Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Fiction Writer’s Aptitude Test - A non-scientific way to explore your strengths

I’ve read a lot of wonderful work, both by professionals and amateurs. For those I know, it’s surprisingly common that writers don’t appreciate what they do well. They tend to focus on problems or to get hypercritical about where they are “lacking.”

I suspect more success (and writing joy) comes from going with your strengths than focusing on weaknesses. Yes, unless you have a talent that trumps major shortcomings, you do have to achieve minimum levels across most elements of writing. But why not make the most of where you’re really good? Why not celebrate the gifts you have?

So below is a far from scientific aptitude test. I think the topic areas are worth exploring, especially if you haven’t considered them in isolation. The choices under each topic may add some perspectives, but they mostly are here for fun. My hope is that you’ll get a fast, entertaining read, with a few pointers toward deepening your understanding of what you have to offer as a writer.

As a writer, I am adept at:

1 Creating wonderful, memorable characters.
        A. People find protagonists in my story empathetic and believable.
        B. My main characters have voices so distinct, they are readily distinguishable.
        C. My characters reveal who they are through relationships with other characters, both in speech and action.
        D. You can understand my characters through the decisions they make.
        E. My characters are layered and surprise without contradicting who they are.

2 Giving readers powerful emotional experiences.
        A. My stories dare to include the most powerful emotions, not just lighter ones: Rage, not just irritation. Delight, not just contentment.

        B. My characters depict emotion through action and expression, not just words.
        C. Emotional experiences are given the proper space, with words and images that provide readers with time to absorb and react, without diluting the feelings with excess verbiage.
        D. Emotional moments are deftly set up for the most impact, e.g., by using comic relief.
        E. Emotion feels fresh and authentic, with no cliches or melodrama.

3 Producing dialogue that pops, crackles, advances the plot, and reveals characters.
        A. My dialogue has no extra words and avoids the dull parts of how real people speak.
        B. Dialogue is witty and distinct.
        C. Dialogue is organic, fitting the character and the situation rather than showing off.
        D. Dialogue is not “on the nose.” It includes subtext.
        E. Most of the dialogue, including humorous quips, serves a story purpose.
4 Composing with lyrical language that delights readers.
        A. It’s a smooth read.
        B. The work (appropriately) uses poetic techniques.
        C. The best of the lyrical phrases feel so natural, they open readers up rather than bash them with their cleverness.
        D. The words invite rereading and expose fresh undercurrents each time.
        E. Reading the work out loud is a sensual experience. The words feel good in my mouth.

5 Telling stories with plots that twist, turn, and resolve in a satisfying manner.
        A. People feel compelled to tell my stories in their own words to others.
        B. Surprises delight and seem inevitable in retrospect.
        C. Characters seem to create the plot through their decisions and never feel like they have been pushed around to make the story work.
        D. The story questions are clear, even though they may not be explicitly articulated.
        E. The ending answers the story question clearly, supports the theme, and ties up important loose ends.

6 Hooking and holding readers so they compulsively turn the pages.
        A. The title, first sentence, or first paragraph creates curiosity and deep interest.
        B. The story escalates with greater stakes.
        C. Every revelation until the end raises more compelling questions.
        D. The reader can’t put the story down.
        E. The outside world disappears as the reader gets lost in the story world.

7 Building worlds that invite readers to immersive themselves.
        A. My story world makes sense and doesn’t break its rules.
        B. There is enough description to allow readers to imagine the world.
        C. There is enough left out of the description so the reader has the opportunity to participate in world building.
        D. All the senses are engaged.
        E. The story world shapes the characters. They belong.

8 Presenting fresh, authentic perspectives.
        A. My protagonist’s point of view takes the reader out of his/her comfort zone.
        B. The expression of the perspective invites curiosity and engagement.
        C. The code of the unfamiliar character (or society) is clear and relatable.
        D. There are elegant transitions from strangeness to empathic responses.
        E. A lesser known aspect of the human experience is illuminated.

9 Providing prose that is so clear and logical the reader pushes forward with no confusion.
        A. No lines need to be reread.
        B. The logic is unquestionable.
        C. All characters act in character.
        D. Goals, stakes, obstacles, and questions are all specific and clear.
        E. All ambiguities are intentional and fair to the chosen audience.

10 Deftly slipping in knowledge, wisdom, and experiences that broaden real-world understanding.
        A. My story dares to have something to say, and says it artistically.
        B. Facts, including fascinating ones, are metered out in a way that is clear without feeling out of place in the story.
        C. The act of writing exposes unexpected or freshly nuanced truths.
        D. Some of what is depicted feels risky and creates vulnerabilities.
        E. The thoughts dare to go as far as they should and no further.

11 Illuminating the human experience through humor.
        A. The audience laughs.
        B. Humor emerges from character as much as situation.
        C. Some humor can reach those who might disagree with its premise.
        D. If any characters are made the butt of jokes, I punch up, not down.
        E. The basics could have been expressed in an interesting way without humor.

12 Offering imaginative images that resonate beyond the text.
        A. Metaphors, whether they are in descriptions, circumstances, or how stories evolve, are fresh and apt. They aren’t stretched too far.
        B. Images are vivid and memorable.
        C. Images invited different interpretations.
        D. Imagery is consistent and has unity.
        E. Imagery does not disrupt or distract, it deepens the experience of the story.

13 Choosing and learning about readers in ways that enable strong connections.
        A. I have written a draft with a known person in mind.
        B. I have talked to those who might be interested in such a work.
        C. I have gained experience of the challenges, values, and interests of audience members.
        D. The knowledge, idioms, and areas of curiosity of the audience are understood.
        E. The attention spans, likely distractions, and taboos of those in the target audience have been assessed.

14 Drafting freely, with compassion, audacity, and acceptance.
        A. The first draft explores and is playful.
        B. The process puts editing aside and allows experimentation.
        C. There are parts of the draft that are disturbing and risky to share.
        D. Even when the draft is done with an outline, there are surprises during the process.
        E. The drafts almost always have enough in terms of tentative beats, elements of character, and theme to be worthy of revision.

15 Revising efficiently and persistently so the full value of the work can reach readers.
        A. Even if new approaches are used during revision, success is assured by a documented fallback process.
        B. All the key dimensions of revision (completeness, story logic, structure, description, language, etc.) are addressed, usually by multiple passes.
        C. At some point, helpful readers are invited in and listened to.
        D. I have a process for assessing criticism and responding appropriately.
        E. The endpoint for revision takes the full value of the story and makes it available to readers.

16 Imagining and developing concepts and premises that prompt cascades of ideas and draw readers in.
        A. Curiosity and taste drive the collection of possibilities for stories, and these are recorded in full sentences and sorted for easy retrieval.
        B. My ideas, from images to complete loglines, are captured, developed, and evaluated to provide strong writing options.
        C. The expressions of concepts arouse interest and suggest high value.        
        D. Each premise is expressed through specific characters that raise the story’s payoff.
        E. My concept is of genuine interest to me, not just marketable.

17 Constructing scenes that are paced and structure to both achieve their purposes elegantly and serve the larger work.
        A. Each scene explores something important to the story.
        B. What is at stake in each scene is clear.
        C. Power shifts within the scene make readers worry about characters.
        D. The rhythm of each scene shifts seamlessly among actions, descriptions, reactions, and rumination.
        E. The outcome of the scene (often negative in terms of the main character’s goal) is clear and suggests what might need to be explored next.

The above is not comprehensive, but I hope you found some points to ponder. (If you actually came up with things that make your work wonderful that I missed, that’s even better.)

There’s plenty of reason to feel good about your work if you said yes to even one note under each category. And, depending on you genre, you might be happy even if some are missed entirely. YOU get to decide. Though there might be some places where improvement is possible (and that’s great), I hope there are no reasons to feel unhappy. Improvements may open new doors, but you can also see those areas where you have demonstrated aptitude already. For these, the doors are already open. Now it’s about mastering these areas so you can burst through the open doorways and reach your dreams.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Statements That Can Reveal Your Characters - Forcing reactions

I’m always asking questions (some rude) of my characters so I can get to know them better. So I came upon this recently while reading The Cold Dish (first in the Longmire series). Everyone, including the Sheriff, is spooked by an old Indian gun. Longmire explains to Vic that it’s haunted. There are “Old Cheyenne hanging around the thing looking for people to abduct and take back to the Camp of the Dead.”

Vic says, “Cool.”

I was delighted. That reaction was perfect. With one word, Vic had both surprised me and revealed her character. The passage showed me how a reaction to a simple statement can be as useful as any question.

There’s something similar in Sleepless in Seattle:

Annie Reed - You know that dream when you're on the street naked and everyone is looking?
Becky - I love that dream.

What are the elements about these responses that are so compelling?

1 In each case, there’s a statement (or a rhetorical question) that has an obvious reaction we’re supposed to have. In both these cases, the statements relate to fear, so Vic is supposed to be uneasy. Becky is supposed to feel vulnerable or embarrassed.
2 In each case, the first character has had the reaction we expect.
3 The other character surprises us with a reaction we may not have imagined, one very different from the other character, which illuminates the differences between them.

The wonderful things about having characters respond to statements are:
1 In the best cases, you learn something about them.
2 You can also diagnose a big problem—not enough contrast between characters. If you have a series of statements to which key characters have essentially the same response, you have a problem.
3 If none of the characters give you a response that surprises you, they may be too flat. It’s possible you just know them well, but it’s worth exploring.

I generated fifteen statements by reflecting on common fears and needs. I then thought of contrasting characters I “know,” and put down my first answers for each. I had fun and some surprises. For this effort, I used Annie and Becky from Sleepless in Seattle and Felix and Oscar from The Odd Couple. (More on Felix and Oscar later.)

To try it yourself, you might use a pair you easily could provide answers for:
Spock and Kirk
Burns and Allen
Mozart and Salieri
Leia and Han
Thelma and Louise

It’s great practice, and it will really pay off when you pull characters in from your own stories.

So here’s the fifteen I came up with. Even working rapidly, there were some surprises (underlined) for me.

An asteroid will hit New York City in about an hour.
- Annie  Oh, my god! That’s horrible.
- Becky  I’m finishing the cake.
- Felix   It’s about time.
- Oscar Well, there’s no point writing my column.
Someone planted cameras all over your home.
- Annie  Even in the bathroom?
- Becky  November third. Can I get a copy?
- Felix   Is there a ransom?
- Oscar   Enjoy the show.
CNN is on their way over to interview you live.
- Annie  A cause. I should talk about a cause for good. Which cause?
- Becky  How do I look?
- Felix   Tell them to wipe their feet before they come in.
- Oscar  Tell them I don’t have time.
There’s a hurricane warning. Get into the closet.
- Annie I’ve heard lying in a bathtub is best. With a mattress over you. And if you have a radio and some bottled water, bring those. And…
- Becky And miss it?
- Felix How big is the closet?
- Oscar Okay if I smoke?
We found the alien, in your wrist just under your skin.
- Annie  Ack! Ugh! Get it out!
- Becky  How alien?
- Felix  Take the arm off. I mean it.
- Oscar   Get me a hammer.
Your (wife, husband, lover) has been kidnapped.
- Annie  What do I need to do?
- Becky  Again?
- Felix  I’ll pay any amount.
- Oscar  This is going to cost her husband.
That ring you’re wearing gives you the power to speak with the dead.
- Annie  Grand-dad, I’m here.
- Becky   Can I talk to anybody? Freddie Mercury, I know you’re there.
- Felix   I had a cat. Siamese. Blinky. Can I talk to Blinky?
- Oscar  Uncle Louis, what happened to your coin collection?
We’re lost.
- Annie  Misplaced.
- Becky  It’s the first step in discovery.
- Felix I’m too young to die!
- Oscar  Follow me.
You’re living in a computer simulation.- Annie  But it seems so real.
- Becky  Do I get superpowers? Can I fly?
- Felix  With viruses? Bugs?
- Oscar  Computer. Bring me a beer.
You were in a horrible accident and your brain in now in cow.- Annie Is it a happy cow?
- Becky  Do I get to wear a bell?
- Felix  Are there any other animals available?
- Oscar  Bull.
You’ve lost all your money.- Annie  How?
- Becky Two words: Credit cards.
- Felix  I knew it would happen.
- Oscar  What money?
The building is surrounded by terrorists.
- Annie  Shelter in place. How do we shelter in place?
- Becky  Are any of them cute?
- Felix   I begged for a safe room. I pleaded for one.
- Oscar  Felix said he saw a rat. I called the exterminators.
You’re horribly allergic to coffee.
- Annie  Tea will be fine.
- Becky  I’ll have a double espresso to go.
- Felix   Add it to the list.
- Oscar  Thank god it’s not beer.
You’ll never see your family again.
- Annie  I don’t understand.
- Becky  The best news I’ve had all day.
- Felix  No! No! They can’t survive without me!
- Oscar  Does that include my ex-wife?
The government has an exact copy of all your computer files.
- Annie   Really? I accidentally erased some files I need. Can they help me?
- Becky  Tell them all the good stuff is in the folder marked “Magic.”
- Felix  I’ve never owned a computer.
- Oscar   Are they offering me a deal?

Here are a couple more you can play with.
There’s a recall on kale.
We’ve discovered you have an evil twin.

You can use my statements or make up your own. I suggest doing so without reference to your characters, otherwise it’s like leading the jury.

Feel free to try an event instead of a statement. A great example is in Ghostbusters, when Venkman gets slimed. Venkman is disgusted. Ray is delighted:

Dr. Peter Venkman - He slimed me.
Dr. Raymond Stantz - That's great. Actual physical contact. Can you move?

If you really want to switch things up, there’s no better example than when Felix tells off Oscar in The Odd Couple. Brilliant as always, Neil Simon puts the unexpected piece first:

Felix - All right then, you asked for it. You’re a wonderful guy, Oscar. You’ve done everything for me. If it weren’t for you, I don’t know what would have happened to me.

Oscar comes back with a monologue that does the expected, really tells off Felix. But he has been thrown off so completely, it breaks him. He cracks up. And that’s something that wouldn’t have happened if the monologues had been reversed.

So play with statements as well as questions. Turn things around. Explore whatever provokes strong emotions. And see what these exercises tell you about your characters and your stories.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Bigger Wows – Adding more emotion to story revelations

Burying the lead is one of the classic sins of journalism. It's equally sad when a writer has a good surprise or twist in the story and fails to create the best context to give it the most impact. A reveal is (or can be) more than just an answer to a question or a solution to a puzzle.

Minimally, there should be a reminder of the peril to the character or the stakes somewhere close by in the text. This could be a mention. It could be an action that raises stakes. Or it could be an image that is associated with the concern the character has. Some writers have their stories so well-established in their heads that they forget that readers sometimes put the book down or are distracted. Be generous. Without hitting them over the head, provide readers with what they need at hand to get the most out of the wow moment you're providing.

Of course, a great way to bring the experience of the revelation to readers is through the characters. Oddly, this is something I often find missing in drafts I read. Having a character react emotionally to what's shocking or unexpected cues the reader to respond more fully. It need not be as obvious as a sitcom's laugh track, but a little nudge can go a long way.

In some cases, it might be necessary to change whose point of view the scene is written in (moving from one character’s third person limited or first-person perspective to another’s). Of course, this probably isn't a good idea unless that point of view has already been established in the story, but I've often seen big turns in stories improved by such a shift.

Seeing the consequences of a revelation right after it occurs in the story is a great way to convey its meaning. This may follow naturally, as when a gun is pulled out and someone gets shot. But it also can be accomplished by jumping forward in time. Someone wins the lottery, and the next piece of the story is a tour through the character's mansion.

Consequences may include changes that go beyond the specific character. Families, communities, and even worlds may be transformed by a victory, loss, or a new perspective. For instance, Tolkien illustrated the power shifts in Middle Earth by including his Scouring of the Shire chapter, which showed the story's heroes clearing out the villains who had seized control of their home.

What has become the classic example of a surprise that reorients the audience to the whole story is The Sixth Sense, where the protagonist discovers at the end that he (spoiler alert) is dead. It resets everything that has been seen before.

There are ways that writers undermine good twists and revelations. Primary among these is cluttering the story or the key scene with distractions. Explaining minor questions too close to the big reveal can be irritating and force readers to decide what's important. Especially interesting items that raise questions in the story may create expectations, especially with regard to how puzzles might fit together. Sometimes these are not visible to the writer because he or she isn't making the same kinds of connections as readers. Editors and other people for whom the material is fresh may provide the best indicators that the story includes these kind of distractions.

It's both possible and valuable to have small questions and small surprises within a story. In particular, these can be used to manage engagement and pacing. Comedies, in particular, rely on objectively unimportant twists to build laughs and entertain. But, in general, if you consider the context for any key revelation, you get the chance to highlight it in ways that will improve the experiences of your readers.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Five Ways to Make Story Descriptions Memorable

It seems like a contradiction—many readers skip or speed through description to get to dialogue and action, but they come away with detailed pictures of the worlds and the characters. In fact, I’m guessing that the descriptions in the works of Tolkien, Jack London, Raymond Chandler, and Ursula Le Guin are as powerful and as much bait for rereading as the other elements. Even when we can quote the dialogue and recite the plot points by heart, we come back to their works to reexperience the descriptions.

How do we create depictions that are impossible to skip? Here are five suggestions:

1. Make it brief. Unless it’s unavoidable (for clarity or planting clues), use as few words as possible to help readers place themselves in a scene or visualize the characters. A page of description invites readers to jump ahead (or put the book down). A few sentences can be read thanks to sheer momentum.

2. Make it surprising. If you do research and provide details that are honest, apt, and unexpected, it gets more interesting and it sticks. The only caution here is readers will cling to the bits you provide that grab their attention. It’s best if there is a reason for them to keep them in mind. It’s a mistake to drop a peacock onto a character’s lawn unless it tells the reader something about the culture, the character, or (eventually) who-done-it.

3 Be indirect. The best boxing match announcers spend more time talking about the impact of the blows (both literally and in terms of how the victim reacts) than whether it was an uppercut that landed. It’s fine to say Boxer A threw a right hook, but it’s much more effective to mention, Boxer B staggering back, raising his hands defensively, and bleeding from the cut below his eye.

Be poetic. If the language you use melts in someone’s mouth when they read it aloud, it almost doesn’t matter what it says. Readers will refrain from passing description by it to get the to page of dialogue that beckons them. Besides the sensual experience, poetry includes devices like metaphors that are rich and evocative. With very few words, poetry can convey a lot of information. It also invites readers to come back to the work since it will feel good to return and the same words may reveal more with time.

5 Invite readers in. It’s a paradox that leaving things out draws readers in. Holes leave places for readers to grab on, to participate. A detailed laundry list that provides all the physical details or all the psychological aspects of a character (or complete histories or explanations) does not raise questions or provide opportunities for imagination. Be selective without sacrificing essential clarity. How do you know what to include? That comes down to really knowing your readers.

When I write a scene, the first draft is aimed at one specific person. And once it’s finished, I challenge the descriptions by considering what question he or she would ask. Asking questions because of curiosity or concern for a character is good, and I will rework the material (often making cuts) if there are no such questions. Asking questions because things are muddled or unintentionally ambiguous encourages me to revise so all such questions are answered.

Descriptions are critical to providing an immersive experience, They put readers into your stories. They help readers to distinguish characters and make empathy more likely. And, when done effectively, they keep readers engaged. The story will be a page-turner not because it’s being skimmed, but because it’s impossible to put down.