exercises with a work of fiction you're reading. Either find successful examples or tune up unsuccessful ones.

Writing should be fun most of the time, and it's likely you'll take delight in slowing things down and discovering the value of poetry in your prose. Be careful not to take this too far and make it the only way you work on stories. There are benefits to both writing drafts quickly and focusing on details in a deliberate way. Formulate your own balance diet that includes regularly using both approaches. This will help you to take full advantage of all fast writing has to offer while constantly delivering the impacts that are only available through the perspectives and techniques of poetry.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Make Your Conflict Organic -- Adding a monster is not incidental

Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep) is one of my favorite authors, but one quote of his makes me queasy. "When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand."

Maybe he shouldn't be blamed for every TV series that turned to a forgotten cousin or a guest celebrity playing himself or a character jumping a shark. Too many stories get spoiled by adding events and conflicts that did not grow out of the characters or the premise. I'm all for surprises and revelations. They are absolutely necessary to hold the attention of readers and viewer. (In some genres, secrets are foundational and expected.) Unexpected twists have the effect of forcing reflection on all that has gone before. And they deliver insights that are otherwise unavailable.

But throwing in something from out of the story world, something without a setup, or excessively broad does not deliver on the promise of the story. A rampaging robot or a surprise witness or (sometimes) a man with a gun who has no reason to be there -- other than to juice things up -- may get a visceral reaction (distract the audience from a plot hole), but the story is sacrificed.

Sometimes, as in comic books, adding archvillains is just part of the deal. The special powers of these characters become part of the premise for each new story. Ideally, the premise that comes with the new nemesis, once added to the superhero's world, is not violated, it's developed. But this is not the same as adding a new layer of conflict to a story that doesn't fit the world. I hate it when a series I like introduces an evil government entity that suddenly stirs up trouble. And not just because it is a cliche. The protagonist is being tested in new ways, to be sure. But the tests have nothing to do with with established character's needs and wants. To me, this spoils everything that went before. It's like putting salsa instead of icing on a birthday cake.

As a writer, you can get away with a lot. Look at magic realism (a genre I'm fond of). It provides surprises that verge on discontinuities. But they do not cross the line. Twists can be as extreme as you want them, but they need to be organic. They need to belong in your story. So check your work before you write "The End."

Be fair -- Make sure you've provided the clues, evidence, and tone that keep you from destroying verisimilitude. If your protagonist is going turn out to be a nattily dressed golem, include hints of clay on his bowtie somewhere before the revelation.

Integrate the idea(s) -- Make sute the introduced concept impacts every element of the story it should. Be especially cognizant of how the resulting conflict challenges something important about the protagonist.

Make it consequential -- Don't introduce a conflict that does not create changes that persist beyond the relevant scenes or episodes. Make it matter for the whole arc of the story. If the cousin is revealed to be a monster intent on conquering Earth, the rest of the family, going forward, needs to be viewed with suspicion.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A Pantser's Guide to Revision 5 - Immerse your reader

It is a wonderful thing to get lost in a story. And it's a rude awakening to be thrust out of it. Pantsers seem to turn over control to muses more often than plotters, and so they naturally create drafts that have scenes and chapters that engage readers deeply, while also making mistakes that drive readers away.

Let's look at the positives for the pantser:

Each time the write sits down to work, the story is organic and likely to come out in a rush. Unexpected details and surprises emerge without deliberation. The sense of telling the story -- which is what the reader comes for -- is always ahead of conscious design and architecture. With all of these, the flow the writer is likely to experience is transferred to the reader. While a plotter needs to repeatedly let go of what is planned and give in to the experience of the moment, the pantser relies almost entirely on living through the scene in real time.

This sounds great, but there are downsides to pantsing:
  • Too much. Sometimes the muse can be too generous, providing details the reader doesn't need and slowing the pace of the story. Don't be afraid to cut.
  • Too little. This happens most often when the characters start talking and the non-verbal elements of the scene are neglected.
  • Changes in tone. I think, at times, different muses show up. (For me, it is often a comic muse in a serious piece or the reverse.) The effect is almost as if the scene comes from a different book. Very disconcerting.
  • Inconsistencies. The muse doesn't always remember details from day to day. Eye color can change. Locations get switched. How names are spelled gets transformed. But the reader remembers.
  • Problems of logic. The muse can hypnotize Sometimes she makes it seem as if things fit together when they don't. 
  • Errors. The muse is a lousy researcher. She doesn't always get it right. While a plotter often builds from facts, a pantser drops details in as they are remembered and imagined. Don't assume anything. Fact-check.
  • Darlings. The experience of pantsing can transport the writer, and it is difficult to let go of the emotions connected with the creation of some sections. Sorry. If they don't belong in the story, they have to go. Save them for the next book. 
Any of these can stop a reader cold. And once a reader is distracted, the immersive experience ends. Some of these problems may get picked up using approaches spelled out in earlier sections of this Guide. If so, good. But it might be helpful at this stage of revision to keep this section on hand as a checklist. You might also ask beta readers and editors to be alert for these problems, since they may be invisible to you.

Beyond problems, it's important for pantsers to invite the reader into the story. Like dreams, pantsed stories often seem obvious and enticing to writers who have special information, and the writer is already participating without an invitation. This means special attention needs to be paid to beats, hooks, and cliffhangers. And, as stated above, leaving enough out so there is room for the readers imagination will provide a way for readers to engage.

Once this (along other work from this series) is done, read your story aloud one more time. Make fixes. Then hand your story off to beta readers and editors. Make sure they know you want to be alerted to anything that stopped them from reading or took them out of the story.

For the rest of the Pantser's Guide, see:

A Pantser's Guide to Revision 1 - The problems
A Pantser's Guide to Revision 2 - Listen to your story
A Pantser's Guide to Revision 3 - The rest of the story
A Pantser's Guide to Revision 4 - Fixing your plot

For more on immersion, check out:

Lost in the Story – How to create immersive experiences in fiction 1
Lost in the Story 2 – Creating immersive experiences in fiction

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Pantser's Guide to Revision 4 - Fixing your plot

Inventor Nicola Tesla could imagine complex electro-mechanical devices in such detail that it was difficult for him to determine if he had built them or not. I suppose there are a few pantsers who can map out entire novels in their heads or generate prose day after day without introducing blind alleys, characters who don't fulfill their arcs, and lots of loose ends that need to be cut or tied. But for most pantsers, plot problems are not a surprise.

The good news is that the unexpected elements that turn up because you write by the seat of your pants can add surprises, fun, and insights to the final work. And, if they don't, they can be cut. Anything can be fixed, and it's easier to add magic in the original creation process than it is to salt it in later. Panters may dread the rewrite, but they have freedom that those who meticulously plot out their stories usually don't. When the story begins as a clever but bolted-down design where everything counts, flaws can become a big deal. Perfect pieces need to be fashioned to make the repair or fill that exact hole that shows up in the draft.

Plotters do have one big advantage in fixing plots -- it's much easier for them to spot where the problem is. They can return to their detailed outlines and check the logic. They can pull out their character analyses and identify actions that aren't motivated or that take the story away from its design.

Pantsers often need to create outlines and sketches after the draft is done.

Here's what I do first:
  • Examine or explore the logline. Is the protagonist's goal simple and clear? Can success be shown in a single photograph-like image?
  • Write in a sentence what the main character wants. 
  • In another sentence, write what he or she needs.
  • And, if I can determine the theme (sometimes I can't), I write that down.
These often come out in incomplete or confusing ways, but even partial answers provide good guides for the next steps:
  • Outline the story, with full sentences for each scene in the work.
  • Separate plot from subplot if possible.
  • Subject plots and subplots to the South Park test. (Scenes can be connected by "therefore" or "but.")
  • Make repairs as necessary.
  • Subject the plots and subplots to Jeffrey Kitchen's "Writing Backwards" approach to story logic.
  • Make repairs as necessary.
At this point, I often need to move some scenes around so they flow in a more logical manner. (This creates its own set of minor discontinuities and puts some clues and reveal into the wrong places, but that's not a concern now.) I also probably need to write some more scenes. And lots of scenes look like they need to be cut. (I don't erase them. I put them into a separate folder. They may turn out to be of value later.)

When I've done all this work, a lot more rewriting might be necessary (and, happily, obvious). But the good news is that I should have a solid plot that works. There may be problems with pacing (trimming usually helps a lot here) and emotional involvement (reentering the story is essential and, often, making life tougher for the protagonist is the best answer). The specifics of fixing scenes may be tough to handle, but the plot is now as strong as any that is done by master plotters.

So the biggest challenge for seat of the pants work is answered at this point. The dreaming is done (mostly). The work of the mechanic is complete. Now the pantser needs to take the role of reader and make the changes needed to create an immersive experience. Next time, get ready to get lost -- lost in the story.

Go here if you want to read the Pantser's Guide from the beginning.

My first How To Write Fast book will be out later this year. As part of that, I'm looking for opportunities to present seminars, speak, and guest blog. I can be reached at howtowritefast@gmail.com
Want more? This course has just begun.

Lost in the Story

Dates: Jun 6- 27, 2016 Cost: $20
Course Description:
A workshop on reader immersion.
We all know what it’s like when we enter a story so thoroughly we forget the world around us. Getting readers totally engaged is a huge part of success for fiction writers. In this class, you’ll work with the instructor to master the four essential elements of story immersion: creating a good foundation (meaning avoiding mistakes that can distract), sensory details (in the right measure), emotion (especially concern for the protagonist), and verisimilitude. As you continue, you’ll learn to architect your story with hooks, surprises, turns, pacing, and a satisfying ending. The class will conclude with voice, style, and ways to charm the reader.