Friday, June 27, 2014

Working with Unexpected Character Questions: Finding Your Character's (or Narrator's) Inner Story

My summer writing goal is to bring one of my favorite characters to vividness on the pages of my novel-in-progress.  I've gotten good feedback about her, but she has a ways to go.  I haven't been listening to her as much as I ought, and it's showing in her scenes.  Some are sluggish, repetitive, and she's hiding much of her inner story from me still.

So this week I decided to ask her (I know, this is weird) to help me out.  Give me some clues.  Maybe in a song or a snippet of overheard conversation, let my creative brain hear some ideas on how to bring this character into more relief.

One of my recent music favs is a singer/songwriter named Gretchen Peters.  I was driving to Vermont, listening to one of her CDs, Hello Cruel World.  And a favorite song, "The Matador."

Love that song.  Circles in my brain over and over, but since I asked my character for help--whoa.  Something clicked in these lyrics.   They may not speak to you, but did they ever speak to me!

His rage is made of many things: faithless women, wedding rings
Snakes and snails and alcohol, his daddy’s fist thrown through the wall
Ah but he’s beautiful when he’s in the ring, the devil howls, the angels sing
Sparks fly from his fingertips and words like birds fly from his lips

Read more here. 

These two concepts--my character's rage and when she's beautiful--really woke me up.  I've never imagined asking about these.  They are unexpected character questions.  They open up worlds inside.

When I got back to my writing office, I sat down at the computer and began to brainstorm.  I pretended I was interviewing my character on the page.  I asked her:

What is your rage made of?
When are you beautiful?

And I let it rip.  I got images, ideas, and enough material to build several new chapters and rework others.  Somehow, this dichotomy of rage and beauty--something that is in all humans--brought me the inner story.

Try it this week, if you have a reluctant player on your story's stage.  It works for memoir too, especially if you're writing a secondary character you think you know, but may not know as well as you think.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Writing Strong Transitions: Scene to Scene, Chapter to Chapter, How to Keep Your Reader Turning the Page

I learned about the importance of transitions during my MFA study.  One of my thesis advisers, a talented novelist, read my novel-in-progress and liked it but felt my background as a newspaper writer hampered my transitions.  "You end each chapter like you would a journalistic piece," she told me.  "It's complete, nothing left to push the reader forward into the next chapter."
She was right.  As a syndicated newspaper columnist for twelve years, I was trained to keep my thoughts short, and wrap them up with a flourish.  The goal was reader satisfaction, a sense of completion.  Closure.

"Closure is the last thing you want in the middle of a book," my adviser said.  "You want to keep your readers turning the page."

Most writers in revision--and some in early-draft stage--come to a point where they begin to look at transitions.  Transitions are the small but essential bridges that lead your reader from the end of one scene, one thought, one idea to the next.  Whether within a chapter or between chapters, unless transitions are solid, the reader will choose that moment to set down your book.  And maybe never pick it up again.

Transitions of Chronology
These are the simplest and easiest to write--but not always useful unless you stay in strict time sequence in your scenes.  Chronological transitions are phrases like these, placed in the next scene or chapter to indicate the passage of time, change of location, or change of point of view:  "By the next morning, he . . ." or "Two days later . . . " or  "It had only been three weeks since she'd last . . . "

Chronological transitions can feel clunky to the reader after a while.  They are like reading a chart of time passing, unless done well.  I use these, but sparingly.  More often, I play with word and image transitions.

Word and Image Transitions

A simple way to transition is to repeat an image or word.  In The Hours, Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer-winning novel that tracks the lives of three separate women, he uses the image of yellow roses.  In one scene, yellow roses are being arranged in a vase for a party; in another, they are being piped on the top of a birthday cake.  The reader doesn't consciously go, "Oh, yeah, yellow roses again," but the image is registered and a sense of smoothness results.  We note it subconsciously and read on because the tiny bridge is there, making our transition easier.

Whenever I move within a chapter to backstory, or a memory, I will craft a transition.  Possibly I'll repeat an image, like the yellow roses.  One scene might have oranges on the table in a bowl, and the character or narrator as a child is staring at the strange light playing across them.  The next scene might have someone juicing those oranges the next morning. 

Senses are another excellent way to transition.  Say you are writing a book set in a doctors' offices.  What is common to these?  The paper on the exam table (repeat the feel of it under the skin, the crackle as you slide).  The antiseptic smell.  The well-used copies of Outside or People magazine that feel so worn as you turn the pages.  The cold air.

You would choose one of these and see if you can repeat it.  Use it in one scene, then again in a slightly different way in the next, to create the transition.  Smells and sounds are particularly strong transitions in a reader's subconscious.

Dialogue or Gesture Transitions
You can also use repeated dialogue or gestures.  Lighting a cigarette, coughing, picking at a torn cuticle, or a certain phrase repeated--these are embedded as transition in so many books!  We readers, again, don't necessarily notice them, but don't think they are placed by accident.  Skilled writers work hard at this.

Object of Obsession Transitions
If a certain object--in my last novel, Qualities of Light, a stolen jackknife--becomes the object of obsession in your book, carry it through as a transition tool.  Repeat mention of, or a sensory note about, this object as you move between chapters and from present time to backstory.  The reader will feel the smoothness of this repetition back and forth through time.

Beware of using the same language each time, though.  Brainstorm ten ways to describe aspects of this object, for instance.  Jackknife had "sharpness," "cutting edge," "shiny steel," and other descriptors.  I didn't always say the word jackknife, but when I used these knife-like images, it created the transition.

Transitions, when first created, may have a mechanical feel.  As if you are manipulating the language and it will be obvious to readers.  This is where feedback comes in handy.  I felt my transitions were awkward and obvious when I first wrote them in, but my editors loved them. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Make a list:  read the current ending of each chapter and the beginning of the next, and note key images, words, objects, gestures, or dialogue you have in place that could serve as a transition.

2.  Do any transitions already exist--aside from time chronology?  How can you strengthen them?

3.  Where are transitions completely missing between your chapters?  How can you add them in? 

Once you have crafted strong transitions for the chapters, begin work within the chapters.  Each scene within a chapter ("islands" of writing) requires a good transition to keep your reader engaged.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Pros and Cons of Feedback on Your Writing: Finding Out What You REALLY Need (and Getting It)

I teach all levels of writers, and I especially love working with brand-new writers.  Someone who has just gotten an idea for a novel.  Or a parent who has been meaning to write a nonfiction book about their special needs child and what this writer learned while navigating a difficult school system.  Or a beginning memoirist who is still reeling from childhood but driven to get the stories on paper.

They all want me to tell them how to write, but in the same breath they say, "And be sure to tell me what's not working.  Don't hold back."

This approach is a mark of new writers, I've learned.  Most experienced writers learn what makes them keep writing--and it isn't always critique.  But a new writer is still high on the energy of the idea.  They can't imagine the long haul ahead.  They think writing is easy.

One stand-out memory from a past class was such a new writer.  He was in one of the online classes I took before I began teaching.  When he introduced himself to the group, he said he was new but used to criticism.  He told us, "Give me all the critique you have!"   

In other words, don't just give constructive feedback but also what was totally wrong, what really sucked (his words) in our humble opinions.   

I watched, not really knowing yet about this phenomenon.  The group took him at his word.  They told him how much he still had to learn.

The writer lasted about 2 weeks before he stopped writing altogether.  He dropped the class, I think.  I wasn't surprised.   I was surprised that the teacher didn't step in, but maybe she felt it was good to weed out the weak early?  It's not my way, as an instructor.

I learned a lot from watching this feedback process.  It reinforced my approach, which is based on the stages of a writer's growth, finding the best level of feedback for where you are, so you keep writing.   
Stages of a Writer's Growth--and Feedback Needs
In the early years of our writing journey, we need mostly constructive feedback.  We need what will help us thrive, figure out our unique voice, explore story ideas without too much negative self-talk or external critique.  Our own critical voice is usually strong as we struggle through our learning curves.   

Best now to hear what's working.  Also, what can be improved, but via suggestions and questions given in a constructive way.  In my classes, I ask questions that open doors for the writer. 

Each time I read one of my student's pieces, I see (always!) things that are strong.  Things that are unique to that writer's experience, perspective, voice, and style.  I point them out.  Knowing what works, will help the writer at this stage.   

Then I look for areas where I want more, as a reader.  Where I felt things were missing.   

I want to know more about the setting, for instance, where this event is occurring.  What the narrator is actually doing physically in the scene as they reflect on their past or future challenge.  That's called the outer story (the outer details of what is happening) and grounds me, as a reader, in the inner story (the thinking or feeling).  So I might ask about this.   

Or I might ask to read more about the sensory details--what the character or narrator is smelling or hearing at that moment.  These elements bring out the inner story too and make the scene more intense for me as a reader.  That's a good thing.
Two steps to giving feedback:  (1) look at inner and outer story, and ask myself what could be developed more.  Then (2) ask a question or two about that missing area.   

Questions ignite ideas in the writer's mind and bring more good stuff to the page.

No use, truthfully, in saying to someone:  "This really didn't work for me."  What does this do for the writer?  Mostly, they begin to question if they should be writing at all.  Maybe they are stupid and (on and on) . . . The Inner Critic has a field day.   

The writer slinks off and becomes what we call in online classes a "lurker," if they even continue writing.  No way they will share their writing again.

We're trained in school to get criticized more than we get encouraged.  I was, at least.  When I was at revision stage in my MFA, I got a lot of critique and at that advanced level, I needed it.  But when I was beginning each of my books, I mostly needed to hear what was good, strong, and working.  Constructive feedback kept me going and opened the creative door wider and wider into new ideas.

Everyone's writing has strong areas and weak areas.  My teaching style is to first build up the strong areas until they are solid enough to stand on, so that when you do face your weak areas, your whole foundation won't collapse.   

What are you getting as a writer, right now, in terms of feedback?  Is it appropriate to where you are in your book journey?  How might you get more of what you really need?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Raise the Emotional Stakes: Strengthening Alchemy between Setting, Character, and Conflict

Morning: writing at my sunny desk.  Task:  revise a stubborn scene.  Advice from recent feedback:  bring more emotion into it.

Sunshine and spring in New England today is no help.   In my fictional scene, it's chilly October in the northern mountains of New York state.  I'm sitting comfortably in my chair, laptop in front of me, spicy tea and good music and sweet air at hand.  My character, in her scene, has just crashed her small plane--on purpose.  She's bleeding, shaken, and starving.

So our situations couldn't be more disparate.  How do I have the gall to attempt such writing--to capture the desperation of this person who only exists in my imagination?

Because I know such desperation.  I've never crashed a plane, but I know well the survival instinct that my character rides on in this moment of the story.  To access my own memory of this, I use the writing techniques of alchemy.

Alchemy simply means a combination of elements to create something magical.  In writing, these are three:  setting, action, and the character's physical state.  Combined in certain ways, they manufacture magic for the reader.  That magic that all good literature offers--where we readers can lose ourselves for a few hours in a different world. 

The Alchemy of Place
Place details are either wholly ignored by most writers--"too slow for me," one of my students once said--or used too much.  Some writers dump a lot of setting details in the beginning of each chapter, the start of each scene, as if "setting the stage."  Setting must be placed where the alchemy actually occurs.

Use of the senses is the first element to successful settings.  Especially smell and sound.  These access the reader's own memories of place, make your job almost effortless.  In my online class, Strange Alchemy, we begin by studying famous writers' work--how do they place the sense of place in each section of a story, chapter, scene?  George Saunders, Judy Blundell, Flannery O'Connor, and many more teachers help us learn that placement is everything!  When we give feedback each week on excerpts from writing by fellow students in the class, our eye is already tuned to whether the placement is strong.

Place is the backdrop used by professional writers to depict emotion.  Whatever the character notices--or doesn't notice--tells the reader about their emotional stage:  their distractions, their memories, their angst.  It's too good a tool to ignore.

The Alchemy of a Character's Physical State
Next is the character's external self--not what they are thinking or feeling, which could be unreliable, but how they present themselves in the world, consciously or unconsciously.  A twitch, a certain favorite piece of clothing, a way of moving their hands, an itchy ear, all reveal emotion. 

As with place, it's good to have enough but not too much.  In Judy Blundell's award-winning young-adult novel, What I Saw and How I Lied, she introduces the two main characters in the first page via certain physical details that completely show their future trajectories in the book:  the mother who smokes in the dark and whose lipstick-covered lips catch on the cigarette paper with every drag--a tiny but revealing sound heard by her not-sleeping daughter; the young girl who carries Baby Ruths in her bike basket to the foggy beach each morning to eat breakfast alone there.   

I make a list this morning of my downed pilot's physical state--what is she wearing, what is moving or held still in her body as she waits, what aches and itches, what she does with her hands. 

Combined with place, these physical elements of character create the first step of alchemy.

The Alchemy of Action
Place and physical attributes are only useful, though, if they are juxtaposed with action.  Dennis Lahane, author of Mystic River and other works, talked about this in an interview I read many years ago:  If a character is in the same room for more than one page, get them out of there.   Stillness is a pause, a valuable pause, but it doesn't move the writing forward.

So instead of my downed pilot being able to sit and starve silently, reflecting on the wilderness around her, she must be doing something within a page.  Action is the final element of alchemy.  It's only by seeing a person in action that we really know them. 

Put together, these three create magic. 

When I begin a scene, I often will work on each element separately, to make sure I've covered it, then combine them in paragraph or chapter in good proportion to each other.  Action usually takes the most space, then the physical state of the character, then the setting.  Each is crucial to alchemy, but they work in a hierarchy. 

Intrigued?  Consider studying the attributes of alchemy with me this summer in my online class which begins on Monday, June 9.  We spend four weeks on action (specifically, raising the stakes in your writing), four on character development, and four on place/setting.  Each week includes short readings in memoir and fiction by well-known writers, to study and learn from, as well as some very helpful writing exercises I've developed from my own work.  To learn more or register, click here.