Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Precision and Accuracy of Thought: Room for Creativity in Nonfiction

Covenant as Ethical Commonwealth
Educator, cultural observer and lecturer Perry Huesmann has authored Covenant as Ethical Commonwealth, published by Italian Paths of Culture Press, on the concept of covenant and the possibilities for trust in society. In this guest post, Perry discusses what went into the writing of the book and the process of publication.

AA: What is the background for the book?

Author Perry Huesmann
PH: The book is, in essence, the result of a master's thesis written and defended for a master's-level Christian studies program with the Faculty of Philosophy at the VU University of Amsterdam. The program was centered on an analysis of the philosophical underpinnings of Western culture and, especially, Enlightenment modernity. The book focuses on the foundation of trust in Western society. It looks at how the West has been heavily influenced by Enlightenment thinking, and the implications of that for the formation of trust in society when the individual is the anchoring point for universal values.

AA: What inspired you to select this particular topic?

PH: I was especially intrigued by the philosophical implications of the Enlightenment project as it relates to the place of the individual in society. The problem arises when the Cartesian trajectory of the individual as determiner and guarantor of reality takes root at a societal level. The implications are rather serious.

AA: What insights did you glean about the creative process while writing it?

PH: There are numerous writing styles, and some are appropriate for some projects and others are not. I would say that a work that is philosophical can tend to suffocate some aspects of creativity. While precision and accuracy of thought are highly important, there is room for creativity in how one organizes the material and presents it to the reader. I enjoy writing, and so attempted to write as if I were speaking to a group in front of me. This always helps me write in a way that is understandable and accessible.

AA: What did you learn about the publishing process, particularly as it relates to working with an international, print-on-demand publisher like Italian Paths of Culture Press?

PH: As is the case for all authors, the challenge is getting the word out about the book. Print-on-demand has advantages in cost-savings on the front end, but one must realize going in that marketing and distribution are clearly a large challenge. It is important to get exposure through book reviews, interviews, articles, etc., so that the book can be known. I think it is important to use all possible networking to help this process.

AA: Do you have another book planned?

PH: I am currently in a Ph.D. program with the same faculty, and my research essentially is looking at the philosophical framework for social relations in the 21st-century polis. What do we consider the polis today? Where does man meet, form and sustain social relations, and how are they characterized? The 20th century has been characterized by collectivism and individualism, and it seems we have no other alternatives. I am exploring one that is rooted in the Jewish concept of covenant.

AA: What would you do differently during the writing and/or publishing process the next time around?

PH: I think I would be a bit less technical in my style, and seek to be a bit more narrative. It renders the content more accessible and readable.

AA: Anything you'd like to add?

PH: Thank you for the opportunity to present the book, and if anyone is interested in reading it and interacting with it, I would enjoy that immensely. I am a strong believer in the need for humans to seek out others who have very different ideas, and be forced to understand them and respond to them in a respectful and mature way. This is central to our human experience, and enriching for our culture. I see this as central to the Judeo-Christian faith experience as well.

Perry Huesmann is an educator, a cultural observer and a lecturer who lives and works in greater Milan, Italy. He has worked as a corporate instructor of English, and holds a Master's degree in theology. He has a Master of Arts in science and society from the Free University of Amsterdam and is pursuing a Ph.D. there. To order the visit Italian Paths of Culture Press or Amazon, Covenant as Ethical Commonwealth.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Twist of Fate: When Your Story Takes an Unexpected Turn

Ever have a spurt of inspiration reveal a new dimension of your plot or story? It could be a brave new adventure or a step off a cliff into the abyss. Here's a second post on how to vet inspiration for plot twists and subplots.

As an editor, I get queries from writers asking whether their idea for an initial plot, a plot twist or a subplot will work. I rarely say no outright, even to the most outrageous concepts. Why? Because the exercise of following inspiration even when it doesn't lead to an idea that works for that particular story can yield two things: writing experience and an idea for another story.

Nobody wants to spend hours, days, weeks or longer following a dead end, so it's good to reap the benefits of following a new trail without getting hopelessly lost. It's analogous to following a real-life woodland path; so are the caveats.

As is true for character-related inspiration, it's common to uncover new subplots as well as plot threads, changes and twists in draft two. In draft one, you're still getting to know the characters and the story they tell, so many problems will resolve by the end of the draft, or in the second. But what about those persistent problems and your idea for a twist or subplot? Disaster of disasters you may even decide to change the plot entirely halfway through or earlier. How do you know what will work and what won't?

Many writers can follow a plot through its meanderings without an outline. Some can follow more than one. But if your story is complex and even if it's not you may want to record your idea in an outline or a tree diagram. It's the best way to see how the idea will "flesh out," literally. Plot shifts often arise from changes in characters. They mature faster, into different people or in different directions than you thought. Now your plot can't contain them. It's too thin, not compelling enough to fit who your people are becoming. And the more I learn, the more I believe characters drive plot, or should, rather than the reverse.

Here's an example. A woman returns to Barcelona for business and family obligations. She dreads the trip because her grandfather, with whom she was close as a child, has dementia. On the surface, the story is about the woman confronting the reality that life in the land of her youth is no longer what it was, a la You Can't Go Home Again. However, when the woman boards a train to the Mediterranean, she meets a young artist who reminds her of another creative type she met years earlier. Does she engage in conversation with this younger man and leave it at that? Probably not. Tracing her decision to have an affair, presumably to avoid the sadness of her family situation, could bring her full circle to realize she can't expect anyone to "create" life for her, that her life is her responsibility, as are her choices and their consequences. A difficult lesson, but one that makes the outcome more valuable because of the cost involved. Here, it's important to understand why the woman makes one choice instead of another, even if the writer doesn't include all the details.

And that's the key to the decision-making process understanding your characters well enough to know why they make one choice instead of another.

Although creating a plot tree, outline or diagram can be scary it's difficult to face the fear of your story spiraling out of control, which is what a new idea can feel like going through the exercise will show you, literally, the consequences of your decisions in a much shorter time span, certainly than if you were to rewrite your piece for each new idea. Instead, you can diagram (a plot tree allows you to include subplots) the idea or outline it if you need to "see" more detail and see where it takes you.

As I write this, it's clear more needs to be said on the subject of subplots and plot twists, so I'll continue the discussion in my next post.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Out of Character? When Characters Do the Unexpected, or Want To

When characters do the unexpected
Ever have an idea ignite to suddenly reveal a new dimension of a character or story? It could be the light at the tunnel's end or an oncoming train. Here's how to vet sudden inspiration.

As an editor, I get queries from writers saying they were suddenly inspired on how to fix a complex character or plot problem. While we hope they're right, it's best to begin with the premise that an idea is like a spark. It may take more than one to fire things up. Two common areas where inspiration can greatly help, or hinder, are the superficial character and the lackluster story. We'll start with the one-dimensional character.

First, it's common to have comparatively flat characters in a first draft, even of a nonfiction piece. After all, you're still getting to know these people and how to portray them. But then, while you're writing draft two, something unexpected happens. A character does something unscripted, or wants to. Do you let her? The answer, usually, is yes.

Some writers can follow the consequences of a character's unexpected action in their minds. Certainly, the imagination is a great place to start. To put this new facet of a character to the test, it's best to sketch out the scene. You'll have to edit it; you may even need to file it away for future use. But the exercise of writing what the action or the desire behind it reveals is invaluable.

Here's an example. A husband and wife are on the verge of divorce. The wife's mother has been instrumental in destroying the relationship, and the husband has said so for years. Just as the couple comes to grips with their plight, the wife's mother suicides, leaving a note confessing what she's done. The husband is tempted to say, "I told you so." He's that type. Instead, he's moved with compassion for his wife, though he's exhibited precious little of this trait before. Does the writer let him express his emotions? The answer is yes, not because it's expected in a situation like this, but because the husband's response is spontaneous and shows another side of him. The couple may still break up, but if they do, it won't be because of the clichéd "my husband is an ogre" rationale.

The great thing about this scene is that it not only reveals another aspect of the husband, it also advances plot. Two positive outcomes for the effort on one. Still, the important thing isn't just that the husband turns out not to be the brute he's been so far, but to consider why he showed compassion in this instance. What previously untapped aspect of his character and past prompted him to show such empathy? The writer may not use this bit of backstory overtly now, but it will inform her development of the husband, and she may choose to use some aspect of the husband's history later on.

Tip: Consider a story you're working on where a character has done something unexpected or wants to. Outline the past events that could have led to this action (backstory). Then, outline the consequences of his or her actions to see how they affect this character and others.

Visit next week to learn how to address the unexpected plot twist.