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Monday, August 15, 2011

4 Novel Writing Tips

Novels Aren’t Stories

A novel can be extremely free form. Some are simply narratives about a fictional experience. Others are a collection of several stories that may or may not be intertwined.

Jerzy N. Kosinski (the author of “Being There”) wrote another novel called “Steps.” It contains a series of story fragments. Sometimes you get the middle of a short story, but no middle or end. Sometimes, just the end, and sometimes just the middle.

Each fragment is wholly involving, and leaves you wanting to know the rest of the tale, but they are not to be found. In fact, there is not (that I could find) any connection among the stories, nor any reason they are in that particular order. And yet, they are so passionately told that it was one of the best reads I ever enjoyed.

The point is, don’t feel confined to tell a single story, straight through, beginning to end.

Rather than think of writing a novel, think about writing a book. Consider that a book can be exclusively poetry. Or, as Anne Rice often does, you can use poetry to introduce chapters or sections, or enhance a moment in a story.

You can take time to pontificate on your favorite subject, if you like. Unlike screenplays which must continue to move, you can stop the story and diverge into any are you like, as long as you can hold your reader’s interest.

For example, in the Stephen King novel, “The Tommy Knockers,” he meanders around a party, and allows a character to go on and on… and on… about the perils of nuclear power. Nuclear power has nothing to do with the story, and the conversation does not affect nor advance anything. King just wanted to say that, and did so in an interesting diatribe.

So feel free to break any form you have ever heard must be followed. The most free of all written media is the novel, and you can literally – do whatever you want.

Get Into Your Characters’ Heads

One of the most powerful opportunities of the novel format is the ability to describe what a character is thinking. In movies or stage plays (with exceptions) you must show what the character is thinking through action and/or dialog. But in a novel, you can just come out and say it.

For example, in a movie, you might say:

John walks slowly to the window and looks out at the park bench where he last saw Sally. His eyes fill with tears. He bows his head and slowly closes the blinds.

But in a novel you might write:

John walked slowly to the window, letting his gaze drift toward the park bench where he last saw Sally. Why did I let her go, he thought. I wanted so much to ask her to stay. Saddened, he reflected on happier times with her – days of more contentment than he ever imagined he could feel.

The previous paragraph uses two forms of expressing a character’s thoughts. One, is the direct quote of the thought, as if it were dialog spoken internally to oneself. The other is a summary and paraphrase of what was going on in the character’s head.

Most novels are greatly enhanced by stepping away from a purely objective narrative perspective, and drawing the reader into the minds of the character’s themselves.

Keep A Daily Log Of Tidbits

One of the biggest differences between a pedestrian novel and a riveting one are the clever little quips, concepts, snippets of dialog, and fresh metaphors.

But coming up with this material on the fly is a difficult chore, and sometimes next to impossible. Fortunately, you can overcome this problem simply by keeping a daily log of interesting tidbits. Each and every day, many intriguing moments cross our paths. Some are notions we come up with on our own; others we simply observe. Since a novel takes a considerable amount of time to write, you are bound to encounter a whole grab bag of tidbits by the time you finish your first draft.

Then, for the second draft, you refer to all that material and drop it in wherever you can to liven up the narrative. You may find that it makes some characters more charismatic, or gives others, who have remained largely silent, something to say. You may discover an opportunity for a sub-plot, a thematic discourse, or the opportunity to get on your soapbox.

What I do is to keep the log at the very bottom of the document for my current novel, itself. That way, since the novel is almost always open on my computer, anything that comes along get appended to the end before it fades from memory.

Also, this allows me to work some of the material into the first draft of the novel while I’m writing it. For example, here are a few tidbits at the bottom of the novel I’m developing right now:

A line of dialog:

“Are you confused yet? No? Let me continue….”

A silly comment:

“None of the victims was seriously hurt.” Yeah – they were all hurt in a very funny way.

A character name:

Farrah Swiel

A new phrase:

Tongue pooch

A notion:

Theorem ~ Absolute Corruption Empowers Absolutely

Corollary ~ There are no good people in positions of power

I haven’t worked these into the story yet, but I will. And it will be richer for it.

Don’t Hold Back

Unlike screenplays, there are no budget constraints in a book. You can write, “The entire solar system exploded, planet at a time,” as easily as you can write, “a leaf fell from the tree.”

Let you imagination run wild. You can say anything, do anything, break any law, any taboo, any rule of physics. Your audience will follow you anywhere as long as you keep their interest.

So, follow your Muse wherever it leads. No idea is too big or too small. Write about the things you are most passionate about, and it will come through your words, between the lines, and right into the hearts and souls of your readers.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Don't Try To Be Shakespeare - He Didn't...

Shakespeare just wrote as himself, and you should too. While trying to emulate another famous writer can be useful as an exercise (just as an artist might copy the Mona Lisa as a "study"), that approach is never userful in creating or advancing your own art.

Sure, read what other write, disect their work, and practice their techniques - even in your own creations, but ONLY if those techniques also fit your own personality and style. The best way to achieve Writer's Block is to try and write like someone else. When you do, you are hobbling your Muse; locking her in irons. You are trying to play a role for which you are unsuited.

Of course we all want to be beloved successful writers, but we are not all going to be. You are only as good as you own talent - GET OVER IT!

Why are you writing in the first place? To make a buck? To make a name for yourself? Or perhaps, just perhaps (Lord help us) because you actually like writing? Or maybe, just maybe, because you want to like writing, but don't, try as you may?

Fact is, while money and fame are good motivators for any career, be it singing, dancing, playing a sport or writing, if they are the Prime Motivators, you won't have a very good time doing it, whatever "it" is.

The Wise Man famously said, "Work at what you love and you'll never work a day in your life." The important aspect here is that he didn't expect to become a famouse wise man when he said it. It just occured to him as part of his personally satisfying manner of thinking. Just as it occurs to me to say, "Don't blame the weather - its' only humid."

Now that clever little phrase is never going to make me rich OR famous. But I did have a really enoyable time telling it to you. And that, dear readers, is the very essence of the writing life to which we should all aspire.

Unless you truly enjoy laboring over a single book for your entire life, word by word, with endless rewrites and improvements, then just write it out as you feel it. Plot doesn't make sense? Come back to it later when you know your story better. Characters dull and derivative? You're not going to fix them by micromanaging them.

Give it up and get on with it. Write endlessly. Write until your fingers fall off. Keep an archive somewhere to put all the stuff the world should never see and then post the bulk of the rest on your blog. (You DO have a blog, don't you? All real writers have a blog.....) And for those gems - the occassional piece that just zings and sings and hits the mark - well those you send off to a publisher, magazine or agent.

If you're looking for gold, you won't find as much by sifting the same sand through a finer and finer mesh as you will by marching from one dig to the next in search of nuggets. So be prolific, knock the blocks out from under your tires, throw open the stop-cocks and let loose the dogs of words.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Summary of the Story Mind

1.7 The Story Mind (Revisited)

In summary, then, in our own minds we have a sense of who we are. In stories, that “sense of self”, essentially the identity or ego of the story, is represented by the Main Character. As readers or audience we tend to identify with that part of the Story Mind, either in empathy or sympathy, because it is the essence of the story’s humanity.

And just as within ourselves we sometimes must consider changing our point of view or our sense of what is right or wrong about a particular issue, so too does the Story Mind grapple with the possibility of change.

Our own survival instinct insists that we don’t recklessly abandon an old tried and true approach in favor of a new untested one without first engaging in some exploration of what such a change might mean in our lives.

After all, if we simply adopted a new mind set on a whim, we will have already changed and our allegiances would be to some other value standard, which may turn out to be contrary to our own interests.

So, essentially we have it out with ourselves. We think about how our world looks to us at present, then imagine what it might look like if we altered some aspect of our outlook or personal code.

We think about how that other belief system – what does it hold, how does it work, what can we learn from it – while still maintaining the belief system we have. Only then, if we are convinced it is a better way to look at the world, we’ll jump over and adopt it.

At that moment we have changed at least some small aspect of what we call our “selves”. We have changed who we are in our own heads.

In stories, it is the Obstacle or Influence character who represents this new person we might become. Functionally, this character might be very like the Main Character (and in practice often is) except in regard to the central message issue of the story regarding which these two characters are diametrically opposed.

The subjective story – the perspective in which the Main Character and Obstacle character duke it out over opposing belief systems – represents our inner struggle wherein we play devil’s advocate with ourselves, pitting who we are against who we might become.

In the end, we elect (or are emotionally compelled) to change or not. But whether change will prove to be a positive choice will remain to be seen, as sometime we change for the good and sometimes we change for the worse.  And just as certain, remaining unchanged can also end well or poorly.
And here we arrive once more at the Objective view. It is the one perspective we can never have of ourselves, yet though we can apply that view to others, there it is hobbled in another way for we can never really see what is going on inside their minds.

Stories seem almost miraculous to us because they present us with more points of view in regard to a single central issue than we can perceive in real life. In a sense, the author provides us with a God’s Eye View of the Story Mind, enabling us to see the Big Picture even while we passionately share the Main Character’s inside experience.

The promise of a story is that we hope it may tell us whether or not we should accept the way things are in our own lives or rise up to change them and, in the process, whether we should remain steaadfast in our resolve or change our minds, abandon our proven methods and embrace the chance that new ones will serve us better.

In the end, it all amounts to the author professing to have some special knowledge that allows him or her to understand what is really best, regardless of how it might feel to us in the midst of it.