Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The End From the Beginning

We have a tradition on my mother’s central Italian side of the family that says whatever happens in the first twelve days of the New Year is what will happen in each ensuing month. I was quick to point out the fallacy in this superstition, which is that whatever happens the first day of January would need to apply to the remaining month. Yet, the concept of a matter’s end being present in its beginning got me thinking that the end of a story is often derived by or foreshadowed at its start.

Since it’s near the end of the year—and this has been one long year—my mind takes the path of least literary resistance to use, as an example, the first Harry Potter book, where early in the saga we read of Ginny Weasley’s crush on Harry. Six books later the end of the matter is confirmed; yet, the seeds of its fruition were planted at the start.

As writers, we unwind our stories, from flash to full-length novels, creating a trail we ask readers to follow. We ask them to believe what we say of our characters’ past, present and future through backstory, scene and foreshadow as our plots unfold. We want readers to believe us and to forget us as they immerse themselves in a world of our creation, even in the offer of hope for a desired outcome that initially seems impossible.

We do, in a sense, what the prophet Isaiah said that God does. We create a purpose for our stories and a plan to achieve that purpose, and we ask readers to place their confidence in our ability to lead them. It’s not just the foreknowledge of our story’s events that we want people to trust. No. We often write, as William Zinsser said, to learn, to discover our stories and the people in them. Yet, we aim to exert mastery over our creation. We want readers to rely on us as we speak, to the point where they forget that it's we who speak.

Is this arrogance, this apparent reach for the divine? If we aim for omniscience, omnipresence or omnipotence, then yes. But for the writer who aims merely to create a plan and be true to it, to have a purpose and carry it out, to offer the best words in their most suitable form, it’s a creative act, and in this is dignity.

“I declare the end from the beginning, and from long ago what is not yet done, saying: ‘My plan will take place, and I will do all My will.’” Isaiah 46:10

Blessings and peace to you and yours now and throughout the New Year.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Kernel of Truth: When Real Life Experience Informs Fiction

Remember when you said of a story, “Wow, that sounds like it really happened”?

In this instance, we’re not talking about verisimilitude — the appearance or semblance of truth — but about an entire story that feels, on an emotional level, like it could have taken place because some aspect of it actually did. One key to writing fiction that has a real experience, or experiences, at its heart is knowing to what extent real events should inform fiction. 

As we writers go through our lives, we often find that personal experiences foment ideas that form the basis of our fiction. But beware of sticking too closely to experience. Why? Because, as Robert Olen Butler warns in his seminal From where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, “literal memory is your enemy”.

Why is this? Because memory constrains you to the facts of your experience or to the facts as you recall them. Either way, you’re constrained. The reasoning? As Butler cautions, “What you remember comes out as journalism. What you forget goes into the compost of the imagination.”

It’s this rich soil of imagination that organically germinates the seeds of fiction. The richness of imagination also enables the writer to conceive a story that is more than a little inspired by life. For the most part, this approach can work wonderfully, until the moment when it doesn’t.

At this point, the writer can try to rationalize away the bump in the road by telling herself that’s the way it really happened. This may be true, but it doesn’t mean the event should play out the same way in your fiction.

One way to tell when a section of your story isn’t served by its real life counterpart is precisely when you find yourself defending that point in the piece in just this way. Such moments might stand out more than we writers realize, but we often don’t notice them because we’re too enamored with the reminiscence of the real life event to see that the moment will bring readers out of the fictional world we’ve so carefully constructed instead of moving them effortlessly (or apparently so) through it.

If, or rather when, you come up against such a moment, ask yourself these questions. Why is the reader brought out of the story at this precise point? Which fiction element, or elements, of characterization, pacing, plot progression, setting, prose, etc., is not served by the real event? What would serve the work, the story and its people, better?

Be honest with yourself in answering these questions, and if your fictional work is based in more than one point on reality, be prepared to ask the question more than once. The result will be worth the effort. Great fiction often carries a kernel of truth, but usually more in emotional truth than in the facts.

For more on Robert Olen Butler’s From where YouDream: The Process of Writing Fiction.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Wisdom of the Ages: Growing Your Character’s Knowledge Over Time

We’ve talked about the importance of a character's voice matching her age, but we also need to make sure the character’s wisdom matches it, too, an especially tricky feat for characters who are young in age and/or maturity.

Whether you're writing for adults or younger readers, your story may include a younger character who matures over the course of your piece. While maturity can result from the passing of time, the gaining of experience or both, we need to make sure that what the character realizes about his or her life - and how he or she expresses that knowledge - matches the individual's stage of life.

One reason it can difficult to tell that we've run ahead of the character's maturity level in writing her thoughts and dialogue is that wisdom reads well, regardless of age. So when we read a particularly wise bit of insight that's also been written well, we tend to feel that we've accomplished our goal. In one sense, this may be true, because the character has made progress and because our prose has also. However, we have to make sure that we haven't given the character either more insight than he or she should have at that age, and that we haven't framed the insight in way that goes beyond the character's intended age.

Some characters, though young, are wise beyond their years. What we want, however, is to make sure we develop the character at a believable rate. If you're wondering whether you have given one of your characters, especially one that is younger, more insight than is believable within the context of her life and your story, ask yourself these questions:

- Has enough happened in this person's life for her to realistically have this piece of wisdom?
- Does the prose accurately reflect the character's personality and stage of life?

There's nothing wrong with having a smart character. We just need to make sure the person's wisdom, and how she expresses it, match where the character is in her life.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Making the Most of the Ridgefield Writers Conference

Preparing for and attending a writers’ conference require time and energy. These tips for before, during and after the Ridgefield Writers Conference should help you make the most of the event and create a foundation for what comes after.

Before the Conference:
Faculty: Research your faculty workshop leader, and prepare a list of questions about your work and the craft of writing in advance. Also research other faculty, in case you want to talk with them or work with them in the future.
Panels and Keynote: Research the panelists and keynote speaker, and bring your questions to the Q&A sessions. If time runs out, you may be able ask questions afterward.
Website: Study the conference website, especially the Writers Resources section, for helpful information. Keep checking the site for updates.
Workshops: Carefully review all the information from your workshop leader, to learn as much as possible about the art and craft of your chosen genre.
Registration: Arrive early to get a feel for the event and to meet your fellow writers, the faculty and the coordinators. Also carefully review the information in your registration packet.

During the Conference:
Networking: Get to know your fellow writers, the workshop faculty and conference coordinators. Exchange business cards and contact information with others so that you can keep in touch. Compare notes with other writers about what you’re learning.
Book and Resource Tables: Visit the faculty book table to take home fine examples of work by these experienced writers. Also visit the resource table to collect as much information as you can.
Readings: Sign up and read your work at the attendee reading time on Saturday afternoon; it will give you practice reading your work before a friendly audience.
Panels and Keynote: Meet the panelists and keynote speaker, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Workshop: Keep any reading lists your workshop leader provides, and read and retain all the workshop handouts. Where you need clarity about feedback or other workshop information, be sure to ask questions. Before you leave the conference, aim to have some idea of the next steps to take in your writing life. If you’re not sure, come to the What’s Next in the Writing Life breakout session on Saturday afternoon.

After the Conference:
Collaboration: Consider collaborating with a fellow writer. Also consider working with a faculty workshop leader (yours or someone else) after the conference.
Networking: Keep in touch with your fellow writers and others you meet during the conference.
Feedback: Give the workshop feedback you receive from your faculty leader and fellow writers time to gel after the conference. Your workshop leader provides a worthwhile overview and details on how to improve your work, as do your compatriots, especially if a particular critique arises more than once. Your fellow writers also bring another key perspective to the table — that of the audience.
Next Steps: Consider making a list of next steps for after the conference, and ask your faculty workshop leader for guidance on this. Ask the conference coordinators about the best resources to meet your writing needs. Considering creating your own writing community, and seek opportunities to stay involved and active in your writing life. Check the conference website for final information.

Parting Note
If attending a writers’ conference sounds as if it involves more than just inspiration, it does. But consider this: “Creativity has much to do with experience, observation and imagination, and if any one of those key elements is missing, it doesn’t work.” Bob Dylan, Chronicles Volume One

For more on the conference, visit Ridgefield Writers Conference.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Writing — For the Mere Joy of It

What do you love about writing?

Is it time for yourself, discovery, reading or hearing your words? Maybe it’s the chance to listen to your inner self or to think your thoughts instead of having them think you.

Whether you enjoy one of these aspects of writing or another of its qualities, writing can, for many reasons, become a drudge. If that’s how you’re feeling, take time to think back to what writing was before the “you shoulds” came crowding in.

As an editor, I’m among the guiltiest of the “you should” pushers — for publication, discipline, diligence, development, revision — you get the picture. Thankfully, I’m also a writer and can call to mind, for myself and others, the joy of just taking time to write.

So for today and for the coming Labor Day weekend I’m advocating for the mere experience of writing, the tea or coffee or glass of wine on the porch or in the park with pen, paper and the solitude of peace. I’m also advocating for taking the usual structures and strictures and throwing them out to write just of the sake of it.

If we view writing as a form of relationship — with self, others, Creator or creation, the world at large or in a grain of sand — then, as is true of any other relationship, writing can suffer from chafe, the fiction of constant wearing. But what if writing can return to the kind of relationship where just being is enough? Wouldn’t that, in itself, be something?

Do you have a writing query or comment to share? Email WordforWords.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Know and Control Your Characters' Self-Awareness

Among the joys of writing is “flow”, when we’re so immersed in creating the story’s world that we forget we’re writing. But we can’t afford to check out on how much our characters, especially main characters, know at each stage of their individual arc.

First, what types of things do characters know? To some extent, they know themselves, what’s happening around them, their motivations and other characters. One element of creating a character arc is the character’s (typically) increasing awareness of these elements and their consequences. Sometimes characters are ignorant of these aspects of their world. However, there’s all the difference between intentionally keeping a character in the dark and achieving ignorance because we failed to realize that by now the character should know more than he does.

So how does a writer control, at each stage in the story, how aware a character is of these elements? First, we must be aware of what our characters already know. Then we must decide whether they should know more. To check your characters' self-awareness at each stage of development, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are the main stages of development in the character’s arc? What might the character not know but need to realize by each point?
  • If the character doesn’t know something, such as his motivation for betraying someone else, is it due to a flaw that fits the character, or because you’ve forgotten to develop the character’s awareness at that point?

To add texture to characters and story, also note the consequences of what the character does and doesn’t know. It can be daunting to do this exercise for each character. So start with your main character. The very effort with one character often enables you to be mindful of him or her and of other characters from that point on.

What should your main character know by now that he or she doesn’t?

Do you have a writing question to share? Email WordforWords.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Joy of Discovery (Part 2) — You Can't Communicate Without Stories

Part 1 of this post gave an example of the importance of stories, based on an ESL class that was reading about author Amy Tan. When the class was queried about what they would ask Tan if they could, one student said, “I would ask which experiences led her to write her stories. After all, we can’t
communicate without stories.” This shed new light on why we encourage writers, “Show, don’t tell.” Today, we want to emphasize the joy of discovery part of this equation.

Previously, we noted that readers don’t want to be spoon-fed a plot or characters; the audience wants the joy of discovering the story en route because journey is as important to readers as destination. However, the joy—of discovery and of the journey—is not just for readers but also for writers.

When you, the writer, tell yourself a story and then read it, you learn from your work what the story is and isn’t, who the characters are and are not. You may reread what you’ve written and decide it isn’t what you meant to say, that your main character, for example, wouldn’t do what you’ve just written for him or her, or perhaps not quite as you’ve depicted the scene.

Even so, the gist of what you wanted to achieve is likely there waiting in the wings to be revealed. But this realization often won't come until you make the effort to write the scene you initially imagined. The insight you gain from what works and what doesn't, and why, then becomes part of your wisdom as a writer.

What have you recently discovered about your story or character that came as a result of the joy of discovery?

Do you have a writing question to share? Email WordforWords.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Joy of Discovery (Part 1) — You Can't Communicate Without Stories

A teacher asked students in an ESL class reading about author Amy Tan what would they ask Tan if they could. One student said, “I would ask which experiences led her to write her stories. After all, we can’t communicate without stories.”

The student’s observation, especially in that context, shed new light on why we encourage writers, “Show, don’t tell.” We don’t want readers to be spoon-fed a plot or characters; we want them to have the joy of discovering the story en route because journey is as important to readers as destination, maybe more so since the most intimate communication comes by experiencing the tale.

See us next time for Part 2 of this musing.

Do you have a writing question to share? Email WordforWords.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Grow Your Up Characters Through Voice

Does your story span generations, and do your characters go from youth to age in maturity or chronology? One way to accomplish this and emphasize their development is to grow your characters up by how they sound.

Typically, the closer the viewpoint the deeper the writer is within a character’s thoughts and feelings. Thus, we’re not always conscious of the age-appropriateness of the character’s voice as we write. But once the first draft is done, we can go back and listen to how the character sounds at the beginning versus the end of the story to see —and hear —how much he or she has grown.

It’s also helpful to realize that each character will vary in degree of development and/or devolution. To emphasize these changes, be deliberate in revealing the maturation of your character’s voice throughout the story, especially at pivotal points, such as when they achieve their dreams — or don’t. This will also help support for the story’s pacing.

Do you have a character who seems flat or stuck in a developmental rut? Listen to how he or she sounds at the beginning versus the end of your story. There may be room for growth.

Do you have a writing question to share? Email WordforWords.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Use of Rest in Fiction

In today’s busy world, no less the world of fiction, writers are always looking to up the stakes for their stories and characters, yet there’s something to be said for moments of rest.
A moment of rest in a short story or novel is a moment where the writer gives the reader time to pause and reflect on an element of the story, a character or both. Such moments offer a deeper dive into an aspect of the work from within and give the reader time to better appreciate the read, especially when a lot is happening or when the characters are many or diverse.
So how are such moments created? One general principle is the use of detail: about the setting, a character or a point of plot. Such details — the slanting sunlight through a forest glade, the softness in a lover’s eyes or the rumble of thunder heard by a child awaiting a parent's return — actually give the reader's mind a rest, as one might pause and appreciate a moment of beauty.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Prismatic Artistry of Varied Viewpoints in a Novel

As with the light that comes through a stained glass window, there is prismatic artistry in showing varied viewpoints in a novel. But how does the writer know whether this multiplicity will benefit his or her work?
A good example of multiple points of view is Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. Variegated views work well in McCann’s novel because of three key factors: topic, theme and scope.
The topic is New York City in the 1970s, its joys, sorrows, beauty and promise. While the theme reflects the spirit of a city and a nation in transition, it also includes a prescient sense of their poignant innocence. The story’s scope plays out over 300 pages.
or all these reasons, multiple viewpoints serve the work well, for they aim to convey the depth, breadth, height and soul of the city that never sleeps. If you’re wondering whether multiple viewpoints would serve your work, consider its topic, theme and scope. If these can sustain and would be enhanced by multiple perspectives, your work may be well-served by varied and variegated viewpoints.
For more on Let the Great World Spin, see “The Soul of a City.” For more on the author, see Colum McCann.