Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Troy: Writing Tips and Other Sharp Points, or, What I've Learned in My Something Years as an Odd Writer, or, How to Get Your Foot in the Transom

I realize I’m going out on a limb by offering advice to fellow writers, but isn’t that what fiction’s all about? Get a guy up a tree, throw rocks at him, get him down. I console myself in thinking that most writers are nearsighted—hence, their aim is poor. I hope to get back down without taking too many hits.

So, upsy-daisy.

VOICE Talk to most editors and they’ll tell you that voice is what matters. Of course, without voice you wouldn’t be able to talk to any editor, so I’d say they’re right. If you're like me (like me-me-me-me), with a nondescript, run-of-the-mouth voice, you should throw it. This is what the industry calls "The Pitch". But beware: if you throw your voice too hard or too far, you may never get it back. Or it may crack and you'll sound like a youth stuck in adolescence. So pitch it against something soft, like a couch potato or round character. Then—and this is the important step—acquire a new voice, like that of Robin Williams or Spike Milligan. If you’re still unsure of your voice, try gargling with vinegar and salt, which changes the voice instantly. (Consult an ENT specialist should complications set in.) When a voice is appropriate to the work, the reader may stay engrossed for hours, even days. It’s reported that one reader in Antarctica has been engrossed since 1997. Need I say more?

BEGINNINGS Grab the reader’s attention right away. Start with a great one-liner. Dialogue works. For example: “Hey you, reader! What’re you staring at?” That’s actually a two-liner, but catchy, isn’t it? Danger works, too. Suspense. Plant a gun on the mantle in the opening scene, or a body, and be sure it explodes later on. Begin in medias res, you know, in the middle of something, such as a horse. For example: Gertrude could not help herself: she kept sliding off the saddle. Makes you want to ride read on, doesn’t it? Connect the emotions of your protagonist to those of the reader. Of course, you don’t really know what emotions your reader has, but they’re usually feelings we all share, like: pity, sadness, happiness, chagrin, panic, dubiousness, mawkishness, and perplexity. Any one of these should work. Example: When Hamilton broke his incisor on the ship’s railing, and instantly knew he should not have been resting his elbow there, and knew that playing bocce with Belinda later that evening would not be as thrilling as he had hoped, he stared blankly at the water, wondering, “Are the fish biting?” Don’t you feel dubious? Chagrined? Perplexed?

TONE Openings should also set the tone. I’ve narrowed tones down to a fab four: monotone, poly-tone, sepia tone, and dial tone. Monotone is not as easy as it sounds, and contrary to what you might think, can be exhilarating. Just as short words or lines in poetry propel the reader forward, or actually, downward (down the page, which is what we hope to accomplish), monotone serves the same purpose. Use short, choppy, monosyllabic words. For example: Just do it. Try. Write the whole thing. By avoiding multi-syllabic words like productive, prolific, and intelligence, the tension mounts. But long sounds have their place too, including sesquipedalians, commonly called Dickensians, those run-along sentences that do exactly that: run along, all the way down the page (which, again, is what we want to accomplish), sentences that, even as they are being composed by your circuitous imagination, create a mesmerizing effect, like an arduous journey to goodness knows where, off to some distant complication that only you, the writer, know (or don’t, depending), and the reader can only anticipate, as he or she continues to the end of your sentence, which should leave him or her breathless and desperate to … turn the page. Before I depart that page, however: to the subject at hand. Tone. I nearly overspent myself on that last one, which I did not identify but demonstrated by showing, not telling—OK, I’ll tell: it’s poly-tone—so I'll be brief. Sepia tone. Anything historical. Western history, for example. You know, cowboys. Last comes the dial tone, which, no less intriguing than the other tonalities, can be a writer’s ploy. To establish dial tone, have one of your characters, preferably the protagonist, call up another character, who appears later on in the narrative. This is a subtle way to introduce someone else, and to create dialogue that the reader is privy to (whereas in real life you only get one side of a phone conversation, unless the sound is on DEAFENING or SPEAKER). Oops, I’ve been disconnected.

PLODDING PLOTTING Actually, it is like plodding. Your protagonist puts one foot in front of the other, and the more obstacles you can place in his path (a crevice, a bum, a banana peel) the more complex the plot.

RAISING THE STAKES Any one who’s been to a KOA knows where this expression comes from. When you raise the stakes, it increases the conflict, such as the risk of stumbling headlong into the dirt, or worse, having your whole tent collapse.

THEME Everyone has one. Restaurants, weddings, blogs. Anything will do—dogs, colors, onions. The stronger the theme, the stronger the story. Be sure it’s something you believe in, or readers will not be convinced. Even a story that’s full of holes, like…well, HOLES, (with all due respect to Louis Sachar) will hold up admirably. Remember the onions?

ACTION VERBS Action verbs are like action figures: they provide immediate drama, coming to the rescue of an otherwise dreary line. They are the muscle of a sentence; the bouncers. Examples of action verbs are run, perspire, sneeze, litigate. Examples of non-action verbs are snooze, think, yawn, die. Go through any written work, replacing non-action verbs with active ones, and watch it come alive. The writers of early grade-school fiction knew the importance of these superheroes. “See Jane run” is far more enticing than “See Jane yawn”.

MIDDLES Any aging writer has experienced the middle spread, also known as the muddle. How to remedy this? Cut and run.

CLICHÉS Clichés are certain death. Avoid them like the plague, if you’ll pardon the expression.

FONTS Don’t get fancy with them. This is the 21st century, not the baroque period, and economy is in. You wouldn’t show up for an interview wearing an Elizabethan collar, would you?

THE FIT Once you’ve finished your manuscript, be sure to tuck it away in a drawer, because most editors have drawers in their desks, and if your book is too big, well, imagine an editor’s frustration in an already “space-challenged” New York office. You will likely get a rejection notice informing you that your manuscript “doesn’t fit”.

COPYRIGHT Leave the © notice off your title page. They know you own it, so there’s no need to gloat.

THE END Whatever you do, don’t put The End at the end. It has a dreadful ring. This is your monster; you don’t want to sound pessimistic. Be positive!

That’s it! I’m down.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Liz: Getting an Idea for a Novel

“Where do you get the ideas for your books?” Everybody who writes a book hears this question. I’ve published two middle-grades novels and two books of poetry, so I’ve heard it quite a few times. I always give an honest answer, but every time I feel like a liar.

I explain that I start with a kernel of real experience, mine or someone else’s. It may change a lot in the process of writing—it may be so fictionalized that it has very little to do with the original experience—but with any luck it will retain what attracted me in the first place—a certain feeling of depth or potential that comes from the ambiguity that I and my character feel about the situation, or the dilemma that entraps both me and my character.

I feel like a liar saying this, because giving any kind of answer implies that I know what I’m doing. That I have a store of ideas to draw on. That I know where ideas lurk and how to turn them into entire novels.

The truth is, I don’t know what I’m doing at all. I don’t know if I’ll ever have another idea or produce another novel. And sometimes I feel like simply blank, like generating a grocery list is about the peak of my creative powers.

My friend Holly—a multi-talented writer-artist-actor and a woman of awe-inspiring energy and intensity—once told me she never sits around saying, “What should I write about?” For her, the norm is to have so many ideas, so many projects, so many stories in her mind demanding to be told, that the problem is finding time to do justice to even half of them. She is besieged with ideas. (I’ll bet even her grocery lists are creative, somehow.)

The last time I saw her, she promised to send a few of those excess “story gremlins” my way.

If only she could.

An idea is a very personal thing. Before it can become a real, whole, completed, beautiful entity—novel, poem, whatever—it has to be nurtured, often for a very long time. And that takes love. Not the easy kind you feel for an adorable puppy, but the much tougher kind that goes with a long marriage. The kind with rapids and deep pools and muddy shallows, with peaks and plateaus and even a sinkhole or two.

I’ll be on the lookout for Holly’s story gremlins. But even if she’s capable of sending them by mental telepathy—I wouldn’t put it past her—they may not be the right gremlins for me. For better or worse, I apparently have to spend a lot of time racking my brains and living my life and staring at nothing before I can find my idea.

I’m going to take my cue from Flannery O’Connor, who didn’t put much stock in the notion of heaven-sent inspiration. She once said (and please forgive the inaccuracies—I’ve searched but can’t find the source), “If there’s a brilliant idea out there somewhere, it knows where to find me—at my desk every morning between nine and twelve.”

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Randy: Happy Cutting

I was sitting here staring at the 58 files of approximately 500 to 2000 words called "my current novel” when it suddenly occurred to me to check and see what day I was signed up for on the blog schedule. Surprise.

So I started dusting off some of my old lectures, including six or seven called “How to Write a Novel: a Process” and one about how I learned to write dialogue from reading the novel The Graduate when I was in seventh grade.

Then I found a lecture that was old but luckily didn’t have very many typos, which would lend itself to a quick cut, paste, and post.

It’s basically about rereading my writing and getting up the nerve to cut the 90 percent that is off key, false, and boring, and to recognize the 10 percent in which "the mood is different, the tone is quieter, more subdued." And in which the writing’s "not as forced, yet somehow charged with something--life, energy, something."

Like I said, it’s an old lecture. The truth is I don’t actually have the nerve to cut that 90 percent of crap. I just create a new file for it and call it something totally dishonest like “To Be Used Later” or “Will Definitely Find Somewhere To Put This” or “Just a Temporary Parking Lot” or even “Not Quite A-Team Stuff But Still Very Usable Somewhere Down the Line.”

In the end I decided not to use that lecture at all because I remembered the George Saunders interview I read recently in a book of author interviews called The World Within, published by Tin House Books, 2007.

George Saunders said it much better than I did:

“With writing, you have your eyes closed and you’re passing your hand over the stove trying to find out where the hot spots are. My thought is that you trust the hot spots. Don’t even think about anything else. Look for the place where the prose energy is high. Cut away the other stuff -- be brave enough to do that. Looking at the story and saying ‘these three pages don’t do anything’ -- so I cut them. Don’t worry about what’s going to happen -- just cut it.Sometimes you have fragments lying around, and you don’t know how they’re connected. As long as you trust the hot spots, you’ll have in time a bulk of text that doesn’t suck, and the plot comes out of that. How do these non-sucky parts fit together. Maintain your standards, keep cutting, and in time the story will reveal itself.”

I highly recommend the author, the interview, and the book.