Monday, November 27, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 8 - Developing your story ideas

According to two-time Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, "The best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas." If you write regularly, you probably already know this. Most authors I know are forever capturing story concepts in journals, dictating them to create audio memos, and scribbling on the backs of receipts. (Those who are serious take Ray Bradbury's advice and write the ideas down in full sentences.)

Most concepts wither away and die of their own accord. The excitement that caused them to be recorded fades. Some rattle around until they meet another idea and find their ways onto to-do lists. The most persistent refuse to go away. They keep popping up, sometimes hooking writers years later and demanding full treatment in a novel, a short story, or a script.

But an idea is not a story. Even the most evocative logline needs to be developed into something more, with characters, a setting, and a plot that has a beginning, middle, and end. It's just fine to let all this development happen as part of the writing process. Writing by the seat of your pants ("pantsing") is a legitimate way to grow as story from a small seed, and it's a great way to end up with an organic work that is full of surprises (if you're careful not to settle for cliches).

There are rigorous ways to develop an idea. Once a story goal is clear, you can write lists of tasks the protagonist must complete and more lists developing the possible obstacles. These can be pruned, organized, and shaped into a detailed outline that provides the blueprints for a story.

It also can be valuable to look at the concept one piece at a time, and that's what I'll present in this post:

Choose characters who have a lot to lose. I just wrote a piece based on a real incident. Historically, reputations were at risk, but that was not very dramatic. I kept the same issues and the same event, but I lowered the social standing of the characters. These people had their careers, their marriages, and even their health at risk.

Moving up socially can work for different stories. For instance, an affair usually puts people at risk, but it usually would put a prominent televangelist more at risk than a grocer or a car mechanic.

Manipulate power. The best stories have people pushed to do the impossible. If it's not hard for the protagonist, it's not much of a story. A man needs to drive into the wilderness to say goodbye to his dying mother. A rich man goes there by helicopter. It takes him a couple of hours. He travels in comfort. A poor man needs to get a car. He can't get one that can go off road, which means he has to map out a longer route that may risk his getting caught in a snowstorm. He won't have a heater in the car. He will only have enough food for four of the five days needed to reach his destination, and none for his return. Etc.

Age can be power, too. Ten-year olds can't drive and are not allowed in bars. Sex? Think of what was forbidden to women through most of history (and into today).

Culture and intelligence can be power.  MacGyver was so versed in engineering, he could create problem-solving devices out of whatever was at hand. Most people couldn't. Or making language an obstacle can put your protagonist at a disadvantage. (In fact, there is a whole genre of fish-out-of-water stories, where local knowledge collides with the odd ways of an outsider.)

Raise the stakes by making the character critical to a larger goal. In his stories, James Joyce seems obsessed with the failure of Charles Parnell, an advocate of Irish Nationalism. He was a key figure in his time, and, when his adultery was revealed, his political support faded away and Ireland had to wait decades for independence. Making a potential personal failure relevant to the outcome of a cause that affects many can sharpen your story.

Avoid what's sensible. The best stories are not about reasonable people. They are about believable people who are pressed beyond what's reasonable. So be careful about providing any conventional answers to the story question. Find some that are not reasonable and make them believable.

George Bernard Shaw said it best, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." Unreasonable men also have better stories.

That brings up what I mentioned above about not settling for cliches. Here's something I've tried with my classes. Make a list of 20 animals. When people do this, most of the animals are common across some of the students lists. Almost always, however, when the last few animals are listed, they are distinct for each student. Originality comes up later, with some work (and even desperation). Your answers on how to do a story task like break into a warehouse are likely to begin with the obvious. But, if you keep at it, you'll come up with something special.

Of course, this article does not provide an exhaustive list of approaches to idea development. In fact, it leaves out one of my favorites, which is a free-wheeling brainstorm with imaginative friends. I love it when anything is acceptable and people get competitive about going for the most outrageous possibilities. The best stories are often the most extreme, especially those that take the writer out of his or her comfort zone.

So, give idea development a try. Play with characters, stakes, and obstacles. The only rule is to keep going until something weird and enchanting emerges.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 7 - Pacing, fast and slow

If you write page turners, people will seek out your work. An important factor in accomplishing this is managing the story’s pacing. For many writers, this comes naturally. The events of the story just emerge as appropriate for their storytelling style. But, especially for longer works like novels, it may be necessary to consciously adjust the pacing.

The ideal? Everything in the story gets the time that it needs. And there aren't any hard and fast rules as to how long you should dwell on different portions, because much of this depends upon getting the balance between emotion and verisimilitude correct. But it’s obvious when writers get this wrong. Emotional scenes go by too fast with too little impact. Events jumbled together in ways that make them less clear. Descriptions seem to last forever and readers end up skipping past them to get to the dialogue.

So let's review some ways to hit the gas pedal and some ways to put on the brakes.

Too Fast
To get the most out of scenes that capture the heart or make readers laugh, set them up properly. Take the emotional moments you've written, and look to see what's before it. Mostly, readers need to have some indication that the main character of the sea is anticipating something. Springing on a motion on a reader is a little like stepping out from behind a curtain and shouting "boo"! In general, the bigger the emotional payoff, the more the character should be looking toward its possibility. So try these two things:

First, add to the story in a way that extends the time of anticipation and the stakes are the experience that's coming. And do this through the character as much as possible.

Second, explore the possibility of interjecting a different emotion right before the big payoff. This switch stops the reader from protecting him or herself from feeling too much. Writers have known about this technique for a long time. A great example, is comic relief, where something funny happens before an anticipated tragedy or horror.

Too much speed can also lead to disorientation, so it's worthwhile to take a fast-moving section and make sure that time, place, and the identities of participants are completely clear before things begin to happen. This is narration with the purpose.

Scenes can also feel like they are moving too quickly when they lack a singularity of purpose. It's always a good idea to write down why a scene is in a story. This practice becomes essential when it feels like too much is going on. Take a deep breath. Write down the purpose of the scene. Make it specific. And see if this is the only (or nearly the only) reason why this piece is part of your work. Your apt to find out that the scene tries to accomplish several things. (The solution is to simplify.)

Too Slow
Too fast is not usually a problem for writers. It's much more likely that some scenes will go too slowly. Take your scene and highlight everything that isn't moment to moment. This includes characters remembering, description, and most narration. I like to pull out almost all this in the first 30 pages, and most manuscripts I read spend most of the first 30 pages in this mode. To get yourself into the right mindframe for balancing moment-to-moment with the rest, take some favorite scenes from authors you love to read who write in your genre, and mark them up in the same way — highlighting whatever is not moment-to-moment.

Simpler than that technique is to just look at the pages. Chances are, if your story is moving too quickly, it has long paragraphs and too little dialogue. Look at the white space on your pages and compare it to work that moves more quickly. The answer is likely to be right in front of you.

One more thing: emotion always makes the pages fly by. If they seem to drag, it's entirely possible that not enough attention is being paid to evoking emotions. So read over your text, checking your heart as you go. I had one manuscript that I critiqued where I thought a lack of emotion was the problem. I was wrong. The emotion in those pages was terrific, but it was buried underneath lots of nonemotional detritus. Once I struck out all the excess wordage, especially descriptions and reflections that primarily provided background information, the work was wonderful and it moved.

Sometimes stories get into trouble because they get away from the spine. Even areas that may have intrinsic interest can drag down the pace if they pull readers away from the story question. Sadly, these parts also need to be cut. But there is one rule to keep in mind — don't cut funny. What is good practice in normal storytelling can be skirted whenever your writing comedy or interjecting light moments (including comic relief). So my final suggestion is this. Pay attention to your instincts. They will rarely be wrong.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 6 — Three voice exercises

I sympathize with editors and agents who have to wade through piles of manuscripts, most of which sound the same. The second rate versions of Nora Roberts or Stephen King or Clive Cussler can wear you down. And the anonymous bestsellerese of some writers attempting to be glib is impossible to connect with.

In conferences, on webpages, and in blogs, the professionals looking for fiction make it clear that each day they hope to find, somewhere in the slush pile, a distinct voice — language and perspective that stands out as individual and authentic.

I've written a few posts about voice in the past. I think there are some right ways to develop your own voice open: using dictation, writing dialogue–only scenes, and (ironically) writing pastiches that capture the voices of other writers. There are wrong approaches: writing diatribes, writing essays in ways dictated by long-forgotten sixth grade teachers, and any sort of "how to" writing — which needs to be clear and often becomes generic.

So, for this addition to the blog, I'm going to suggest three exercises that may help you to develop your own voice. They all begin in the same place, choosing an individual you know well to address with your work. Picking out someone in particular forces you to deal with intention, interest, pacing, and word choice that writing for an audience can't match.

Do you have someone in mind? Good. Now try this:
  • Describe your favorite scene from a story. It doesn't matter whether it's from your own work or from an author or movie that you connected with. Just communicate the images and the feelings in a way that would be understood by the person you've chosen to address.
  • Write about an occasion in your life when you were hurt, but not wronged. We all have cases where people around us, including people who love us, cause us harm. And it can be difficult to put these in perspective when blame isn't easily assigned. The hurt itself becomes more vivid when you try to explain why it felt bad without complicating your explanation with accusations or intentions.
  • Imagine a circumstance when you felt wonder or gained a positive insight about people, society, your world, or life. Then relate this incident as clearly as you can while including all the reasons why it mattered to you.
For each of these, the goal is to identify something that's meaningful to you, but is not overwhelmed by relationships, feelings of guilt, or feelings of injustice. The language you use to bring these experiences to someone you know well is likely to be distinct and completely owned by you.

If you wish to, you can return to these exercises and write to different people you also know well. This will give you a different dimension of your authentic voice. If you can do this work by dictating it, you'll probably have better results than if you simply type the words out. If that doesn't feel comfortable, take the time after you've finished your writing to read your exercises out loud. This will help you to connect with your own voice and smooth out any pieces that didn't come naturally.

Once you've done this, the trick is to take the voice you've discovered and move it into your novels, short stories, scripts, or whatever else is your usual writing. This may not happen automatically, but with practice, the sound of your work will change in ways that will help it to stand out when it reaches agents, editors, and other gatekeepers.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 5 - Creating the best secrets

I've become borderline obsessed with the use of secrets, surprises, lies, and revelations in stories. These turns creates excitement and delight. They capture attention and keep readers and audiences engaged.

The fun can range from someone shouting "boo!" (or coming through the door with a gun) to curious facts to stunning images to deep, life-changing insights. All of them are valid and, minimally, increase the entertainment value of the story. Often, especially in terms of secrets and revelations, it's assumed that these are developed in plotting. This does happen, but I think the most fruitful secrets and revelations emerge from deep knowledge — of characters and of the worlds in which they operate.

For me, surprises appear in two ways. Some of their by design, having emerged from analysis of the characters and the worlds. Others — which interest me the most — seem to come from someplace else. There is no real chain of logic that I can identify. Intuition may be at work. Effectively, the surprises that thrill me most are those that blindside me. A character whispers in my ear or an image appears in the daydream.

I'm not sure this can be turned into a repeatable approach. But an exercise I do, which I call connect the dots, often creates situations that lead to unexpected ideas. Here's how it works:

For a world, especially a world that is intimately tied to the story's premise, I make a list of captivating images or scenes that might belong in the story. Then I activate my logical, analytical brain and try and see how they might be connected with each other. I don't do this once. I do it several times.

This pushes me to go beyond the obvious. It helps me to create a narrative that makes me uncomfortable and even shocks me. When I feel that what I have is both exciting and disturbing, I know that this will take the story to a new level. As an added bonus, since I have created parallel narratives, I sometimes can use one of those as an alternate explanation that may change expectations for readers and audiences enough so the turn in the story will be fair, but won't be anticipated.

For a character, I focus on intentions. There's nothing more powerful than a deep understanding of why a character is doing something (or series of actions). Often, the character is motivated by the needs (at times, hidden even to them) and the approaches they take are twisted by some trauma.

After I’ve played around with ideas around the character's intention, I think of three specific critical actions or tasks. It's best if these come separately like the captivating images or scenes explore to uncover secrets about the story's world. The less they have logical connections, the better. Then I work, once again, to connect these three in a variety of ways. Once again, I'm hoping to come up with something that's exciting and disturbing.

So here's what I suggest you try at home:
  1. Take your story, your work in progress.
  2. Look closely at either the world or the protagonist.
  3. Find your three images, scenes, actions, or tasks.
  4. Connect these in 3 to 10 different ways, making sure at least one disturbs you.
With luck, you'll have secrets, surprises, revelations, and lies that will make your story more vivid. And here's one more thing to consider. If you are far enough along to have a sense of what the theme of your story is, look at some of these connections and see if any of them express your theme in an intriguing and memorable way. If so, it's likely that you are on your way to providing insights that will delight your readers or audiences.