Sunday, January 27, 2013

Getting Stuck in the Middle

Here's what can happen:

You come up with a great idea for a novel: the main characters are clear in your mind, you've created the situation you'll place them in, and you have a general idea of what the big events in the story are going to be. You also know exactly where your characters will end up.

In other words, you've created the story arc. And it's beautiful! You can't wait to put it down on paper (or computer screen.)

You spend a lot of time figuring out the opening:
  • Where in the story should you begin?
  • Whose point-of-view will you use?
  • How much (or little) should your opening scene reveal?
Your first chapter almost writes itself. Of course, you'll polish it later, give it more punch to pull the reader in. But, basically, you've got it.

You're launched.

You eagerly continue. In chapters two, three, four and five you develop your plot, introduce the rest of your main characters, introduce some minor characters. You've hurled at least one, if not two, of your Big Events at your characters and they have responded according to plan.

So now you've made it part way down the track and everything's good.

But here's the problem: since your Big Events are the triggers for significant action or change for your characters, you can't have too many of them or the story becomes chaotic. I would guess the number would be a minimum of two (one to start the action; the other to create the resolution), and a maximum of five.

The main plot (Anna's story) of Anna Karenina, for example has four main events:
  1.  Anna falls in love with Vronsky.
  2. Anna gives up her world to live with Vronsky.
  3. Anna falls into disillusion and despair.
  4. Anna commits suicide.
But there are many minor events that carry the story along while the characters are preparing to experience the Big Events. You could call this the connective tissue moving Anna from Point 1 to Point 2 to Point 3 to Point 4.

But creating all the minor events that constitute the connective tissue can be tricky. Why? Because

 YOUR MINOR EVENTS MUST MAKE YOUR MAIN EVENTS INEVITABLE

and so many interesting, compelling, and significant twists and turns occur to you as you write! You have to pursue them don't you?

What if Anna ran into an old flame from before her marriage and flirted with him when she was in despair over Vronsky? That event might or might not destroy the whole story arc. It could be a one-time event, in which case no harm is done to your plot. Or it could lead to a whole change of direction if either Anna or the flame pursue the flirtation.

At the very least it would change Anna's character from a virtuous woman overwhelmed by passion to a woman willing to flirt indiscriminately.

And you'd have to change everything, if only slightly, to accommodate this new version of Anna.

The thing is, minor events may look perfect for your purpose as you begin to write them. Only later do you realize they have taken you off course. So now you are halfway through your novel, and realize you're off in a completely new direction. What do you do?

You feel confused. Overwhelmed. Frustrated.

YOU FEEL STUCK

It is at this point that many a writer has abandoned a project thinking they've botched it

Here's the good news: you're not really stuck. You have met an opportunity for your story to grow. Your story has blossomed under your fingers, has become bigger, more complex, more important than you realized it could.

You could retrace your route and delete the elements of your story that have pulled you in the wrong direction. But

SOMETIMES THE NEW DIRECTION IS BETTER.

Maybe it intrigues you more than your original idea.
  • It opens new possibilities for your characters to pursue.
  • It enriches and deepens your story.
  • It makes your characters more interesting.
  • It introduces themes that are important to you.
But there is a downside to going down the new path: you don't know where it leads. Your main events have to change, if only slightly, and you no longer know for sure how your story will end. You're flying blind. 

Only you can decide whether to go back to your original story arc, or blaze a new trail to a destination that is no longer clear to you. But either way, you have to do a major revision.

 Maybe you have to rewrite that wonderful opening chapter you labored over. Maybe you have to excise your new favorite character or subplot. Maybe you have to carefully edit two hundred pages of manuscript to accommodate your new vision.

DON'T GIVE UP!

Now is your chance to write something wonderful










Sunday, January 13, 2013

Writer's Ego

One of the cliches about writers is that they are ego-driven. We only have to think of Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer or Tennessee Williams for examples. These men  were driven to succeed no matter the cost, no matter who got hurt. They were known for their competitiveness with other writers and their extreme need to be considered the best. They played out their lives in public, basking in any attention paid by the media. They were larger than life.

Sometimes they were larger than their work.

Like most cliches, there is only a modicum of truth in this one. While the more colorful writers are known for their outsized egos--and heavy drinking, carousing, and fornicating--most writers quietly go about their business. Think of Flannery O'Connor, Willa Cather, Henry James, Joyce Carol Oates, Maya Angelou, Ian McEwan.

Think of William Shakespeare! 

For Shakespeare, it was the the work that was important, not the author. We know very little about Shakespeare's life, opinions, relationships or personal problems. For him, the struggle was with the page, the words, the play.

Is success as a writer being famous? Making a lot of money? Being constantly in the public eye? Being considered one the "Greats"?

When I was young, I used to think so. I liked to imagine myself giving interviews in which I pontificated about literature and other writers. I liked to dream that I was one of the elite artists of the day, that I was an inspiration to aspiring writers. The Meryl Streep of writers, if you will.

As a youngster, I tried to imagine what a young Tolstoy-in-the-making should write about. Obviously, I couldn't write just anything! It had to have within it the seeds of Great Literature! That left out anything remotely to do with my life which was dull as dishwater. Who wants to read about a high school student? Who cares about whether I got asked to the prom or not?

As a result, I wrote a lot of nonsense about GREAT EVENTS about which I knew nothing.

MY WRITING WAS ALL ABOUT ME. I DIDN'T REALLY CARE ABOUT THE WORK.

I've changed since then. I don't take myself so seriously. I know now that good writing, like any other art form, is partly talent, but mostly practice and application.

A successful writer tells a story so skilfully that it engages the reader and perfectly reflects the author's intention.

This definition is far more modest than the one I started with. It doesn't demand that every story be "great literature." It doesn't call on the writer to produce best sellers or to make a fortune from writing books, or to become important in the eyes of others.

It simply asks that, whatever the story is about, it should be executed as well as possible. That even the smallest, most modest tale be told by placing the right words in the right places so that the reader feels the desired impact.

IT DEMANDS THAT THE WRITER PLACE HIMSELF AT THE SERVICE OF THE STORY, NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND.

Like everything else that invites us to surrender our ego, however, this is much harder than it looks. It demands that we sit humbly before the blank page and struggle for the best way to express our ideas.

It asks us to be less important than the story. It demands that we consider whether the story works rather than whether we will be rewarded for our efforts.

IT ASSUMES OUR STORY REFLECTS OUR BEST IDEAS, NOT WHAT WE BELIEVE/HOPE WILL SELL.

And, like many things, it comes down to motive: Why am I writing this? To receive

  • Praise
  • Money
  • Fame 
Or because the story
  • Creates an itch in my brain that I must scratch
  • Allows me to try out certain techniques I need to improve
  • Has never been told the way I want to tell it.
Many writers, I think, jump on a literary bandwagon thinking it's the way to guaranteed success. Whether it's paranormal, YA, dystopia, or erotica the idea is to capture the zeitgeist of the moment and capitalize on it. These writers may believe that, once they are successful, they will return to their real interests--whatever those may be.

The truth is that success in any of these genres is usually the result of the authors' genuine interest in it. IF I'M WRONG ABOUT THIS, LET ME KNOW. 

I think we succeed with what genuinely speaks to us. I believe that good writing is the result of caring about the story we want to tell. I believe that good writing only becomes great writing when writers are the servants of their craft.

As Shakespeare's Hamlet said, "The play's the thing."



Sunday, January 6, 2013

Musings on Endings

Last week, Leti Del Mar wrote a thoughtful guest post on how to create excitement for the reader with a good opening sentence. She gave several wonderful suggestions.

For me, it is equally challenging to write a powerful, satisfying ending. I have always struggled with this.

In traditional fiction (I'm thinking of the Victorians here) an author found her ending by bringing the lovers together. Even in dark novels like Bleak House the resolution always included young lovers finding happiness by marrying each other. The resolution also included a bad end for the villains of the piece.

Starting in the twentieth century writers came to prefer ambiguous endings, unresolved endings, endings that more fully reflect the ambiguity of life. A marriage is not always a happy ending. Sometimes it's hard to tell the villains from the heroes.

Most difficult of all, sometimes, is to figure out what the ending should be. At least for me. Because life does not have a discernible plot.

My novels and short stories are character-driven. Instead of creating a plot and placing my characters within it, I create characters whose personalities and circumstances create the plot. Things happen because of who they are, where they are in life,  and what they want, fear, love, hate.

As a result, I don't always know when the story is over.

I know this sounds strange. But when I set my characters in motion, they don't always behave in neat, tidy ways that result in neat, tidy endings. And often, they want to continue on and on behaving according to their natures. Sometimes I used to feel like the mean parent who comes into a room where the children are out of control and I had to yell at them:


"Enough! Stop! You're finished! Go to your rooms!"


Over the years, I've come up with a few methods to avoid this sense of having to stop the proceedings artificially. I hope they are helpful to any of you who struggle with endings.


  • Create a conflict your main characters have to resolve. This automatically creates a need for the characters to bring about a resolution. And once they achieve the resolution, the story wants to be over.
Example Conflicts: an illness, a broken heart, loss of money/position, a guilty past

  • Be sure every character in your story belongs there. It's tempting to go off on tangents--especially in a novel--but stick to your main thrust. Your minor characters must serve the main conflict by doing at least one of the following:
    • helping to create the problem
    • helping us understand the problem
    • making the problem worse
    • improving the protagonist's situation

  • Let the action flow naturally out the conflict. If your story sticks to its business, you won't go off in irrelevant  directions. If, for example, your character is a big game hunter, but his conflict has to do with his marriage, you won't send him off to Africa where he runs into ivory smugglers who arouse his moral outrage so that he hunts them to their death.
UNLESS, OF COURSE, IT CHANGES HIM FOR THE BETTER AND HE RETURNS TO HIS WIFE A NEW MAN!

If this happens, your side plot has served the main story and possibly enriched it.

  • Make sure your end point has been arrived at logically. The main character may be left better off or worse off, but the final resolution must be the inevitable result of a character with certain, clearly-defined traits interacting with circumstances that challenge her in specific, clearly-defined ways.
If you follow these suggestions, you may find, as I have, that your endings write themselves because they are the inevitable outcomes of the scenarios you have created.

GOOD LUCK!