Here are article we hope are useful to writers and poets. . Each month we hope to add more. Please let us know how you like this feature.
A Scene Driver Named Desire
The other day we came across a delightful book by Carolyn Wheat about writing mystery and adventure novels. It’s not a new book, but a very wise one with lessons that apply to all types of novels, short stories and even creative nonfiction. For example, in a piece of writing she reminds us a protagonist wants something. “If he’s a detective, he wants to know whodunit. If she’s a suspense heroine, she wants to go back to the peaceful life she had before some wacko started sending her dead flowers. If he’s a spy, he wants to save the free world; if she’s in a legal thriller she wants to get the Pelican brief to the right people before the wrong people whack her.”
Wheat divides the novel into four arcs. The first sets up the conflict, but also establishes a character’s inner need, which he or she may or may not be award of (but without any flashbacks—keep it here and now for the reader). The end of the arc is a crisis that sends the main character in pursuit of a new goal with a new level of commitment. The second arc uses flashbacks, but only to illuminate the present. It’s one step forward, two steps back, each gain leads to a greater loss and there’s a growing discrepancy between the character’s wants and needs. She says, “Establish a deadline or ‘ticking bomb’ beyond which all will be lost. It ends with a line being crossed, return to the status quo is now impossible.”
With arc three the pace increases; chapters and sentences are shorter. Threads begin coming together. The character’s desire to reach the goal increases exponentially and the ends with a crucial decision (second turning point). All threads begin coming together; all subplots will be addressed by the book’s end. Arc four delivers all that is promised in arc one. This is the payoff. Show an outer manifestation of internal change—the character does something in a way he or she couldn’t have done at the beginning of the story. Carolyn Wheat suggests, “If at all possible, take characters full circle in some way, with a setting or situation that repeats and echoes the beginning.”
So the protagonist wants something? For each scene he or she also needs to want something else, something lesser but still connected to the big goal. Yes, Wheat says, “Every single scene in the book must start from a position of wanting.” These are like acorns from which spring giant oaks. And of course every scene ends in either having that want fulfilled or not fulfilled, but there should be something else too. Every scene must end with a “No and furthermore…” or “Yes, but…” However, none of that can happen unless the character wants something at the beginning of the scene—a goal that the reader understands from the outset. Worse is better. She advises, “Change for the better, in the first three arcs, should turn into worse as soon as possible, or should contain the seeds of later getting worseness.” When things get worse, when the protagonist fails to get what her or she wants, the protagonist is forced to do something else. Something that propels him or her into more interesting waters.
Wheat believes there are two types of writers: those who want a detailed outline in place before they start to write and those who regard an outline as a straitjacket, claming it ruins the spontaneity they see as integral to the creative process. “Outliners” Carolyn Wheat concludes “have to learn that there’s no substitute for actual writing, that they can’t control the process to the point of writing a perfect first draft, and that they have to allow for spontaneity during writing. Blank-Pagers have to learn to love revision, because they have so much of it to do. They also have to learn to let go of plotlines and characters that don’t advance the book as a whole.” Here’s her thoughts on revision:
Revision—Love It or Leave the Business
“The good of the book as a whole” allows you to kiss that scene good-bye, cut away scaffolding and leave the building, work the arcs, making sure each plot point is built up to and gets full play. The important question is: “What am I revising for?” Plan on at least three or four full revisions.
That’s killer advice from a book called How to Write Killer Fiction (Perseverance Press, 2003), but how do you feel?
Reading Your Work to Others
A piece of writing can be created over an extended period of time and, once finished, enjoyed whether or not the writer is present. But when you read your work to an audience you, yourself, must be there in the here and now balancing the demands of the piece, your needs and the needs of your audience. This requires physical presence, but also calls for your intellectual, emotional and imaginative presence as well.
A common mistake is to believe that your piece consists only of words, and therefore that a pause is an absence of story. In fact many things happen during pauses. They allow the reader time to visualize what he or she is reading, they give listeners a chance to absorb what they’ve heard and anticipate what is coming next. The pause can help develop the relationship between the writer and the listener. The reader can notice the quality of the audience’s listening, and if necessary shift focus from content to communicating attitude, intention and relationship.
Similarly too much rehearsal can result in an inflexible presentation rather than one that plays off the reactions of listeners. Your goal is not to recite your work, but to communicate it which means connecting with an audience at an emotional level. Their eye contact, body language, facial expression (which you observe during your pauses) are feedback that encourages you to do more of the same or to adjust your delivery for this audience at this location at this time.
What works for one presenter (humor, informality or dramatization) may be out of character for another, but what is essential for both is recognizing that listeners are partners in the experience. This means acknowledging the audience, listening to how they listen and allowing yourself to be directed by their response.
Rewriting Short Fiction as a Novel
By Ginger Strand
In April 2003, an agent sat down with me, pointed to my manuscript, and said the words I had been dreading: I think this should be a novel. I shuddered. I was no novelist. I was a minimalist, a votress of the goddess of gesture, a worshipper at the altar of the succinct. I was a short story writer.
This wasn’t the first time someone had tried to steer me away from short fiction. “Write a novel,” my friends of the longer form told me. “You can’t build a career on short fiction.” Alice Munro, I insisted. Mavis Gallant. Raymond Carver. Grace Paley. Vocational short story writers all. Besides, I had had my share of publications, and my stories were coalescing as a book—not just a short story collection but a linked short story collection, with shared characters, themes, and issues. Linked story collections, as we know, are all the rage. I ignored the advice and sent my manuscript to an agent recommended by one of my short story editors. Thus it was that I ended up in a Japanese restaurant, hearing the raw truth over (appropriately) sashimi.
The agent in question, Nat Sobel, is nothing if not gracious. He ordered a bottle of sake and filled my glass several times before delivering the news: My linked collection of stories was trans-genred. It had a novel inside, a novel just longing to get out. I stared glumly into my hijiki. Although every fiber of my being wanted to protest—Start over? You’ve got to be kidding!—at that moment, I suspected Sobel was right. Perhaps it was the timing. Perhaps it was his conviction. Perhaps it was the sake. I went home with a headache (definitely the sake) and spent the weekend moping.
It was tempting to get a second opinion, but I have always believed in listening to sound advice, and, although I resisted it, Sobel’s advice felt right. On Monday, I got up, swallowed my pride, and sat down at my computer. And what happened then was astounding. Over the next four months, I wrote a novel—the one that somehow, amazingly, was waiting to emerge from my stories. Even more amazing was that when I sent it to Sobel, he was pleased. He sold it to Simon & Schuster, and this month, my novel, Flight, will be in bookstores.
I still love short stories, and I still write them. I would never suggest that short fiction be viewed as a springboard to something longer. But if, like me, you have a group of short stories that are trying to become a novel, it may help you to hear some of the things I learned as I lost my fear of Flight—and became a novelist.
WHERE ARE YOU GOING, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
In thinking about the “novelness” of my collection, the first thing I did was look at where it ended. I didn’t look to the story that appeared last in the collection, which skipped around in both time and point of view. Instead, I looked to the story that seemed farthest along chronologically in the lives of the characters. Even if your stories aren’t linked, and the characters vary from story to story, the one that is set last in terms of time is the place to look for the ending of your potential novel. What problems are resolved in that story? What resolutions are reached? I looked hard at that story to understand why and how I felt comfortable in leaving my characters where I did.
All of this is just a way of talking about finding your novel’s thematic arc—the development of the ideas or issues that are at stake in your work. You may not find clues to your novel’s thematic arc in the story that takes place last in terms of time; instead, you may discover them in a story that explains or resolves something for your characters. Another way of approaching this task might be to ask yourself: Are some of the stories working toward another of them? Looking at my “last” story, I could see that it drew together many of the themes and ideas addressed by other stories. It helped me to answer that always perplexing question for writers: “What am I really getting at here?” Not that we ever know completely. We’re always stumbling forward in a darkened room. But having a general sense of the room’s contours helps us grope our way around it.
THE 80-YARD RUN
You might think that what follows would be to place the stories in chronological order, throw in some deft transitions, change the story titles to chapter numbers, and call up your agent saying, “Voila! A novel is born!” Right. Maybe for some people writing works that way. For me, it turned out to be far more complicated. Because once I understood the thematic arc, I saw that many of the stories I had labored over for so long were, in the novel context, background. They served more as character development—strong character development, but character development nonetheless. My novel needed some action. It was lacking what playwrights call the through-line—the plot that would keep readers on the edge of their seats, wondering what would come next.
Everyone loves the maxim—ascribed to T.S. Eliot—that bad writers borrow but good ones steal. Since I am a timid and inept thief, I stole from myself. I filched my novel’s plot from the last story. Not only was that story a culmination of my themes, but its story line could be opened up enough to make room for the detail and characters contained in the previous stories.
This almost makes it sound as though novel writing were something akin to building model airplanes—insert tab A into slot B. It’s not, of course. And the only plot that will sweep your reader away with it is one you are caught up in yourself. I certainly was. I did the thinking and organizing the way I always do—on the subway and in the shower. (Believe me, I was very clean and well traveled by the end of this book.) But when I sat down at my keyboard, I found myself surrendering to the breathless forward movement that distinguishes novels. What’s she going to do now? Will his secret be revealed? Who could be at the door?
After years of writing short fiction, losing myself in a novel plot felt like climbing onto the roller coaster after countless perfect circles on the Ferris wheel. I gave in to the thrill of the ride. In fact, I had so much fun plotting, I found myself bringing in police officers and a car chase at the end. Okay, not really a car chase. More like a minor moving violation. But hey, it was action! Suspense! Forward movement!
THE THINGS THEY CARRIED
Once I had sketched out the ups and downs of the plot, I was able to start bringing in the other stories. They were, in some sense, my characters’ pasts, and they would enter as memories. But it wasn’t as simple as making each story into a flashback. I had to think about each story carefully. What did it reveal about its narrator? At what point in the novel did the reader need to learn this? At what point did it make sense for the character to look back? And how should that looking-back fit into the action?
All my carefully written stories were now being treated as mere lackeys to the plot’s maharajah. The wonderful surprise was that, in treating them this way, I could bring out subtle connections between the past and the present. Good characters are like real people: They go through life trailing their pasts behind them, like Wordsworth’s clouds of glory. Actually, most of our pasts are probably less like clouds of glory than like the grubby blankets of toddlers. In any case, our actions and reactions are never based simply on the present, but on history—our history—and how it has shaped us. For instance, one of my characters avoids a confrontation with her fiancé by looking back nostalgically on an earlier relationship. The reader thus learns about her past, but also about her future: What will have to change if things are to be different now? This constant dialogue between the past and present became, in part, the subject of Flight.
WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
People interact not only with their pasts, but with other people and their pasts too. The question of character quickly came to the foreground for me. My linked stories focused on one family, but they told the family’s story from different points of view. I wanted to keep the multiple perspectives in the novel, because I wanted to capture the interplay between similarity and difference in families. We are like our families because we have forged ourselves together. But we are different from them too, because we so often define ourselves in opposition to them.
Novels can include more than one point of view, but they’re rarely egalitarian about it. Even though I was committed to keeping my multiple points of view, I quickly saw that one character was going to dominate—in my novel’s case, the father. Once I discovered that, I could let him lead, weaving the other points of view around his so that they informed his and each other’s.
How do you identify your protagonist? One quick way is to give your manuscript to readers and ask them whose story it is. Readers may have differing opinions of plot or style, but they rarely disagree when it comes to characters. They will almost unfailingly identify with the best-drawn, most real character in your book. This is not necessarily the hero, or even the most fascinating character, but the most authentic.
Another way of approaching this question is to think about your characters in relation to one another. Your protagonist is not necessarily the one you like most, or even the one you find most interesting, but the character most able to throw all the other characters into high relief—the one who can lead us through the story. Jay Gatsby is the most compelling guy in Fitzgerald’s book. But the protagonist is the much blander Nick Carraway, because it’s through his eyes that we best see everyone else.
THE END OF SOMETHING
Once everything was coming together, I had to learn the hardest novel-writing lesson of all: how to let go. In college, I studied writing with the brilliant poet Conrad Hilberry. One day I was struggling in workshop with a poem that just wouldn’t gel. “The hardest thing about writing,” he said, with his inimitable crooked smile, “is accepting that ninety percent of what you write is just practice for the other ten percent.” I know now that he was being generous. He didn’t want to scare me off. Five percent would be closer to the truth.
Several stories from my collection simply didn’t fit into the novel. While I liked them as stories, I came to the realization that they couldn’t forward the plot. They didn’t belong to its trajectory. Saying goodbye may have been the hardest part of writing Flight. It meant I knew things about my characters that the reader didn’t. But I’m told most novelists do.
HERE WE ARE
When Nat Sobel suggested rewriting my collection as a novel, part of me was shocked. A new book I could write, but to change this one so radically? The very suggestion seemed to fly in the face of our vaunted ideals of art. But in truth, I knew the book could be improved. And bringing all my material together as a novel forced me to address my real themes, and to come to terms with what and why I was writing. I hope Flight is a better book for it.
Besides—and I must be a slow learner not to have discovered this sooner—fiction is far more malleable than we might think, especially when it’s character-driven. Anna Karenina throws herself under a train; Lily Bart overdoses. But if Anna had died in childbirth and Lily had ended up on a mental ward, could Tolstoy and Wharton still have written great novels about lives hemmed in by circumstance? Of course. As Sobel told me early on: “They’re your characters. You can do what you want with them.” There’s a glorious freedom in that, as there is in having a larger canvas in which to let them roam. Do you want to take them to the circus? Age them 20 years? Visit them with misfortune? You have the time and the pace for it.
So what am I working on now? A novel—and a collection of short stories. I’ve decided to have my sashimi and eat it too. Just, please, hold the sake.
Ginger Strand has written for the Believer and the Village Voice, and is a regular contributor to the Books section of New Zealand’s newspaper the Dominion Post. Her novel, Flight, will be published by Simon & Schuster.