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Random thoughts on the art and craft of fiction writing
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
"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.
I suppose there are many nuances to the revelation of character but for me the two most present in any work of fiction are what a character does and what he/she say and how these things direct his/her emotional and intellectual world.
Sometimes we try to tell how a character is feeling and that is that bad kind of telling that writing craft books are always decrying. (There is a good kind and I wish those books made this distinction and I'm sure some of them do but I've seen many that don't. Good telling--info that doesn't need to be shown...but that's another post). Also authors might think something to the point of exhaustion for both themselves and the reader.
So revelation of characters, in my humble opinion, should be shown through the action they take in the various situations that the story requires them to move through. These will be choices they make and others that are made for them and that they react to.
But for me--I LOVE DIALOGUE Yansky...what characters say to each other can reveal just as much. Each character tells a lot about who they are both in the way they say things and the things they say. Again sometimes they're initiating the conversation, moving it along, and sometimes they're reacting to what others have said.
Also dialogue shows the voices of characters who aren't narrating the story. It not only gives them their say but shows who they are by the way they say what they say.
For me, a lot of how I get my characters comes from how they talk.
Elmore Leonard, in talking about writing dialogue, said that he would let his characters talk and he'd follow the interesting ones. He'd kill off the ones who weren't interesting. Harsh? That's a writer for you.
What characters do and say are most important for me.
There is so much on the net about the craft of writing. Some good, some bad. Some good, in my humble opinion, is the simple advice to read a lot and write a lot. You must do these things to be a writer. I’ve written this advice myself. Simple but true. If you don’t like to read, you don’t have much chance of being a writer. You won’t get the nuances and subtleties of form and structure and language etc… And you have to write. That’s pretty self-evident. You can’t finish work if you don’t write. So, internet writerly advice is often “butt in chair” and “just write” and things like this. While all this is true and, I’d add, reading up on craft, it’s also true that a lot of writing isn’t done when you’re writing. A lot of writing is done when I walk the dog. So I would also advise that you consider this aspect of writing. Working out characters and what they do and have done to them is a lot of times accomplished when you’re doing something mindless like walking the dog. When I sit down to write, I do my best to be in my characters and their world and I try not to force things upon them. When I do, I usually head in the wrong direction. So a lot of times when I’m walking the dog, I’m thinking over questions about the story that have come up because of the writing I did earlier that day or the day before. There are always a lot of decisions to be made in any story. Walking the dog is an excellent time to work on these problems. And it has an added bonus: it makes your dog happy.
I've written before about how I start a novel, how I get going. Situation.
I do think Patrick Ness's idea that a good idea for a novel will attract other ideas is helpful. It highlights one thing that I think confuses a lot of novice writers: one idea is not enough. It's not, usually, near enough. When people come up to you at a party and say, "I have a great idea for a novel" they might as well be saying, "I saw an interesting bird today."Birds are everywhere. So are ideas. You have to be able to develop an idea and one way to do this is to push deeper into it, creatively develop it, and other ideas will come out of that first idea and help you develop your story.
For me, I need a little more than an idea to get started. I need a situation. For example, an idea might be that aliens invade the earth. That's not really a situation yet. A situation makes it more specific. Telepathic aliens invade the earth; they're so advanced that they conquer it in ten seconds. That's a situation. Now I develop that.
One powerful advantage to working from a situation is you can keep coming back to it to focus your story. Think about it as you wander your way down the narrative path. It's where your story comes from. What does this mean to your characters? How they react develops not only the story but the characters. What do they want because of their situation? What's at stake? All these kinds of writer questions come out of the origin of your story.
Here's some good advice about bad advice in writing that is sometimes good and sometimes bad---depending. And that could be all I have to say on the matter because it does, in a way, say it all. OK--not really but sort of. Your way has to be your way. A lot of the bad advice that you'll see in the "ten worst pieces of writing advice" is good for some, especially inexperienced writers. BUT people repeat it as gospel to others who it is harmful to. My advice is to listen to everything you hear about writing, read everything you can about writing, experience everything you can, but first and foremost write. Write every day. Write different things. Push yourself. Find what you do well and not so well. Learn from doing. You'll find your way.
If you're a writer who has published, then you get asked to speak or be on panels and talk about the various aspects of writing. Many writers are teachers or teach now and then. In the modern writing world, writers often articulate their process, their thoughts about character and so on to audiences or classes. This can be very helpful to inexperienced writers--but not always.
I am not talking about responses to specific work by a new writer (the direct responses that speak to a person's work) but the more general advice writers give to other writers. When a writer gives a talk or talks in general about an aspect of writing, he or she is really talking about something that they've built a lecture around. They're making a point. They're making a point that they feel at that particular moment.
Voice is the strongest thing in fiction
Characters make the story.
It's not just that different writers have different opinions about many aspects of writing. The same writer (I speak from experience here) will feel differently about their writing process etc... at different times. They'll focus in on an aspect and maybe get carried away by how they view it at that moment because they're learning something new or relearning something or simply excited about some approach to writing.
I think it's good for the person who is listening to writing advice to be aware of that. The writer may be talking like he's convinced of something--and he is--but that conviction isn't necessarily going to last a life-time. Writing is complex. The continent of writing is vast and writers are constantly stumbling upon new things.
On the receiving end: what's good advice for one writer may not be good advice for another. For example, I teach a creative writing course sometimes and I tell my students to slow down within a scene. That's generally good advice because inexperienced writers tend to rush through a scene. But it is not universally good advice. I may have one writer who includes way too many details. They get so bogged down in details that the reader falls asleep trying to slog through them. AND/OR that writer may be giving the wrong details so the whole scene is out of focus and harms the narrative drive and character development. So that writer hears "slow down" and they try to stretch out their scenes even more, and their writing not only doesn't improve, it actually gets worse.
SO, if you're taking a course, listening to a lecture, in a workshop, my advice is to listen to whatever the writer, writer-teacher, writer-speaker says AND THEN see if it works for you. In other words, writer beware. All writing advice is not for you. One size does not fit all.
As a writer all I can do is what I can do at that particular place and time. Write what interests me, what gets me excited, what moves me. If I do less than that then I think it comes through in my writing. Anyway, where's the fun in doing less than that? But what I can do can always be more. I have time to make it more.
I try to learn, try to do what I do well better and try to do what I don't do as well better. I feel lucky that I'm a writer. I get to keep trying to write better until I can't write anymore. That's a gift. Think of being a professional athlete and the short run they have at doing what they love.
Writers have time to get better.
And you don't have to be the best writer in every way to be a good writer. In fact, even the great ones are not the best in every way. Good writers do some things very well and others maybe not so well. Some are very good with description or dialogue or characterization or...you name it. Find what you do well, what you love to do, and do it. And then try to do it better. And then try to improve the things you don't do as well.
We can get better. We have time.
You will never figure it all out. How fiction works. Why some novels come alive an others don't. Nobody has it figured out. That's a blessing and a curse. Some days it feels like a curse anyway. But it's a blessing. To be engaged, to be passionate, to love the process--in spite of the days when you hate it--, to love the mess of it all and finding order in that mess and shaping it into a story, is pretty damn awesome. And it goes on, this feeling, this struggle, a whole life because we can't ever "figure it out" completely.
So, I feel lucky. I have time to get better.
Last blog of the year. I love this short inspirational youtube from numerous well-known writers giving a sentence or two of writing advice. What is the one piece of advice that almost every one of them gives?
You find your way to your unique way of writing by writing.
I eventually got an MFA in Writing at Vermont College where I had many great teachers.
But before that, when I was an undergraduate, I tried out a few Creative Writing classes. Back in those days, and maybe in some classes these days too, the instructors didn't so much teach the class as talk about writing and then go over a story or two and then--nothing. There was no organized approach to teaching craft, no exercises to help us understand aspects of craft. It was just talk and then workshop. I didn't get much out of any of those classes.
Last night I was having final conferences with my students in my own creative writing class. When I started teaching this class years ago, I vowed to make it different from those useless classes that I had taken as an undergraduate. I would go through elements of craft, give them exercises to practice , get them writing in and out of class, get them reading published fiction and discussing it as writers, show videos of other writers talking about elements of craft. I would inspire them to write. I'd do more.
Last night I was talking to one of my students and he was asking me about majoring in English and I said there was good and bad to it for a writer. "We read differently than English students do," I said. "As writers, you and I read differently, and sometimes English classes can be frustrating for us because we read as writers."
A big smile broke out on his face.
It made me remember something--- how, back in one of those useless creative writing classes, the professor said, off-handedly, that when I finished my first novel I'd most likely put it away in a drawer and go on to the next and I shouldn't worry--that was natural.
A big smile broke out on my face.
I'd forgotten that smile until I saw it on my student's face.
You see I hadn't really believed I could write a novel. I wanted to. I'd written some things. But I didn't know if I could or how I would ever finish a novel. But here was this writer and this teacher of writing assuming I would. It made me think maybe he knew something I didn't. Maybe I really could finish a novel.
Belief is hard to come by.
You never know where you'll find it.
Sometimes even in a useless creative writing class. NOT so useless it turns out.
Thinking of yourself as a writer, finding the belief to do so, is a huge step to becoming one.
That professor/writer gave me an incredible gift.
Thank you, Professor G.
I'll try to pass it on.
What I love about this video is it expresses very well a certain landscape most writers must go through:
You've been writing for a while and you've had some good moments --you know that--and you know you have some good stories in you and you know you've worked hard and read a lot and studied the various aspects of writing fiction--AND you know something isn't quite what you want it to be be in your writing, something isn't quite There... but you don't know what. You know good work; you understand it when you read it. You appreciate it. You believe you have it in you to write good work but something isn't right in your scenes or sentences or characters, some thing, maybe small, isn't right. It's a disappointment. Ira Glass articulates this gap between what you know you can do, what you want to do, and what you're able to do. And we all, at least every creative writer I know, have been in that place. (Not to say there isn't always a kind of gap for writers between what they imagine and what they can actually get on the page but here I'm talking about a different gap, one more specific to writers still trying to find their way and at this place where they understand a lot but can't quite get that understanding into their fiction. )
The video speaks to that and writing your way through this "place". It has no magic formula to give, but I think it's helpful to know almost every writer has gone though it. You have to just keep writing. It's that simple and that complex. Keep writing.
Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.
I read for pleasure first--because the experience of reading is one of the things I love about this world. But I'm a writer so I also read with an eye to how another writer does something well. Really good writers do some--BUT NOT ALL, which is encouraging in a way-- things really well. So I try to learn.
For example, I look at this sentence that opens A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving and I think WOW. And then I think--what makes it so good? It does a lot of things in one sentence, but I think, more than anything it makes me want to know Owen Meany and, to a lesser degree, the narrator. It's a great opening and it immediately attracts me to the characters. I want to know more.
"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."
"doomed" (a powerful word that makes us think of fate and tragedy), a boy with a "wrecked" voice and "smallest person I ever knew"---give the beginning of this sentence almost a mythic quality, and there is something about wrecked that has the echo of forces beyond us. Shipwreck--for example. And he's not just a "small" person but the "smallest person I ever knew"--Here it's a bit like a fairy tale. In all these there is the sense that this story is larger than itself, whatever itself will be.
And then the next line: "the instrument of my mother's death"--not that he killed her or that he was a part of her death in some way. More vague and yet full of mystery and more involved than just being a part of it --"the instrument". How was he the instrument? What does instrument mean in this context? We want answers to this question and it is always good when a writer gets a reader wanting answers to questions he's posed directly or indirectly in the text. So this is yet another thing that this sentence makes me think about.
Why does the reader turn the page? To get to the next one. This sentence makes me want to turn the page because I want to know more about Owen Meany and the plot. The reader already has me hooked on character and story and I haven't even finished the first sentence.
OK, onward------Then the "but" and we turn the corner. All of these interesting and strange things that Owen Meany is, as interesting and compelling as they are, are not the reason our narrator is "doomed" to remember Owen. This is a thrilling moment in this sentence. We've been brought to it by the choice of words, the compelling information, the rhythm of the clauses...not because, or because, or even because... THEN but because he is the reason I believe in God.
What? I didn't see that coming but when it comes it seems just right...all of this is about faith and this will be a book about faith. You don't have to be a Christian to feel that this is right. Faith or the lack of it is one is at the heart of so much of what it means to be human.
There's more to say about this sentence, of course, but let me just end with this. Here's Mr. Irving's sentence again.
"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."
Let me just rewrite this for him:
I have to remember a boy with a broken voice--not because of that or because he was so small or because he was part of why my mother died but because he made me believe in God.
IT'S the same information. I just changed a few words. Only a few. But what happened? I sucked the life right out of it--or most of the life. I did. I should be ashamed of myself. Oh, it's not awful, I suppose, but that's the difference--not awful and something beautiful. This reminds me of Mark Twain's quote, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightening and the lightening bug."
I learn a lot from reading other writers. Sometimes I learn just from reading one sentence.
I'm not a huge Stephen King fan (probably my fault but I've just never loved his work the way I love certain authors), but I like a lot of things he says about writing. This quote just reminded me not to force the writing. Sometimes a person can be too aware of craft and technique. Ultimately, it's all about being in the moment of the story. You have to just be there. You have to let the story go where it goes. BUT I think that if you do know craft what you know will be there. It's like when a pro quarterback throws a ball to a receiver with perfect accuracy. He can't think his way to that throw but it's the thousands of hours the quarterback has spent throwing passes that makes it possible.
One of the ways the computer has changed the way I work is that I have a much greater tendency to edit “in the camera”—to make changes on the screen. With Cell
that’s what I did. I read it over, I had editorial corrections, I was able to make my own corrections, and to me that’s like ice skating. It’s an OK way to do the work, but it isn’t optimal. With Lisey
I had the copy beside the computer and I created blank documents and retyped the whole thing. To me that’s like swimming, and that’s preferable. It’s like you’re writing the book over again. It is literally a rewriting.
Every book is different each time you revise it. Because when you finish the book, you say to yourself, This isn’t what I meant to write at all. At some point, when you’re actually writing the book, you realize that. But if you try to steer it, you’re like a pitcher trying to steer a fastball, and you screw everything up. As the science-fiction writer Alfred Bester
used to say, The book is the boss. You’ve got to let the book go where it wants to go, and you just follow along. If it doesn’t do that, it’s a bad book. And I’ve had bad books. I think Rose Madder
fits in that category, because it never really took off. I felt like I had to force that one.
Editors and agents are always talking about VOICE...They want new and distinct voices. They are looking for them. So what does that mean? Here's what I think--today.
When people talk about voice they're usually talking about the way writers use language. That includes everything--the way they punctuate, the rhythm of their sentences, paragraphing, diction and so on. It also includes their particular way of looking at the world which is very important. (more on this in a moment). And the way the narrator of a particular piece is looking at the world.
I think some writers have very strong voices. See Bradley Cooper's imitations of actors below for actors who have strong voices. No matter what John Wayne is in--there's his particular way of speaking in every line. Other actors' voices change depending on the role. I think the same is true of writers. Some writers have very strong voices and others may be strong but change according to what they're writing.
Bradley Cooper's imitations of other actors--in the way some actors have distinct voices some writers do.
SO, in a sense, there are two voices at work in most works of fiction--the author's voice and the voice of the narrator of the particular story. Sometimes the particular character of a piece is strong enough to strongly influence the voice of the writer. Elmore Leonard once said that he let's his character's speak and if they don't say interesting things in interesting ways he kills them off. He's a writer with a strong style/voice but every character still has his or her own voice, too.
Given that this is true--I think the article linked below has much to say about voice but the most important point to me is that a writer allow him or herself to say things in his or her unique way. This is the one thing that you, as a writer, bring to writing that no one else has ever brought before. YOU. YOUR WAY OF SEEING THINGS. By allowing yourself the freedom to speak through the voice inspired by your way of seeing you'll find your voice. By digging deep into the narrator of your story you'll combine his/her voice with your own. If you have a unique voice it can really make your fiction stand out.
"You can facilitate voice by giving yourself the freedom to say things in your own unique way. You do not talk exactly like anyone else, right? Why should you write like everyone else?" Donald Maass, agent
Here's the whole article...http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/voice-in-writing-developing-a-unique-writing-voice
Here's a blog post over at YA in Publishing site where I attempt to put together some of the things I've been thinking about concerning character development and its link to plot development. I throw in some thoughts on setting and a quote from the late great John Gardner. Also, on this site you'll find a ton of YA book info. and they frequently give away books.
Also, I'm on this panel at the Texas Book Festival this Saturday: Apocalypse Now--talking about apocalypse fiction in YA--including my own two alien novels. Just one of many panels at the TBF. It's always fun to go up to the capitol for this book event.
FORGIVE ME: TIME TO RANT
I'm sick of hearing about how YA fiction is getting too formulaic. There are too many vampires and there is too much paranormal romance. Let's have some serious diversity in fiction. Come on YA.
To this I say bullsh**. Apologies for the ** or maybe the bullsh part. Hmm... not sure.
Just to be clear--any genre may have vivid and unique fiction. It's in the telling--the language and the ideas and the imaginative situations and tone and characterization and story.YA fiction has more than its share of vivid and unique fiction.
Is there formula fiction in YA? Of course.
But without thinking very hard many writers' names pop into my head that aren't writing anything like formula fiction, that are writing great and interesting fiction: Pete Hautman, Laurie Anderson John Green, Kelly Link, Francisco X. Stork, Neil Gaiman, Lois Lowry, Markus Zusak to name just a few. These writers, and many many more, make the charge that YA is stale and formulaic simply untrue.
But I've said there is formula fiction in YA, right? Sure. So...Teens like it right? They do but not as much as adults, apparently. Look at adult fiction. What sells the most in adult fiction? Look at the lists. Formula fiction. Fifty Shades of Whatever. Thank the Fiction Gods that's not all that sells (many great and diverse writers here, too) but my point is that if you look at mainstream adult fiction, you will find that adults buy large quantities of formula type fiction. If you don't look closely, if you just glance, you might say that adult fiction is nothing but formula. But that would be as untrue as the charge that YA fiction is.
Many readers are always going to be attracted to and satisfied by formula fiction. To me it's uninteresting but it has its place. It has its place in adult fiction (I would argue a larger place in adult fiction than YA fiction) and in YA fiction. But for those interested in going beyond the formula there are plenty of works of fiction in both YA and adult for them. The YA commentators who make wide generalizations about the state of YA fiction need to take a breath. It's doing just fine.
Many writers have said they consider setting as a character. Joyce Carol Oates talks about it in the linked youtube below, but there's a large crowd of writer's to whom setting is significant to their work. Of course, setting is essential to most high fantasy novels: Harry Potter, Tolkien's Middle Earth and so on, but it's also essential to some writers of kitchen sink realism, for example, Raymond Chandler and Los Angeles. For some writers the setting of their book becomes a character. For others it is essential to the development of character. In On Becoming a Novelist John Gardner wrote, "Setting exists so that the character has someplace to stand, something that can help define him, something he can pick up and throw, if necessary."
I think the importance of setting varies from writer to writer. If you're a writer who has a strong connection to place though, I think you can use setting to give your writing another level of connection to character and story. It will give the reader a deeper understanding of what your character is going through if where he is going through it is vividly rendered.
Here's an exercise on the importance of setting. The way I see writing fiction is that there are all these opportunities to develop story and character. One way to develop character is through setting. One exercise to try is the following:
Describe the place where someone lives just by the details. The details that you choose reveal the character.
A foster child.
A police detective.
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 living with his grandparents.
A girl who has run away from home and is living with three other runaways.
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. MORE ON SETTING/CHARACTER in the next post.
Kurt Vonnegut's rules to writing a short story and, importantly, his unrule. Read them or listen to him tell you himself.
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted. 2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. 3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. 4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action. 5. Start as close to the end as possible. 6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of. 7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. 8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. Vonnegut's Unrule, BUT “The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor… She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.”
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Plot and Character: a story of codependency that works for me… Henry James, as quoted by Franny Billingsley in a post on Cynsations, “What is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?”
You go Henry.
I suppose I had vague notions of the connection between plot and character not long after I began writing. John Gardner tried to tell me in his books on writing and I’m sure others did too, including myself. Maybe I even understood, on an intellectual level, that there needed to be a connection. But it was Robert Olen Butler that really got through to me with his talk about a character’s desire driving plot. It made me think of character in a different way. Yes you had to develop the layers of a character and relationships and all that. Writing is never, ever, about just one thing. BUT this idea that plot and character were entwined was crucial to my development as a writer.
In Franny Billingsley’s blog post she talks about a character’s controlling belief directing plot. See the link to read but the main idea is a character sees herself and/or world in such a way that it defines the character’s attitude, self-image, choices. These, in turn, direct the story.This is helpful, I think, in finding one’s way through the vast possibilities of any story.
But here’s my crucial point—one that was a big part of my pushing forward as a writer. Character is not separate from plot. What a character does, he does because of who he is—how he sees himself & his world and what he wants and what he really wants-- and in a novel what he does causes things to happen to him and all those around him. The interplay between these two—character and narrative drive-- again and again in both small and large ways, builds a story.Or so I think today