Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Fiction Puzzle


Writing/ Fiction Puzzle

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.

Or so I think today.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Connections/ How to Make them in a Story


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
But
THIS HAPPENS so (therefore) THIS HAPPENS

For example

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.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Fear of Failure--Even Stephen King Deals With It


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.



Saturday, November 8, 2014

Tips for Dialogue and an Elmore Leonard interview

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I CAN'T BE FAITHFUL--to genre




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’m a mess.

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. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Even Character Driven Fiction Needs Plot & Utopia, Iowa GIVEAWAY


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.

Happy Writing…

Saturday, September 27, 2014

HOW SETTING BECOMES A CHARACTER


       


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.

An actor

An obsessive mother.

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 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.