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I've written about the martial art of writing. I've done martial arts and I noticed that writing is like it in this way: you have to do a lot of things at once without thinking when you write. You can do this because you've studied each skill separately and because you've practiced a lot. I still think this is true. But I was thinking as I walked Merlin the dog
(which is where I do some of my best thinking, such as it is, which is why one of my best pieces of advice for becoming a writer is that you get a dog and that you walk your dog) that even though I now pre-write more than I used to and plan --as I'm working along but still--a lot more than I used to, I STILL DISCOVER new connections and twists and turns in plot and character and new setting ideas as I go along. I think this is because it's the mix, the way the various elements of writing interact (language, characters, story, setting, conflict) and the way this creates new insights and new--the technical term is BOOMS--BOOMS in the manuscript. You have to allow this to happen, throw out all your plans and plotting and whatever when it does. Because these booms--or sometimes just tiny and subtle shifts--help you to take your story to places you couldn't have imagined until you do-
To me, this is why formulas do not solve all writing problems as their proponents sometimes claim. It's a big reason why fiction writing can't be reduced to Step 1, Step 2...there's this constant interaction and it creates NEW. The writer has to react to NEW. If she/he does it well, finds the right moves, the manuscript improves. If not--
Learning skills, practicing skills will help you make those right moves but you have to be open to taking what your story gives you, too.
The trick to writing and finishing a first draft of a novel is simple. Ready? Low expectations. I’m not saying you should adopt this as a philosophy for life, but for a first draft of a novel, absolutely. A first draft is a pale version of what you will eventually revise your novel into. If you accept that, you can allow yourself, give yourself permission, to write it, to progress onward through the fog. Yes, the draft will be very much less than you want. Yes it will be so much less than the best you can do. Yes, yes. But constantly stopping to revise, being disappointed by the awkward language or the less than compelling narrative or the development of character, can wear you down and cause you to give up. And that means never finishing. LOOK, of course, sometimes you should give up. Sometimes the draft just isn’t working. But many times writers quit simply because they get discouraged by how much less their first draft is than the vague but compelling first vision they had for their story. Don’t let that stop you.
DEVELOP LOW EXPECTATIONS. One way I think about this is my first draft is like a movie that is out of focus, and with a soundtrack that’s a little off--bits of dialogue going in and out, the wrong songs…you get the idea. My first draft might have nice moments here and there but overall it’s an embarrassment. My next drafts are my attempts to bring the story into focus. I do this in a number of ways. I make my description more concrete, more sensory. I tighten info dumps. I give dialogue subtext. I work on the precision and flow of my language. I go through the plot for weak moments. I deepen characters. I try to make motivations clearer and on and on…there are so many things I do. And I get to do this because that’s what REVISION is. And for me writing is revising. I get something on the page and then I work with it and work with it and it gets closer to that vision that inspired me to want to write the story in the first place. But to get to that I have to endure the first draft, parts of which, by the way, are very fun because I discover all kinds of things. That said, it’s never easy—low expectations.
There are so many things to talk about when you get to thinking about character. We want characters who surprise us--in a good way. By that I mean not in a WTF way--that character would never act like that. Or, I don't understand at all why that character would do what he did or think what he thought. One of the surest ways to lose a reader is to have them feel a character is inauthentic, that he is doing things because the author needs him/her to do them. But a real surprise that fits with the character, those can really involve a reader.
One way to do this is to have the character play against a certain Trope. See this clip from Firefly for a great example of this. The hero acts in a very different way than most heroes and it both reveals characters and entertains...
Another way to do this is to make a character act against some controlling belief they have in themselves. Like they think they're evil and they have done lots of evil things because of this. But some shift in the plot causes them to see the event or time that makes them believe themselves evil in a different light. This causes them to do something that is surprising and different and that also makes their character grow. Anytime a character's actions can advance both character and plot, that's a good thing.
Another way to make a character different (and so surprising) is just to put a character in a situation that would usually be taken by a different kind of character. Make a Buffy a vampire slayer instead of the heroic warrior or make a detective have some personality trait that seems like it would make it hard for them to do the job but, in fact, also helps them to do it. For example, MONK. Not your usual tough-guy detective and interesting because of that.
In screenwriting there is this idea that audiences love the familiar and strange in plot. They want to recognize the type of story they're being told but they want to have twists to it that make them feel they're watching something that is also completely new. I think this is something to shoot for with characters. And one aspect of that is creating surprises.
When people learn I'm a writer (at a party or some social event--not a writing function), they often tell me they have an "idea" for a story. It is a great idea they tell me. An idea so original that they are certain it will make them a million dollars. They simply don't have time to write it. Maybe I would like to write it and we'll split the profit 50/50?
Their idea--if they manage to tell me over my protests that I couldn't possibly rob them of half their million dollars simply for writing a few hundred pages --is usually very bad. It frequently isn't even an idea, just a vague notion or a family anecdote.
But even good ideas are fairly common.
An idea for a story, to me, involves a character in some kind of situation. In my writing class last week, after some examples, I broke my class up into four groups and gave them each ten minutes to come up with ten story ideas. All four groups did and two of them came up with more than ten. In ten minutes, the class had 45 story ideas. Granted, not all of them were stellar, but many of them were pretty darn good. This just illustrates how ideas are everywhere. The hard part is not coming up with ideas but developing them into a full story. If you find the right idea--one you can be passionate about as a writer, one that engages and interests you--that is a great start to writing a story.
Or so I think today.
If you're like me you have a love/hate relationship with your work. You get really excited about a sentence you write or a cool idea or a cool new character. You feel good about it all. Then you feel really bad. Then good again. It's great. It's terrible. But as you work through drafts, you feel better. The story seems to come together. Many aspects of the work that were out of focus are more in focus. You improve your sentences. Your characters are more in the scenes, more real, more developed. They have depth--yes they do. It all seems to be going somewhere. Hallelujah.
And then there comes the moment when you think you are finished. You have done everything you can. You're done.
Do not be fooled.
If you're like me, you're seeing a manuscript that has been greatly improved by many drafts. You're seeing something that is so, so much better than that first draft. You're thinking about the cool things in the manuscript and accepting the weakness as not all that weak. You want to believe they're small and of little consequence, like a few tiny chips in armor. Nothing to worry about. And the cool things. Come on, so cool--it's good--a good story.
This is the point where you need at least a month to get far enough away from the manuscript that you can see that though the cool things might still be cool, those weaknesses of the manuscript are real and need to be worked on. And you will also see that there are other problems you couldn't see before. Sure, it's a little disappointing that after many drafts there are still a lot of areas that need work. But doing this final revision, working on these weaknesses, can be the difference between a pretty good manuscript and a very good one.
Give yourself time and distance from your work AFTER you think it's ready to go. Doing this has really helped me.
from T.S. Eliot “Little Gidding”
"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time"
I was thinking about the Hero's Journey and the way that some writers use it as a method of story structure and I saw this quote and I thought--yeah, that's it. The stages and the specifics of the "journey" structure can be somewhat helpful if not followed too closely, but this right here is what I'm trying to get at with my quest story.
If we could only write what we know there would be no Harry Potter, no One Hundred Years of Solitude, no Red Badge of Courage. So many great novels would have never been written because the writer tried to stay on the narrow road of his own experience. Don't write what you know. Write what you can imagine. OK, you can write what you know--sure. BUT you don't have to.
I do think this advice has some truth in it. You have to be emotionally engaged in what you write and you have to find experiences in your own life that will help you be emotionally engaged. These experiences might come from actual life but they can also come from things you've read or watched in a movies or over-heard at a party. Whatever you use, it is only raw material. For me, at some point, imagination will transform these kernels of experience into something very different, something that fits in the story.
Write what you know is, for some of us, like wearing a straight-jacket. We might as well be coloring by number. Our characters and our worlds won't breathe. There will be no life. Write what you want: What you know, what you can imagine, what you over-hear, read, see, whatever gets your work done.
Or so I think today.
Here's a link to a post I wrote on why character is not plot. I'm thinking about plot a lot lately because I struggle with it so much and because I see other writers struggle with it so much. You have to be able to do a lot of things to get novels published and plot is one of them. But plot was hardly mentioned at all in any of the writing classes I took in college. I think part of that was most of the teachers didn't understand it and part of it was they thought it didn't belong in a discussion of "serious" fiction. But look at the best books. They're good stories first. All the other pleasures come out of that. There are a few that are primarily about other things, like language, but these are the exception. Most good and great novels are good stories first.
Here's some thoughts on plot and character:
Also, a new video for my novel, UTOPIA, IOWA. Thanks for watching.
Sometimes I think a very large part of writing is figuring out my characters' motivations. Why do my characters do what they do? Yes, it has to do with what they want and who and what stops them from getting what they want. And it also has to do with how they see themselves and how that changes when they get involved in the plot.
Being true to the motivation for all characters--even villains who, naturally, see themselves as the hero of their story-- can take you a long way down the narrative path.
But this motivation question is not just about the big events. Every scene, every gesture, every conversation and silence, has motivation in it and can, if done right, reveal character. Every little thing done by every character has to be accounted for. And when you have main characters who are on stage in a scene and act in ways that feel inauthentic, it is usually the unfortunate failure of motivation that is behind their inauthenticity.
Why do my characters do what they do in both small and large ways? I try to keep coming back to this question. A lot of discovering and revealing the secrets of character lies in motivation.
Novelists need a lot of things to write well. They need some talent with language and story. They need to have read a lot to learn the structures of fiction. They need to study and understand all the elements of craft-- like characterization, plot, setting, language, show and tell, voice, POV and on and on. They need practice, lots and lots of practice. BUT the number one thing they need, in my humble opinion, is a passion for writing. They don't have to love to write all the time--good god no-- but they need to be passionate about their writing. And here's why--the writers who end up publishing and making a life, whether it pays all the bills or not, out of writing are those who continue to write and try all kinds of ways to get better.
I fully admit I have a love/hate relationship with writing. I love it much more than hate it but there are a few frustrating moments when I do hate it. But I am always passionate about it and it is this passion for writing (not publishing which is a different beast all together) that sustains me. I've met a lot of talented writers, particularly in graduate school (MFA in Writing, yep) who are not writing now and have published very little. The praise a person gets in school isn't going to sustain him/her as a writer once out and the teacher and student audience is gone and the larger one not yet materialized. What sustains a writer is that passion, that learned love of the act of writing. Honestly, it takes most writers years and years to start writing well. What you have to do as a new writer is just keep writing and finishing (VERY important to your development is finishing work so you know what it's like to write an ending) your manuscripts. If you focus on what you love, write what you love, then you will feed that thing that I think is most important--a passion for writing, which means you will do it whether you get the pay or praise of the outside world.
Novelists do need many things (including luck) to get published but what sustains writers, I think, what keeps them going and writing the next manuscript and the next is passion. A little talent and a lot of passion will push a writer to keep writing and learning and those things make many things possible. You have to write and finish work to give yourself a chance to write something you've always wanted to write. The passion keeps you writing and the writing, finishing work, gives you hope and that's a fundamental part of the writing life.
Or so I think today.
Here's a link to an interview I did and also a giveaway of free hardback copies of Utopia, Iowa at this site. I have several other interviews coming up about writing that will be on the web. One is about Merlin and his effect on my writing and on drinking coffee, and one is on writing and reading and one on process. Also, I have a few book events coming up: I will be at the North Texas Teen Book Festival on March 7, teach a class for WLT on Plot in Character Driven Fiction on April 4 and be on a SCBWI panel on process on April 11 and at TLA in Austin on April 16, 17.
Utopia, Iowa, my YA novel, is being published by Candlewick Press today (FEB 10) and that’s a most excellent thing. I’m very grateful. But it almost didn’t happen. That is to say Utopia, Iowa’s road to publication was not a smooth superhighway. It was more like a road I drove in rural Mexico one summer not long after I graduated from high school, one that was an obstacle course of potholes and cracked pavement and that eventually went from poorly paved to not paved at all, then to mud, and then ended in what appeared to be a cow pasture. My choices were hang with the cows or go back and try to find another road. I like cows but… How many rejections did Utopia, Iowa, get? I could probably ask my amazing agent for an exact number, but I’ll guess in the neighborhood of fifteen, including one from the publisher who ultimately accepted and published it (though not the same editor). And also--an important detail- the version she accepted was not that same version that had been rejected. We’ve all seen the lists of novels that were rejected numerous times and ultimately became huge bestsellers and/or literary classics. To name a few… Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone--at least 11 rejections. (Bazillion copies sold) Lord of the Flies: 20 rejections (15 million+ copies sold) Classic A Wrinkle in Time: 26 rejections. (millions sold) Classic I don’t know how many of these manuscripts, if any, were rewritten during or after rejections. I have read that J.D.Salinger’s Catcher in the Ryewas rewritten after many, many rejections and only then accepted by a publisher. Obviously, no one knows for sure what people will buy—so there’s that. But also, since there are a lot of critically acclaimed novels and even classics on the list I’ve linked to, it’s fair to say that experienced editors and publishers may also be wrong about the quality of a novel. But what I’d like to focus on is I wrote a manuscript that was the best I could write at the time and that was handily rejected. Eventually, we had to admit that it wasn’t going to sell. I left it in my documents and moved on. I wrote another novel and that one was accepted. And then I wrote another and that one was accepted, too. But I never entirely forgot that manuscript I’d left behind. Something about it, even after years, still interested me. Maybe part of that interest was that it was set in Iowa, the state I grew up in and hadn’t been back to for many, many years. But I also think I felt a connection to it that I never entirely broke free of. So I pulled the manuscript up and read through it. I still liked parts, but I saw a big problem in the manuscript that I hadn’t seen before. There were two stories and they were competing with each other—not working together. I thought about this problem for a day. Did I really want to go back to the manuscript again? It was going to take a lot of work and a lot of time and I could quite possibly end up in the same place—that damn cow pasture. Ultimately, the answer for me was yes. Part of the yes was that foolish stubborn steak so many writers have that serves us for both good and ill, but part of it was that I thought I could fix the story, that I could make it much better. It was worth the gamble. And that version of Utopia, Iowa, sold on its first submission and made me very happy. I don’t want to say we should never give up on our manuscripts. Most writers have a few they were wise to give up on. However, I do want to say that if you have a manuscript buried in your documents folder that you couldn’t publish, maybe one that came close to being published or one you still feel connected to in some way, it’s worth taking a look at it again. Maybe the time away will give you the distance you need to see it more clearly. You never know. Writing, like publishing, is seldom a straight road. Two minute version of Utopia, Iowa—in case you’re looking for a fast read.
I've written on writing in the moment before but I want to add something about my process here.
One thing that was important for me to learn is that writing fiction is juggling many things at once and not thinking about any of them while you’re in the act of writing. There are just so many areas of concern: voice, character, plot, setting, language, and on and on. If we think about them while we’re writing, there’s a good chance we’ll freeze up or go into a kind of stiff, forced writing, or maybe make the wrong choices. And the wrong choices can be deadly in a novel. The wrong choices can lead you to other wrong choices and then you’re halfway through the novel and you’re thinking, HOW THE F**K DID I GET HERE? WHAT AM I DOING HERE? THIS ISN’T MY BEAUTIFUL NOVEL. THESE AREN’T MY BEAUTIFUL CHARACTERS (and before you know it you’re in a Talking Heads song—sorry, off topic).
So--you can't think--much--about writing while you're writing. You can think all around it, of course. When you're driving your car (this, of course, does raise safety concerns but we all must make sacrifices for our art), taking a shower, walking the dog (one of my favorites). I'm constantly turning over aspects of what I'm working on when I'm not actually working but the writing itself, in my opinion, should be as much in the moment of the story as possible.
So yes--writing in the moment is important for making the right choices and discovering connections between plot and character.
But the thinking that goes on around the writing process is important too. Lately, I've been trying to order this thinking a bit more by writing it out. I'm not yet ready to call it an outline but it is brainstorming in a more orderly way. I've always been a discovery writer so this is a bit new for me. More later on how this works for me--for now I just want to point out that I think that you can be a believer in discovery writing (finding your way by writing it out) AND mapping aspects of story and character in order to guide some of these discoveries.
When people ask what my one piece of advice would be to new writers, I always say write and also read, which sounds kind of uninspired except that it is REALLY the best advice. Writers become writers by writing. They learn by writing. They learn by their mistakes and they figure out things and they become better. Reading helps. You have to read, but writing is #1 way to get better.
I wrote five novels before I was published. I wrote five novels where I was learning how to write. I thought they were good at the time. I loved writing them. But they weren't really very good. When I figured out why, little by little, I got better. I'm still working on getting better with everything I write.
I was looking at this youtube by Brandon Sanderson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pLdI8f5BiI
Check it out for inspiration. He wrote 12 novels and hadn't made a penny off of them. He thought the first five were practice but he thought the sixth was very good and he felt like he knew what he was doing. He felt that way about the subsequent novels he wrote, too. But none of them were published. Finally, though, someone did agree to publish #6 which was called Elantris and it became a big hit. Now he's a bestseller.
We've all heard these stories. They're rare but what I like about Sanderson's is that he just kept writing. Twelve books. Whether you traditionally publish or publish independently, you still have to deal with finding an audience. That can be hard. A lot of it is random. A lot of it is luck. What you can control though is your work, your writing, your learning how to write better each book. So the simplest advice---keep writing--is still the best as far as I'm concerned. Write what you love and what you really want to write. Be aware that your writing isn't perfect and keep looking for ways to improve. You'll find your way and you'll love what you're doing.
ALSO, I have a new novel coming out on 2/10/15
My publisher is giving away ten copies of Utopia, Iowa at YABC........
I was thinking that it might be helpful to look at the process of learning to write using the idea of a puzzle. I am really thinking of two comparisons here: learning to write generally and learning to write a particular novel or story. I think that when you first start to write you struggle and part of the struggle is you don’t have the right pieces. You force pieces where they don’t go because you need to do something. Also there are many holes in the puzzle which you try to overlook, though you feel something is wrong. Your puzzle is, in short, a mess. Writing just takes time. You have to write a lot and finish some things—most of us anyway have to do this—before your completed puzzle looks like anything resembling an accomplishment. You have to struggle through a couple of very ugly finished puzzles before you do something that fits together. You learn how to write by writing (and to a lesser extent reading). An important part of this is finishing a story or novel
so that you know what that's like--and revising.
What happens after that, when you reach a certain level, having worked on the different aspects of craft (character, language, dialogue, plot, setting, voice etc… the different puzzle pieces) is you begin to be able to put a puzzle together that creates a coherent picture of varying interest. What our challenge is at this point—and it’s a challenge that never ends—is to improve the pieces of the puzzle and the way they fit together in a particular story. Writing is ultimately about connection—about making all these pieces fit together in a way that makes an interesting—at the basic level—story. WE hope for more, of course; we hope for surprising, brilliant, exciting. We hope for transcendence, power, beauty….More. I think some writers become competent with the puzzle and they’re fine with that. They’ll continue to create interesting stories that fit together and they will be similar in content and structure and that’s ok for them. They don’t keep struggling to learn more because they’ve mastered what they need. Others struggle on. They keep learning. They try different things. Their work may be a bit less polished than the writer who does a similar thing over and over, but they also have a better chance of creating something...More. I try to be this kind of writer.
Every writer faces the second kind of puzzle every time they begin a new work. They must discover the pieces of a new puzzle and how they fit together. Since every story is different, even a writer who writes similar stories will likely struggle with this. It will be easier, of course, but it will still be a challenge. OK, enough with the puzzle. My point is pretty simple. No matter how long you’ve been writing, you can always get better if you keep fighting to find new ways to improve your skills. This fight and improving skills put you in a position to reach higher levels with your work. Sure, writers are born with different levels and kinds of talent. That we can’t change. What we can change is our skills and these skills can give us the opportunity to create works we would otherwise be unable to create. Put it another way--Successful art comes from hard, steady work and from being in the right place at the right time. The poet, Randall Jarrell, once said he stood out in the rain hoping to be struck by lightening. Poets can be a bit gloomy but he’s right that writing is about constantly trying to learn more so that you can be in a place where, if the right connection is made, if the right strike of lightening hits, you can use it in a way that gives you the chance to write the best story you’re capable of writing.
The connections between characters and plot situation and setting and their relationship to internal and external conflict is what drives a novel forward. I struggle with this all the time. I think this simple way (Use THEREFORE, BUT and not AND THEN) of looking at the relationship between what happens in a story is helpful. Check out this very short video (about two minutes) by the creators of South Park—their # 1 Rule. They say that what you’re doing is trying to link what happens in a story by either a “THERFORE” or a “BUT”; what you should avoid is the “AND THEN” because this will just lead to a sequence of unrelated events etc. I think this is a simple way to remember one of those larger guiding principles of propelling your story forward. THIS HAPPENS Therefore THIS HAPPENS THIS HAPPENS so (therefore) THIS HAPPENS Boy steals a car/Boy gets caught by police/Boy calls parents to come and get him out/ BUT parents won’t because they decide it will teach him a lesson/therefore-when he’s in jail he gets beat up so badly he gets put in the hospital/ therefore…. And on it and on. Also giving away another ARC of Utopia, Iowa, at Goodreads—I’m down to one.
Fear. Even Stephen King has it, and not because he scares himself when he writes. He fears failure—fear that he will fail to finish what he’s writing. He’s written something close to 70 books and he still deals with what every writer I know has to deal with—fear of not being able to finish a story and worse, that it won’t be very good if you do finish it. It’s that nagging voice that you have to silence in order to write at all. Is it comforting or terrifying that it still comes to a man who’s written about 70 books? For me it’s comforting. We all struggle. So here’s a writer on Jane Friedman’s blog writing about fear and quoting Stephen King from an interview in Rolling Stone. And after that a link to the interview itself. Also an interview I did for SCBWI—not about fear but… and a link to a giveaway soon to be over. One day and change left on my giveaway of 5 signed ARCs of Utopia, Iowa—Candlewick-- which comes out Feb. 2015—enter here if you so desire.
I love this Elmore Leonard http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1651959 interview because the king of writing dialogue is insightful and because he says a lot of things I think about dialogue. I love the part where he says his characters who can't talk well don't make it. How's that for giving characters incentive to say interesting things in interesting ways? I think he creates interesting complex characters by listening closely to how they talk and what they say. He figures them out through dialogue and I do this, too. Maybe you can or if not at least make dialogue more important to your stories. Another thing I love about this interview is how he says he keeps trying to get better. The guy is close to 80 at this point and has written--I don't know--forty novels. He's still trying to get better and it still interests and excites him. He's one of my role models in how to keep writing and keep having fun writing and still try to write stories that are entertaining and still about something.
So here are a few tips for writing dialogue:
1. It should have the appearance of real conversation without being real conversation. Transcriptions show how boring most real conversation is. Um, a, um...
2. Use mostly he said, she said... avoid using a lot of different taglines or adverbs to "show" how the person is feeling. He said dejectedly OR she said happily. MY thoughts on this is you probably haven't done a good job of showing how your characters feel in their dialogue if you have to resort to these kinds of descriptive adverbs. True most of the time.
3. DIALOGUE is showing. It's not telling. Readers are in a scene and this is one reason it can be so effective and engaging. Good dialogue can do many things. Move a story forward. Reveal character.
4. Don't dump info. "Remember how when we were younger we always went to the City Park and how you..."
5. Real conversations are often indirect.
6. This sort of goes with indirect but isn't exactly the same. There needs to be subtext in order for the dialogue to do MORE and be MORE in your story. Something should be going on underneath whatever the conversation is about on the surface. Showing this opens up opportunities to give depth to characters and plot.
Of course reading writers that are good at dialogue like Jane Austen, Elmore Leonard, John Green and many others will help.
Also, my giveaway of five Signed ARCs of Utopia, Iowa (Candlewick, Feb. 2015) is still going on over at Goodreads. Sign up to win a copy if you're so inclined-- https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22747808-utopia-iowa
"Maybe because he has a laptop and a confident air, I’m not that surprised he has the gift of speech. Or maybe when you’re dead and you died the way I did, it takes more than a talking golden monkey with a laptop to surprise you."
This is from my WIP. It's just one paragraph out of context but here's the point I want to make. Along with all the other things you're trying to do at once--create voice, use language well, develop characters,plot, and so on and so on--creating surprise at all levels (sentence, paragraph, chapter) is helpful in engaging the reader.
So here--yes, in my quirky way--there's the surprise of the monkey himself and the fact that he can talk and has a laptop. But how I make this particular paragraph create suspense is I want the reader to want to read on because there's something the text raises that makes he/she want an explanation for "...maybe when you're dead and you died the way I did...". I hope the reader reads this line and wants to know more about my death, in particular how I died.
It's helpful to look at your use of language in this way during revision. With me--and I've noticed this in others--sometimes I word my sentence in such a way that I miss an opportunity to make the reader want an answer to a question--whether it's on the local level of the scene or a bigger question in the larger story.
WHY I WRITE FUNNY/SAD NOVELS
Hi, my name is Brian and I write funny and sad novels. This mix is at the heart of any story I tell, no matter what else is in the story. I don’t write comic novels, though I want you to laugh when you read my novels. I don’t write sad novels, though I want you to experience the emotional roller coaster of my characters as they struggle through their stories. Both humor and sadness are in my novels and that’s a big part of what makes them mine.
I see the world as funny and sad. People laugh at funerals and cry at weddings. Sometimes they laugh and cry at the same time. We’re complicated, we humans. Surgeons make jokes when they’re operating on patients. Cops joke at crime scenes. Are they doing this because they enjoy other people’s pain? Of course not. Are they less serious about their jobs than someone who never jokes about anything? NO. They have difficult jobs dealing with life and death situations and humor helps them handle the things they must handle. There are many moments in life when funny and sad are side by side like this. For me it seems perfectly natural that funny and sad can both be in a novel, sometimes in moments right next to each other.
I’ve written novels that are mostly realistic (MY ROADTRIP TO THE PRETTY GIRL CAPITAL OF THE WORLD) and speculative novels (ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES) and realistic novels with supernatural elements (the upcoming UTOPIA, IOWA—February, 2015) and my last recently finished WIP told from the POV of a dead boy in a library between life and the afterlife (again, mostly realistic but with supernatural elements), but what they all have in common is the mix of humor and sadness. Of course there are writers far more successful than I who also have this mix at the heart of their work: Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Gabrielle Zevin, and Neil Gaiman, come to mind. If you’re a writer who is forcing your writing to be either serious or comic because you think it must be one or the other, I’d ask you to consider the success of these writers.
I know I didn’t really find the voice for my fiction until I began to work toward a balance of funny and sad in my work. Now I can’t imagine writing fiction that doesn’t have both.
The cover reveal for my new novel. I don't know if this is the shortest novel in the world but it is certainly a quick read. I hope it gives a feel for the longer version.
The 2-Minute Novel: UTOPIA, IOWA by Brian Yansky
Here is UTOPIA, IOWA, from the first few pages to the last (with a few parts left out). It should take you about two minutes to read. You can fill in the missing words yourself and/or wait to read the whole story, 300+ pages, which comes out February 10, 2015.
11. I learned a lesson that day: Real revolution needs more than creamed corn.
22. But I wondered if skewed priorities were a bad thing—which was probably just further proof I had them.
33. I was already dealing with detention, the start of senior year, and all kinds of questions about my future. I didn’t need a dead girl, too.
44. “What do you think, Mr. Bell, is true love real?”
55. “Nathaniel says The Matrix is like Philosophy for Dummies…”
That sounded like Nathaniel.
66. “Does the Banshee always mean death?” Whisper Wainwright asked.
77. Penny was a fortune-teller. She also had a nursery. She was very good with plants and visions of the future. It was a small town; a lot of people needed more than one talent to get by.
88. She had many gifts/curses but she didn’t like to be specific about what they were.
99. “…something dead—dead and old and very powerful—was controlling her. But here’s the really spooky part.”
“That wasn’t the spooky part?” I said. “That sounded like the spooky part.”
110. He had a glass eye that saw much further than his natural one.
111. Ash softened…”Just don’t take your dead girls out on me…”
112. She told me she needed a friend not another boyfriend. Numerically this was true, but…
113. Next to Ishi the king looked small and weak. All the same Ishi would be dead before he took one step if the king felt threatened.
114. “A dream,” the detective said…He reminded me of Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive (1993…)
115. The next morning Mom and Dad didn’t fight. It was worse. They were polite.
116. She wasn’t fooling me. I knew she was using some kind of reverse psychology. Still it’s kind of disconcerting to have your mother advise you to hold up a bank.
117. The dead wanted to forget they were dead. It was best for everyone if they didn’t.
118. “You must eat your mortal’s heart,” the king says.
119. It was not at all The Breakfast Club (1985…)
220. Love is madness.
221. “The dead don’t bleed,” I said, trying to reassure her.
222. My fourth mistake was not riding away after I called the police.
223. I liked to think of myself as the loner-outsider type (See Cool Hand Luke and Junoand about a million other movies) but maybe I was just socially challenged.
224. “I’m so tired of this small town,” she said.
225. Sometimes she could be a very irritating witch.
226. Gram drank her potion and gave a few drops to Captain Pike.
227. “A monster’s got her,” Amanda said.
228. The bell rang.
229. Thanks to Silence of the Lambs (1991…)
330. Ash drove us over to the Cowboy Guru’s house…
331. “It’s a place that was and can never be again,” he said. “Now you be careful. The young should never want the past more than the future.”
332. “The Princess Bride, I think.”
“That’s a great one,” I said.
333. “Hollywood,” she said.
“The stuff dreams are made of…” (Maltese Falcon, 1941)
3 THE END
UTOPIA, IOWA is about a small town where the supernatural meets the natural. There’s some murder and mystery and mayhem in this novel. Ghosts and other creatures and humans abound.
Some funny moments. Some sad. At heart, it’s a story about a boy who wants to write for the movies and his struggle with leaving all he knows (family, friends, hometown) to pursue his dreams. Long version-300+ pages available FEB 10, 2015: Candlewick Press.http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22747808-utopia-iowa
First my disclaimer—I’m a reluctant promoter. I try now and then, but I struggle with that part of being a writer. So I’m inexperienced. But I have been reading up on it a little, trying to know more. One thing I keep reading is that writers have the opportunity to connect directly with readers, thanks to social media, in ways they never could before. So although the gatekeepers and influencers are still important, there seems to be a lot of potential to let readers know about your work without going through the middleman or woman. The problem is how do you make that connection? There’s a much-quoted line from Cory Doctorow, author of Little Brother and co-editor of Boing Boing, “The problem for most artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity.” Yeah, that is a problem. I kind of have that problem. His point is a good one, I think-- you should give away as much content as you can because the worry shouldn’t be that you’ll give away too much; the worry should be that no one will read what you give-away or what you or your publisher sells. Of course Amazon and now publishers give away the first few chapters of books to try to get readers interested. The SAMPLE has been around for a while and I’m a big fan of it. I usually read the sample of a novel before I buy it even if friends have recommended the novel. But the SAMPLE—in most cases-- isn’t available until around publication. It made me think that it would be nice if that kind of experience or an experience like that could be available before the book was published. So my idea is pretty simple (it may have been done before but I haven’t seen it anywhere). You give away a short version of your novel before it’s published. What I did was make a 2-minute novel that is something that a reader can read in less time than it would take to listen to a song. I took select lines from my novel that comes out on Feb.10, 2015 --Utopia, Iowa-- from the beginning to the end. I posted it to my website. Here it is if you want to take a look at the post: http://brianyansky.com/2-minuteUtopia.html I was careful not to give away the secrets of the story, of course. I picked lines that I thought were interesting or funny or revealed a little character or plot. I wanted it to be fun and short. More than anything I wanted to give a feel for the novel so that if someone read the 2-minute version and liked it, they might be interested in the full 300+ page version when comes out many months from now. So here are some reasons I think this is a good idea and something you might try with your novel: *You have something you can show readers before publication. * The 2 minute version will remain on my website through publication so it isn’t a one-shot promotion deal. I did put it out there when I got my book cover but I can keep referring people to it as time moves closer to the pub. date and I do other promotions. Will it help? Who knows? But as a reluctant promoter I’m all about small steps; if it makes even a few readers aware of and interested in Utopia, Iowa, I’m happy.
Setting is the poor relative in the fiction-writing craft family. We give character, language, voice, plot, a lot of attention. Rightly so. But setting also deserves some love.
So here are two ways to think of setting. The first narrow. The second broader.
Narrow-- character development: where your characters live. Her house or apartment. The places your character goes to have coffee or eat dinner or work. All of these are an interaction of character and setting and the setting helps reveal character. Maybe think about this in revision and use setting to develop and deepen character. Broader picture: For some writers, in some manuscripts, setting becomes a character. This can be a very powerful and distinctive characteristic of a writer's work. From the reader’s side—they can be drawn to a certain writer because the setting creates an atmosphere. Think Philip Marlow in LA; Raymond Chandler’s noir atmosphere comes , in part, from his evocation of setting in his novels. There are many, many examples, including the many examples in fantasy and sci-fi where the worlds need to be clear and present in the story. One way to think of setting is as a character. I know that I did this in my novel—out early next year--http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22747808-utopia-iowa. The town of Utopia, Iowa, became a major character. I loved the eccentric people that lived there and the mystery of its past and the threat of dark forces drawn to the town because of its past. I began to think of the town itself as a character and that (I hope) helps build an atmosphere in the novel and contributes to the overall tone of the story. But it also helped me develop a connection between setting and character and plot. To me, so much of the process of writing a story comes from making these connections. Here's an exercise on the importance of setting in a more focused way—to build character. Describe the place where someone lives just by the details. The details that you choose reveal the character. A man who has separated from his wife and family but wants to go back to them. A man who has separated from his wife and family and doesn't want to go back to them. A high school student's room—he’s lost and partying too much. A high school student’s room—she’s an A student. A girl or boy who doesn’t have a place to live. A boy and girl who are seventeen and have a child. This could go on and on. The purpose of the exercise is to focus on how setting can evoke and develop character.
PLOT IN THE CHARACTER DRIVEN NOVEL & GIVEAWAY Just listed this morning (Oct. 15) on goodreads—I’m giving away 5 signed ARCs of the very novel I use as an example in this post (what a coincidence!)—Utopia, Iowa. Sign up for the giveaway and add the book to your reading list if you’re so inclined. Thanks. When I sit down to write a novel, I try to think of a situation for a character to be in. I don’t usually get it right the first time or even the second or third but I get some of it right and then a little more on the next draft and a little more and so on. The way I develop my situation is by writing my way into my main character. First drafts are always hideous and my main character—if I were to visualize—would be this monster, half-formed and everything out of proportion. Dr. Frankenstein and I have a lot in common. But as I write, I start to know things about my character because of how he/she speaks and how he/she reacts or creates actions in the scenes and the situations he/she gets into. I have to be patient. This awkward stage is very hard to get through. My character is driving the story—particularly what my character needs and wants within a specific situation. Scene by scene this might be small things. He/she wants a cup of coffee or a piece of chocolate or to have sex or not to have sex. But in the marathon of the novel there will be something deeper that he or she wants, something I think of as desire (and Robert Olen Butler calls yearning) in order to distinguish it from all the other many, many wants a character has. This will help direct the entire novel’s plot. So one connection between plot and character is that what the character desires, believes they need, will cause them to act and react in certain ways and this will cause things to happen in the novel. Keeping the link between the two helps me focus my story. Again, character driven fiction will rely heavily—surprise, surprise—on the character(s). So in addition to this desire, you need to understand primary characteristics of your character. For me, character is where it all starts. BUT we still need plot in character driven stories, we need narrative drive, and the connection between plot and character, a symbiotic relationship, is going to power the story forward. It can create opportunities for depth and excitement. Plot and character, linked in a symbiotic relationship, can help you make those connections that are so important in writing a novel and in the finished novel. In Utopia, Iowa, my main character, Jack, has many things he wants: he wants to write for the movies but is afraid to follow his dream; he wants to leave his small town of Utopia, Iowa, but at the same time doesn’t (he loves the quirky little town and its people but he also has the desire to see more of the world); he wants to be more than just best friends with his best friend, Ash, but is afraid that trying to make this happen will destroy their relationship as best friends. You can see the conflicts these “wants” of my character will create. You can probably imagine different ways these wants might play out in the novel. But, in addition to all of these, there’s an underlying character trait in Jack that pushes the story along—he likes to help people. In his case, because he, like many in his family, happens to see dead people, some of these people he helps are ghosts. Essential to this particular story is the fact that a dead girl comes to him, one who has been murdered, and asks him to help her find who killed her and how she died (she has death amnesia which, in case you are unfamiliar with this particular condition, is very uncommon among the dead). He should ignore her—he knows trying to find answers for her could get him into trouble-- but…he can’t. I love character driven fiction but I think sometimes writers who say their fiction is character driven decide this somehow means they don’t need plot. Au contraire, the connection between plot and character is what makes for good writing and good reading.
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So here’s my problem. I can’t be faithful. I’m not monogamous. When it comes to fiction, I just can’t do it. It would be simpler if I could be. But both as a reader and a writer, I’m drawn to many different genres: literary, fantasy, realism, mystery, sci-fi. To make matters worse I like serious novels that also have some kind of humor in them. I’m most excited by fiction that blends many of these genres and elements. I was on a panel at a writing conference recently and one of my fellow-panelists said that the problem with genre bending/blending was expectation. An editor on the panel agreed. His point: The audience has certain expectations for a genre and if those expectations aren’t met they’re not going to like the novel. The panelist said that it was like going to a soft-drink machine and pressing Coke and getting a Dr. Pepper. I absolutely see how that would be disappointing, even maddening. I don’t care for Dr. Pepper. Sorry DP fans. And I do get what he means about expectation, but many of the writers I love have convinced readers to know them well enough to know that their fiction won’t fit neatly into a genre label. A few examples would be Neil Gaiman, Kelly Link, Kurt Vonnegut, Stephen King, Chris Moore—or they wander into new territory and later everyone says they’re writing in a new genre-- like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and magical realism. I like realism as a writer and a reader. I’m a fan of John Green and Pete Hautman (who writes in many genres) and Rainbow Rowell and Francisco Stork—to name a few. But I also like fantasy—The Golden Compass, Elsewhere, Harry Potter, and many, many others. These two genres, when done well, really get me excited as a reader. They also excite me as a writer but I don’t want to have to choose. I don’t want to write one or the other. I want to write realism and I want to write fantasy. Both at the same time. I’m telling people I write fantastical realism (which I’m pretty sure isn’t a real literary term but if I say it with confidence maybe I won’t get called on it) to try to describe what I do in Utopia, Iowa—my novel coming out early next year. There are magical creatures in that novel and people who have gifts that are magical. But the day to day of the novel has many ordinary moments. My main character has pretty normal teenager problems: girl problems, school problems, parent problems. He has a dream of becoming a writer for movies and it both scares and exhilarates him. He also happens to see ghosts. This is what excites me as a writer. This mix. To make matters worse and add yet another element: I like to write characters who find humor in our sad, strange, funny world. So that’s another thing that excites me when I write fiction. Writing with a sense of humor about the strange and sometimes serious aspects of our world. There are many writers who have this particular problem: Gaiman, Prachett, Green and, of course, Mr. Dickens and Ms. Austen. Many more. I love reading fiction that has this element, which, I suppose, is one of the reasons I love writing it. Maybe all I’m saying in all this is that as both a writer and a reader the books that most excite me are the ones that surprise me in some way. I think you have to write what excites you. Anything less—even if it will be easier to sell because it fits more neatly into a category—will be less. The reader will notice. And, more importantly, you won’t have nearly as much fun.