Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Unexpected in Fiction 1 - The uses of surprise

Most popular fiction depends upon balancing the expected and the unexpected. A successful murder mystery works because it both plants clues that make the revelation at the end fair (expected) and redirects our attention so that the solution surprises us (unexpected).

Other than the charm of the writer's voice and the quality of the prose, what captures and holds readers is the delight of being surprised. Let's look at the different kinds of surprise that might occur in fiction and how they can be used.

Sometimes authors opt to shock readers. Things that suddenly appear — a man with a gun at the door – or go further than convention allows – impolite language, sex and violence beyond what's usual for a genre, the grotesque — can startle and disturb readers. These are the equivalent of shouting, "Boo!" or walking naked into school board meeting. Hard not to react to, but cheap and sensational without some level of context and justification.

This is not to say that it is wrong to startle readers. Shock is part of the emotional palette and can be used to change the rhythm of a piece or to open readers up to new ideas. In addition, a lot of humor depends upon shock.

Revelations go beyond identifying murderers. The twists and turns throughout novels dependend on revealing bits of information that both answer questions and raise new ones. It's frequently valuable to save the biggest revelation for the end of the story (or close to the end), but a novel that is continuously straight-ahead and full of expected developments is liable to be boring.

Lesser known facts can add to the fun of the story. Sometimes, these are details that fill out and change perspectives on what "everybody knows." Sometimes, they are reasonable explanations that subvert conventional wisdom. Or they can be as simple as "truth is stranger than fiction." One of the joys of Doctorow's Ragtime is the presence of historical figures who actually did some of the things that show up in the novel and who met each other in real life. This can be analogous to finding a puzzle piece that fits into a picture, completing it in a satisfying way.

There can be surprises as well that change the meaning of everything that went before. A familiar example is the appearance of the mostly buried Statue of Liberty at the end of the original "Planet of the Apes" movie. (This brought groans to SF fans, but it amazed most theatergoers at the time.)

At a deeper level, the true character of someone might be revealed in a story or an unsettling truth about life might be put forward after the writer has set us up to be vulnerable to it. James Joyce's epiphanies are good examples of these.

In popular fiction, there's nothing wrong with cheap thrills. They are the stock in trade of spectacles and magic shows. A good writer can use these directly to entertain or to lead readers to new understandings. But, with larger and more subtle intentions, a writer can deepen the appreciation readers have of what life has to offer.

How do you create the most effective and powerful surprises in your writing? That's something I'll explore in my next entry in this series.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Write Who You Are 6 - High(er) art

As part of the previous post in my Write Who You Are series, I opened up the topic of intent. Specifically, I introduced my own non-Academy thoughts on what might be considered High Art.

I did this not as a way to exclude people or topics, but to inspire and raise questions. Even if you believe the thirty-second television commercial is today's Cath├ędrale de Chartres or the value of art is completely subjective, you may find what I bring up here provokes a response that suggests new directions for your work. I make no claims that this is authoritative, but I've found it helpful for me.

So here, from the base up, are the details:

Convey facts and lessons. Because no lab bench was available to me, I started my career as a biochemist by writing up processes for every product my company produced. These had to be simple, clear, and complete. I paid special attention to any cues (such as color changes) along the way that might let people know they were successful. Since some mistakes could be costly (millions of dollars) or life threatening, I had to get it all right. In addition, these works made it possible for this start-up to cash in at a later date.

That's challenging, honorable work, but pretty basic. A higher level in this category is material to supplement education. My courseware usually includes examples, exercises, and indications of the practical value and social values of the information.

Mastery requires deep understanding of the readers and what they are bringing in terms of skills and knowledge. It's important to know why people might read the materials and to pay off their expectations. Motivating them to reach further is a plus. Clarity trumps style and subtlety.

Entertain. I like roller-coaster rides, desserts, and fun. I resist my Puritan heritage and accept the validity of amusement and good times. Though I'm always suspicious of charm and charisma, they both have value in drawing people in, distracting them from sorrow and tedium, and even making the rough journey to enlightenment more palatable. Is it sweet, savory, sexy, and/or playful? Bring it on. I'm also inclined toward and respect the sensuality of language. I read poems out loud because they feel good in my mouth.

In the same area is surprise, a trick of time, expectations, and revelations. It's the key to thrilling readers.

Mastery here requires a knowledge of structure, timing, telling details, recognizing the quirky, and raising questions. Be sensitive to what journalists look for -- the unusual, the useful, the dangerous, the endearing, and the salacious -- is important. Charm and X-factors can supercharge the entertainment value, but I'm not sure if they can be mastered or if you need to be born with them.

Immerse the reader. When marks on a page put someone into another reality, they can have experiences that are deep, authentic, and valuable. These literary simulations, which I covered in detail in my Lost in the Story series, bring people out of the narrow worlds they live in. When a writer is at his or her best, the story will involve readers with just enough details to invite them to complete the worlds with their own imaginations.

Mastery is mostly based on creating emotional engagement, but sensory details and verisimilitude are important components.

Provide insights. I love aha experiences. For me, these have come via experiments, calculations, conversations, and being present as life rolls on. They've also come in reading. James Joyce consciously framed his stories to provide epiphanies -- not the surprises at the end of O. Henry stories, but revelations that were deeper. Sharing, in a way that is earned by the story, something that shapes the meaning of life, is a high calling. It can change individuals on a personal level and help move societies toward sensitivity, justice, and awareness.

Mastery comes primarily from creating rich characters readers can empathize with and challenging situations. Authentic insights in real life come out of struggles and require facing contradictions. The same is true in fiction.

Offer fresh perspectives. One of the wonders of fiction comes down to a simple offer -- Come along with me and live in someone else's head. Stories allow us to think strange thoughts, participate in unfamiliar decision-making, and experience the world in ways that are foreign to us. If you went through your average day within the body of another gender, or as someone with a disability you've never had, or viewing everything through the eyes of someone who has different values or ethnicity, you'd never see things the same way.

Good fiction does this. In my lifetime, doors have opened that have allowed me to share the points of view of people who were hidden during my parents' times. Diversity does matter, as much for those who read as those whose stories still need to be told.

Mastery here may mean finding what you alone have to offer and, even if risky and painful, presenting it with care and authenticity. But don't be afraid of appropriating other cultures. When done with honesty and respect, this only expands perspectives.

Provoke. This one is obvious. Raise questions. Get past assumptions. Disrupt. Take on conventional wisdom. Challenge the status quo. Speak truth to power. Disturb the comfortable.

Mastery demands you take chances and not be coy about it. Also, that you examine yourself for blind spots, prejudices, and unquestioned beliefs. Learn the tricks of being memorable and hard to ignore.

Break through. Reimagine your art. In the service of providing something truly new and essential, dare to innovate.
 It's fun to explore these in isolation and see how the best writers accomplish these aims. Of course, it's exciting to read works that are able to do all of these well at once. We call these masterpieces.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Write Who You Are 5 - Eight paths

As you work to create stories only you can tell and to make them as good as they can be, it's worth considering different approaches to excellence. While I don't claim this is a complete list, here are eight paths you might take as you write who you are:

Pay attention — Any ideas you have need to be expressed in terms of the world around you, even if your work is fantasy. The closer you observe nature, people, and social structures, the better able you will be to ground your work in a reality that encourages people to share your fictional world.

Follow your heart — There is a mathematics to storytelling, and it can be helpful in revision, especially in finding missing pieces. However, since people read fiction for an emotional experience, it's invaluable for you to pay attention to what moves you and connects you with truths that go beyond facts, logic, and order. Trust your gut and follow your intuition to its limits.

Explore — Treasure your curiosity, both in terms of what life presents you and in new ways to express your vision. Don't be afraid to move into areas that are unfamiliar, strange, and even offputting. Always welcome the possibility of surprise.

Take risks — It's good to remember that you never have to show anyone a single paragraph you've written. You can write a chapter in blank verse or a love scene that would make your friends blush. You can write down the ramblings of a vicious murderer or share delicate feelings and experiences that are too close to speak aloud, even in a whisper. Once you've captured these, it may be that you'll find only a few that you'll dare to make part of your manuscript, but those you do choose to share are likely to be precious.

Do the hard thing – Whenever you have a choice between a point of view that feels uncomfortable and one that doesn't, between a character's extreme action and their reasonable response, between a theme that embarrasses you and one that is likely to bring acclaim, select the former and not the latter. You can always go back and redo your work to bring it into line with the establishment, but it's unlikely you'll be able to work in the other direction. So stretch yourself, always, to do work that disturbs you.

Have courage — This can be difficult if you are not a daring person. We all want to be accepted and many of us want to be rewarded. Few people are happy with disdain and disapproval. Take a chance once in a while. Fail and learn from the failure. If you never have anyone hate the work you do, you're unlikely to find anyone who's transformed by it.

Seek mastery — Keep learning about your craft. Take courses and talk to colleagues and find mentors. Most of all, study work that is outside your interests and that represents the best that can be done.

Now, all of this is good but insufficient. It's critical that, once you recognize a technique or an approach that pushes you to do your work at the highest level that you make the effort to be the best you can be. Do exercises. Write samples. Get feedback for your work. Always be trying to go beyond "good enough" in one aspect of your writing.

Aim higher — While any work that is masterfully done is a delight, it's good to strive to have real impact with your writing. It has gone out of vogue to distinguish between high art and low art. In part, because of the abuse of experts, who traditionally have used their definitions to exclude approaches that made them uncomfortable and people who they thought didn't deserve recognition. There is a long history of intolerance for diversity that has twisted concepts of what should be respected. However, I'd like to suggest that there are differences in artistic ventures worth keeping in mind.

My personal pyramid, going from bottom to top, begins with conveying facts and lessons. Next is entertaining work, with all of its charms. Up at the next level would be worked that immerses you in the experience. Above that, stories that present, in an elegant way, insights and epiphanies. Fresh perspectives often offer even more. And near the top would be those tales that raise questions and provoke people to challenge, explore, and rethink the status quo. Somewhere in here, perhaps at the highest level, would be breakthrough work that reimagines how storytelling might change us and our society.

Be kind to yourself — This isn't one of the eight paths, but I feel compelled to add it because much of what I've included among these approaches can be demanding both in work and in sacrifice. You're not required to be a hero all the time. Stumbling and giving in and taking things easy are all part of the human experience and acceptable. No good comes from insisting on perfection all the time.

I hope some of this is helpful as you take on the challenge of writing who you are. Next time, I'll explore the "aim higher" pyramid in more detail.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Write Who You Are 4 - Selecting projects

Once you have a better understanding of what you care about, it's good to work toward having this insight drive which projects you choose to take on. You want to move toward High Authenticity Writing as soon as practical.

This does not mean immediately dropping everything you're doing to analyze your options and refocus your efforts. You probably have a Work In Progress (or a best candidate for a WIP). Keep at that so that your good habits as a writer continue. Also, it would not be a good idea to immediately stop work on any projects which you are obliged to finish, especially if a contract is in place.

Even if you have nothing in progress and no obligations, be sure to keep writing. Choose a small project like a short story to work on and complete as you do the work necessary to planning which works you need to write. But, put a date on the calendar, which will be the start date for your "write to you are" efforts.

Begin by brainstorming a list of 3 to 5 opportunities that seem to make sense. (You can start with a longer list, but whittle it down so the ranking is not too onerous.) Then you can begin to evaluate these.

What are your criteria for selecting projects? Ultimately you get to decide. But here are some suggestions:
  • Passion probably will be important as you review your options. Use the other lessons in this series and/or your gut to determine how these rank as far as which is the most important one for you to tell. 
  • Evaluate each in terms of how fresh it feels and how it will provoke you to explore new ideas and connections. Give extra weighting to anything that makes you a little bit uncomfortable.
  • Since you are looking for a new direction be careful about choosing one-off projects that, although enticing, are less likely to set you on the right path
  • Think about the time commitment implied by each choice. Don't set yourself up for a project that will take you nine years to complete when there's another on the list that might be nearly as valid and doable in a year or less. 
  • For many people, financial outlay should also be a consideration. Sometimes dedication to the art requires sacrifice, but don't martyr yourself if you don't have to. Starvation makes it more difficult to have fun. And you should be having some fun.
  • I'm a big believer in deadlines. Whatever you put your hand to, see if you can determine a completion date. If you have the discipline, this can develop into a full-fledged plan, with lots of commitments on your calendar. But there's nothing wrong with looking toward finishing your project in time for submission to a writing program or a contest. In fact, many people I know who have had success use contests as a spur to complete their manuscripts.

If you are not fully committed or you are still figuring out what matters most to you, you may want to ease yourself into High Authenticity Writing. I suggest the first one you choose the one where you expect to have a good experience. Get started with as many positive vibes as you can.

You can push your limits later and reach toward higher ambitions later on. First, get your feet set. There will also be practical considerations, like working in a genre (science fiction, romance, thriller) and format (short story, novel, script) that you have experience and perhaps a track record in. A shorter work means less of a commitment. You don't want to spend the next year working in a genre you have experience in but which is not the best for you.

So, 1) don't stop writing, 2) consider setting aside some time (not your writing time) to determine short-term criteria to ease yourself into High Authenticity Writing, and 3) mark the date on the calendar to determine your long-term criteria and to rank and select your next project or two.

Have as your goal making your writing process a richer and more fulfilling experience.  Chances are, if you do this and you complete and submit your works, the truth and value of your efforts will show through and will provide what only you have to offer to readers.