Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Have We Met? When Characters Are Strangers

I recently read the draft of a novel where two-thirds of the way through, the characters were still unformed and unfamiliar. If I didn't know them, and I'd been trying to, how would other people? In this case, the characters were weak for two main reasons: They hadn't interacted enough, and they hadn't been put to the test—a lethal combination. Fictional characters are like everyone else; if they're never challenged, they don't grow. If they don't grow, they blend with the crowd.

Fortunately, there are several ways to address this problem.

Give the character(s) a past, one that's plausible. Give the main character a unique characteristic, not flying or the ability to see through things, necessarily, but a particular gift, interest or aptitude. Then frustrate that plan. Further raise the stakes by making it seem the dream is dead. For a realistic result, ask yourself what in the characters' past would cause problems now. Consider what ability or gift the character has that he/she would love to use, especially now, but can't. Consider a realistic way this desire could be frustrated. One good reason for doing all this is described well by stakes guru and literary agent Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel: "By risking what we most desire a novelist can show us how we are."

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Jumpstart Your Story: Change Your Approach

I tend to scavenge writing magazines and pull the articles that are worthwhile, separating them into "read now" and "read later" piles. The rest I chuck. I came across an article by author John Dufresne in "The Literary Life" column of Poets &; Writers' January/February issue. He has this great tip: "When you're writing, don't ask [yourself] what happens next, ask what happened next, and then see it and write down what did." Something about putting the question in the past tense boosts confidence that the question can be answered, and that it already has been.

To put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip below, and let me know how it goes.

Blessings at Christmas and always!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Writing Past the Doubt: Breakthrough

You know what it's like. You suddenly break out in a sweat because your story isn't working. You tell yourself it's your imagination, that you're overreacting. But you're not. You know this because you can point to why you feel this way. The main character isn't working. The writing voice isn't distinctive. The plot lacks depth. Not only can you pinpoint the problem, you have ideas on how to fix it. Should you trash the piece, start over, take a break? Not usually. For shorter work, it can help to take a respite to note the problem and possible solutions to avoid ripple effects. For longer work, it's usually best to keep writing, making notes on what needs to change and, if possible, beginning the new tack from wherever the realization hit you. Of course, you'll have to go back and fix the problems starting where they do, but at least your momentum isn't lost, and that's key to finishing what you start, especially if it's a novel.

If like most of us you find it hard to keep working, consider this from Nathalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones: "If those characters [writer and editor] in you want to fight, let them fight … the sane part of you should quietly get up … and write from a deeper, more peaceful place."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Is This Real? A Study in Verisimilitude

Sometimes you wonder whether a story is fiction or whether it really happened. After hearing "The Mappist" by Barry Lopez on NPR's Selected Shorts, I wondered whether the program had detoured from its usual fiction fare to offer an essay. I was uncertain enough to look up a book mentioned in the story, The City of Geraniums, which I couldn't find on the Web. The book may be out there, but the point is that Lopez created such believable characters (main and supporting), setting and dialog because he knew which details to include and how deep to go with them. Both facets are key, especially in this story, which had some philosophical points for readers to consider.

For effective verisimilitude (from veri similis, like the truth) in fiction, it's important to include what John Gardner in The Art of Fiction calls "vivid detail," which really is the "lifeblood of fiction."

To put today's musing into action, see the writing tip at the top of the list and let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Stuck for Words? Tell Yourself a Story

Stuck for words? Who isn't at some point? One way to surmount this form of writer's block is to tell yourself (in writing) what you think the story should be until the real story comes.

One reason for writer's block is the seemingly endless number of ways to craft a scene. Should Harry and Sally have their hilarious explanatory scene in a bus station or a café? Should the scene end with Sally's exclamation, or should there be one more line? When a finished product works, the countless decisions (many subconscious) behind the scenes are invisible, and the effect is seamless. But when you're in the process of creating the scene or story, each word choice can seem like life or death. Rather than bog down in details or go off on a rabbit trail only to deal with a major rewrite later, explain to yourself — right where you're stuck on the page — what you really want to say, or what you think the scene should be. You'd be surprised, pleasantly, I hope, with the outcome.

Consider this from author and frequent Writer's Digest contributor James Scott Bell: "Your scenes are like the stones in an English wall. I prefer that image to bricks because bricks all look the same. You want your scenes to vary in shape and feel, but when you step back they should all fit together." Planning that stone wall in advance is key to it standing the test of time.

To put today's musing into action, check out the writing tip at the top of the list and let me know how it goes.