Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Writers, Try This at Home 15 – The power of selection

In my high school chemistry class, one of the first exercises was to write down our observations of a lit Bunsen burner. Most people's lists were small, as I recall. They concentrated on the colors in the flame and the shape of the flame itself. I filled more than a page with everything I took in — the smell, the sound, and even the distortion of visuals beyond the flame caused by what I came to know was the schlieren effect. All this was fine as far as being scientific, but the best literary descriptions are limited. By making the right choices, images can be conveyed that are vivid and convey emotion and mood without being exhaustive.

This is not to say that it's always important to be succinct. In moments of tension, stress, and high emotion, our real experiences tend to include more details. Time seems to slow down. And it's perfectly valid – indeed desirable – to emulate this in writing some of the more important and engrossing scenes in stories. Also, if you are writing something that is closer to poetry (Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes is a great example), more complete descriptions can build and sustain experiences that are both more subtle and multidimensional.

In general, however, a writer who leans toward including everything will wear out his or her readers and drive them away. Not only does it lead to unbalanced storytelling, but it makes it more difficult for most readers to participate in creating fictional worlds. Usually, a better choice is to select a few evocative elements to include, possibly supplemented with an apt metaphor.

How do you make the selections? Primarily, you look toward who your audience is. You don't want to choose elements that are presented with words that force them to open up their dictionaries and care must be taken with going into territories that are unfamiliar.

By the way, it's fine to have descriptions that are good enough for you in early drafts. These can be setups for revisions, providing enough information to narrow the choices, establish the right mood, and fashion strong prose later on. (This deals with all descriptions – of locales, objects, characters, actions, and what goes on inside your characters' heads.)

So, when you are drafting your story don't feel compelled to make your selections immediately. Feel free to include as much as comes to mind without editing yourself. While your muse may help you to find elements that delight you and may end up in the final draft (and even presents you with good metaphors) don't expect it to. Just get the words down.

During revision, focus sharply on your audience and on the larger context for the description. This is particularly important if you are presenting material that must be remembered, such as clues.

Then, you might want to follow three principles:
  • Fix anything that doesn't feel fresh. One thing that usually happens during drafting is clich├ęs and "so what" elements come to mind quickly. Challenge these. Make the effort to think about other ways to convey what you want in your description so it can have the maximum impact.
  • Trust your gut. For those elements that matter most, your tastes and sense of what is most important is likely to provide the best guidance on what you should select.
  • Ruthlessly cut. Especially if you but down a lot of description, it may be tempting to keep it around. It's easy to get charmed by your own words. Keep the overall goal in mind, which is telling your story in a powerful way. My rule of thumb is to highlight three elements in a description and see if the rest can be cut. Often it can't, but striving for the minimum number of words will help you to add punch to your prose.
You might want to take a second look at your work to see if you have included all your descriptions for analysis and revision in this way. Many writers tend to have a limited view on what description is, focusing on describing locales or what strange (such as a monster or an unfamiliar device). But some of the most important descriptions are of what your characters are feeling or what they notice about another person or activities. So don't miss these.

What to try at home? I've included a photograph of Abraham Lincoln. As a first step, you might want to write as complete a description of the picture as you can. Include everything you notice. Feel free to add a metaphor or two.

Then step away from your description for a bit. When you come back, try to convey what you see in the image and what the image means to you in a few sentences. (You might try to describe Lincoln within the context of historical fiction from a specific point of view like a political rival. Or see what description would, if you wanted to presents your emotional response to the photograph. Or even consider how you would present Lincoln as the hero of a romance.)

When you've done this exercise, look to see what you left out and see if you can discover some of the reasons why you made your choices.

Even working with images, emotions, and activities in isolation can make your story stronger. But, if you find your way to consistency and description from scene to scene, making the best choices for your reader in terms of vocabulary, clarity, and emotional hooks, you can put your readers inside your stories in ways that make what you write more memorable.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Writers, Try This at Home 14 - Anchoring your readers to your stories

I saw a short documentary about the creation of a music video. The special effects expert took a detour from all the celebrity gossip to talk about the key elements in drawing viewers in. He said reality was the biggest hook, which was why he had spent time creating just the right shadows for each segment so that the band – which had been reimagined as giants performing against different city backgrounds – would seem real.

This can be one of the great tricks for maintaining the suspension of disbelief for readers or viewers of any story. I think the best way to do this is to incorporate truth expressed in a novel way. When we recognize something the story as being authentic, and apt description as life as we know it, we tend to surrender to the dream being composed by the creator. Another approach, which works with mimetic fiction, is including details from real life. If, for instance, you can correctly describe a place where those in the audience have been, you can get them nodding their heads and looking for more.

What else can you do to stop your readers from escaping the artificial bounds of your story? It goes without saying that any errors – in language, and facts, or in internal consistencies – will pull them out the story. So avoiding mistakes is half the battle. A more subtle trick, which works especially well in the realms of fantasy (including science fiction and horror) is to use the credibility of a sympathetic character to make images and situations more credible.

Ultimately, I think the most powerful anchoring strategy is to choose a few details that connect with the reader through the point of view character. It isn't really necessary in most cases to provide a full description of a scene or a character the protagonist meets or a process – such as a sword fight. Selecting those things that matter to the viewpoint character, especially those that evoke emotion, is one of the most powerful ways to keep readers immersed in the scene you've created.

This is actually so powerful it can overwhelm problems and story logic and distortions in perceptions. Over and over again, I've noticed that readers will completely buy into the perspectives of unreliable narrators – which is a powerful proof of how identifying with a character creates its own reality. (This tends not to pay off for most readers. I found that the most difficult stories to sell are those with unreliable narrators — perhaps because it violates, or at least bends, the contract of trust between writer and reader. But it's not a bad thing to keep in mind when you need to finesse something your story to keep the plot moving forward.)

So what should you try at home this time? Here are three suggestions:
  • Find is scene you really love and a story and determine how the writer established credibility.
  • Take a scene you've written and see if an apt description will make it more credible. (Try this even if you believe the reality is already well-established. You might discover something useful.)
  • Consider one of your key scenes from the point of view of a different character. This is an exercise, so it doesn't have to be the best choice in terms of the full story. Rewrite the scene so that the details and factual elements would be true and compelling for a reader identifying with this alternative perspective.
There are other things worth exploring in terms of anchoring readers and the reality of your story. One powerful technique to look at is anything involving action, movement, or change. Just as it's easier to remember what a person looks like if you think about them doing something, it is more likely that a reader will put him or herself into a story if you can activate the mirror neurons that cause them to experience engaging in that activity.

Ultimately, the goal is to not just get your readers to lose themselves in the story, but to keep them as completely within the story world is as possible. It is this sort of attention to living within your narrative that makes readers want to go back to Middle Earth or Hammett's San Francisco or Scarlett O'Hara's Tara.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Writers, Try This at Home 13 - Titles for your stories

Public Radio International recently ran a story about a literary hoax — Naked Came the Stranger. The broadcast related how about two dozen Newsday writers came together to create a sexy bestseller. It was interesting, in many ways, but a remark on how the title came to be — taking two words, "stranger" and "naked," from other bestseller titles — got me thinking.

What does make a good title? Certainly, grabbing words from works that are popular in your genre is a pretty good strategy from a sales point of view. It's great to play off of positive associations, as long as you don't disappoint your public... If there are cannibals in your title, there better be cannibals in your story. Unless the title is being used ironically (which is a risky practice).

The safest bet is to come up with something that tells people what the story is about. With Star Wars, you knew going in that you'd be watching a science fiction movie and that it would include battles in space. The original audience might not have known that Night of the Living Dead was about zombies, but only the clueless would have expected anything other than a horror movie. Speaking of Clueless, it had to be a comedy, right?
Some titles just sound wonderful. I don't think it's a coincidence that To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Rings, Pride and Prejudice, Huckleberry Finn, and A Tale of Two Cities are among my favorite works, ones that I've read and reread over the years. A title that sounds good and is immediately appealing promises, at the very least, above-average prose. In many cases, it seems to indicate that the author and I will be simpatico.

Just  to get past knowing too much about the story, I looked at the list of the New York Times Notable Books for 2015. Here are some wonderful titles that would tempt me to check out the books:

City on Fire

Dragon Fish

The First Bad Man

Preparation for the Next Life

The Sellout

Thirteen Ways of Looking

The Visiting Privilege

These are two or three key words each, and many of them raise questions. Just like my favorite works. (There can be longer titles that are effective. Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" and "Repent, Harlequin, Said the Ticktock Man" are marvelous. Harlan is poetic and a risk taker. Among his works is the ironically titled "A Boy and His Dog." He also has the marvelously titled "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes," which is two words and raises questions.

One of my practices of the years has been to collect titles. I love it when words seem to belong together. I love it when they can be taken another way or raise questions. I love words that evoke feelings and images. In many cases, I've carried around a title for years before I understood what the story had to be.

One benefit of a great title is it will capture attention. A handful of powerful words can act like the images advertisers have always looked for, those which would cause you to stop and take a second look.

But for me, as an author, titles do more. They help to provide a focus for the work, if I get them right. In fact, a good test that I don't really grasp what my story is about is when I can't come up with the title that sticks in my mind and feels right.

The worst sin of titling is not paying it off. Wrong title for the genre? You failed. Points to a trivial aspect of the work? No good. Never gets explained or isn't explained satisfactorily? Sorry. You lose.

Never disappoint. Of course, a lot of fulfilling expectations is dependent on the audience for the work. The meaning of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is such an evocative title, is explained within the work and deepens your understanding of the story. However, there is a great meme where a cat is frustrated because he's read the whole book and never gotten clear instructions on how to kill a mockingbird.

So…

Try this at home. Collect a set of titles. (You may want to start with “The Greatest List of 100 Completely Random Movie Titles Ever Compiled in the History of Mankind.”  Creating your own list of twenty titles is a good start. Sort them from best to worst, and see if you can determine why the top ones work well. Then consider the bottom five. Try to create new titles for these. Make these titles consist of three important words each. Make them appropriate for the genre in which you write. (Do any of your retitles grab you? Consider writing the stories they deserve.)

Once you've done this, you might want to flex your muscles by looking at some of your work and see if you can give those stories with weak titles better titles.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Writers, Try This at Home 12 -- In-person research

So much is available online. Just google and you get all the answers, right? And it is amazing how much is available in terms of databases with primary documents, experts at hand to answer questions, and videos of places you never been.

It's all great, and I would say invaluable in terms of planning your investigations and digging into otherwise inaccessible realms (such as the past). However, too much dependence on the Web can rob your work of zest and immediacy. Obviously, the Internet does not serve all of your senses. If you want to describe the smell of incense at Midnight Mass, a Wikipedia entry won't do. The best virtual reality available won't give you the experience of shaking someone's hand and looking them in the eye. And while you might not seek out the feelings you get from riding a subway at two in the morning, doing so will make your skin crawl in ways that a video on YouTube never could.

Since you may be out of practice dealing with the real world, try to do one of these each week, even if you can't use them in your current work:
  •  If you find yourself waiting somewhere, pull out a pad to record your environment. Write in full sentences. Include all the senses. And pay attention to the people. See if a few can be captured in 50 words or less. If you can recreate the mood of the locale, that will pay dividends as you compose your fiction. By the way, you don't have to just record locations you end up in randomly, you can choose to go to a museum or a park or even a subway.
  • Interview an expert. I'll make this easy on you: Come up with a topic that intrigues you and create a series of questions that dig into the subject, and then talk to a librarian. (I haven't met a librarian yet who doesn't love this sort of thing, though you might want to make an appointment.) Or you can be more daring and arrange to interview someone who is directly related to your area of interest -- a doctor, scientist, politician, prison guard. It's likely you have a neighbor with an interesting job, so consider that option as well.
  • Do something that could be used in a story. I like things related to work. A ride-along with the local police, a tour of a brewery, or attending a band rehearsal might be good. Think crafts. Think courses that are hands-on. Or volunteer to do something useful in the community like cleaning up a park.
Get out there. Learn to record experiences. Then, when you have become proficient, make in-person research part of you writing process.

As for the practice above? Save your results. Though you may not have a use for this information now, you could in the future. One of my exercises aimed at writing anywhere was the first. Now I have a collection of notes to draw upon whenever I find myself in a locale that is relevant to a story.
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Issue 3: Out of Your Comfort Zone
Issue 2: Speed Date Your Character
Issue 1: Plotting Help


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Resolutions and a Boxing Day Break

It's the day after Christmas. I'm taking a break from the blog (just this week). To ease you into the New Year, here's a link to...

Writer's Resolution 1 - Be ready for tomorrow

It's actually part of a series you are invited to explore.
I'll be back with a new post next week.


Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 11 - Creating distinct voices for your characters

Try this. Eliminate everything that is not between quote marks from a scene or chapter and read what’s left. (If your story is told first person, with more than one point of view, you may be able to include more narration, but may need remove any identifiers.) If a reader can easily tell different people are speaking (and identify them, even as A, B, and C), you have done a good job of giving each character his or her own voice.

Don’t have a reader? Mark the section and turn on your computer’s text-to-speech function. (Both PC users and Mac users can do this.) Now listen and see if you can clearly identify who is speaking based on the character’s voice, ignoring the content.

You want to be successful in providing distinct voices for your characters, first and foremost, for clarity’s sake. You never want to have readers  wondering, “Wait. Who’s talking?” And, whenever there is a long passage of dialogue or the beginning of a new scene, your story is vulnerable to this problem.

Pulp stories often used to lean on accents and catch phrases to distinguish characters, and, rather than risk confusion, you can do some of that, especially with lesser characters. But use a light touch. Highly structured stories rely on types. Young adult fiction often has a cast of jocks, ice princesses, nerds, freaks, and such, and these can help readers stay oriented, too. But, at times, it seems as if the characters from one story could be shifted into another without anyone noticing. If your characters have wildly different backgrounds and perspectives, distinguishing them might be trivial. The main characters of the original Star Wars are very different. The same is true for Chinatown.

But many stories can’t depend on unnatural (pulp) and natural (varied backgrounds) distinctions. Think of the many students in Dead Poets Society, who are of the same class and culture. In these cases, writers need to work harder to create clear variation in voice.

But even when characters are easily distinguished, it’s worth searching for ways to make them unique. Why? Because every time your character speaks — whether in dialogue or first-person narration — you have an opportunity to deepen the characterization and more fully realize the emotion and engagement of your reader. These also orchestrate the rhythms and sounds of your prose, adding to its beauty and power.

Sometimes, voices emerge naturally, from the first pages. If cliches are avoided, that’s organic and a great way to create distinct voices. Don’t challenge gifts from your muse. Alternatively, I’ve written before about interviewing your characters. The key is listening to the answers and going at it long enough for the personalities to emerge. Here are some specific things to try:
  • Ask questions you want to hear the answers to. Make these open-ended (never answerable by yes or no). Include “Tell me about…”
  • When you ask a question, jot down the complete first answer. Then wait. See if your character fills the silence with more. (This is a great technique in real life, and I was amazed to find it works with invented characters, too.)
  • Ask your character what he or she might ask the adversary (which can be the love interest in a romance). Then ask the character to imagine he or she IS the adversary and to answer the questions from that perspective. This provides new information AND makes the character assume a persona further away from the writer. Creating that distance can be powerful.
  • Ask the character how he or she would do something. This can be related to a task in the story, but it doesn’t have to be. Asking about a process like picking out a gift for a loved one or talking a cop out of a speeding ticket or helping someone find lost keys creates a reason to talk that is within a context that inspires clear answers. In addition, these more or less generic questions can be asked of several different characters, and you can see have the replies vary (or don’t).
When everything still seems too much the same, I try acting. I try to inhabit the character, standing in a way he or she would and purposely setting my mouth in an unfamiliar way. Then I answer questions via dictation. (Dictation programs can get weird when you do this, but the point is not a perfect transcription.)

I admit that this is a radical approach. It may mean you can’t do this work with other people in they house without creating a disturbance. But I haven’t had a case yet where I didn’t get valuable information that led me to distinct voices.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Writers, Try This at Home 10 - Torture test your scenes

I've been working to improve scenes that showed up in my story but aren't up to the quality of some of the other scenes. It took me about three hours to go through 20 scenes of a Young Adult novel I'm working on, and it made an amazing difference. Here's what a card for one of the scenes looked like.
Now to explain:

Scene number indicates where it is in the manuscript. This is the 12th scene in the novel. I added "S" because this manuscript has more than one viewpoint character and this scene is from Sarah's point of view.

Title That bolded bit above, Stalking 101. This is optional, but I've found titling scenes helps me to keep a focus on them. Often, it also reveals something about their nature. If I can't title a scene, it's a pretty good indication the scene isn't really needed.

Pages (pp38-40) In addition to providing a reference for revision, having the page numbers across many scenes gives me a sense of how much variation there is, when scenes run long and when scenes run short.

Goal Every scene needs a purpose. The main goal here was for Sarah to solve the riddle of some strange behavior by the new boy at school, Daniel.

Conflict Sarah had a goal, but it wasn't easily accomplished. As she followed Daniel, he seemed to sense he was being spied upon. And once he got to the abandoned house he was squatting in, he was able to catch her snooping.

Consequences I have these in practical terms (got her secret, but got caught) and emotional (responsibility, fear, empathy). For each of the scenes I analyzed, I included both of these.

Setting For me setting is time as well as place, and I want to check to see there are enough touchpoints to help the reader get/stay immersed in the story and that the setting is appropriate to the experience. Here, noir-ish elements support feelings of guilt, fear and vulnerability.

Cliffhanger This does not have to go all "Perils of Pauline," but there needs to be a reason to keep reading. Usually, an interesting question suffices. Making sure the reader cares about what happens next is good enough.

A lot of these card sections are reference. and some are not for everyone. I do believe that testing each scene for a goal, conflict, consequences, enough of a setting for reader immersion, and a reason to keep reading is essential to effective story revision. That means five factors for each scene (about 40 scenes in a feature script, typically 60 or more in a novel.

This simple analysis showed me some scenes I'd written were incomplete (and ideas on how to fix them came readily to mind). I also noticed which felt underwritten and thin. The surprise for me was how the cards came together to reveal sequences and suggest ways to cut, add, and improve story logic. A lot was accomplished in a relatively short amount of time. (If this had been a script, it would have provided direction for fixes for half the story!)

So here's what you might try at home. In your story, think of a scene that is less remarkable than your other scenes. Create either a full card for it (like the example) or just test the scene for goal, conflict, consequences, enough of a setting for reader immersion, and a reason to keep reading. If anything is missing or weak, you already have a payoff from the exercise. But don't stop there. Analyze the scene before and the scene after so you get a good view of how it fits into the larger story. Chances are, this will give you additional insights.

Even if you don't do every scene, looking at the weak ones is likely to provide you with ideas on how to make them -- and your story -- stronger.