And the second best way to escape pre-publication anxiety (see previous post)? Try to solve everyone else’s problems, the same problems I once had and will have again when I’m neck deep in another novel. (Right now, I’m only up to my toes.)
So forgive me: Having just recovered from the excellent Wesleyan Writers Conference where I learned a lot and tried to teach a little, I’m now brimming with advice. The below are shorthand explanations. If you comment on this post, I might just write another to explain some of the points further.
1. Ask yourself: Why am I writing this story? What is my personal connection? I’m not asking for autobiographical truth in fiction, only emotional connection, something that hurts you a bit to put on the page. If you think your idea for a story or novel is simply “cool,” forget it. If you aren’t interested in your characters enough to represent them truthfully, as both gifted and horribly limited individuals that you know deeply and have compassion for (even if they do terrible things), no one else will be interested either.
2. The vomit draft. I have not mistyped. Some writers carve out their early sentences until the cows come home, only to cut them later when they start to pay attention to their story and dump the whole chapter. (I know; I’m one of them.) Sculptors claim they find their figure in the stone, as if it’s an innate thing. The problem is that writers don’t have a stone when they begin, only air. Therefore, you have to build the ugly, shapeless mass before you cut into it to find what that mass reveals.
3. Steve Almond’s definition of plot (from This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey): Force your characters up against their deepest fears and desires. See also C.J. Hribal’s “The Scene Beast is Hungry” (from Bringing the Devil to His Knees). Almond doesn’t want you to wimp out when it comes to putting your characters in the very circumstances that will most challenge them. Hribal agrees, telling writers to give up on the safety of narrative and let their characters get dirty—let them speak, move, and run themselves into those dangerous scenes that most writers (who are also control freaks) avoid.
4. What does your character want? Aristotle argues that the best plays follow a character toward One Action. Fiction requires the same. Aristotle’s One Action involves both physical acts but also the psychological motivation behind these acts, and this action is determined very early in the play, preferably in the first scenes. It is the horizon toward which the protagonist is searching the entire story, one which doesn’t dissolve or reveal itself until the climax. And this horizon must be a concrete thing, the love of a particular person, an amount of cash, a new job, whatever. The concrete desire gives you your plot and determines what scenes your story or novel should have. The corresponding abstract desire (the character wants that job because of the freedom or power he believe it will give him) provides the heart and meaning of your story. If your character doesn’t have desire, we won’t want to watch him.
5. Henry James wrote: Character determines incident, incident reveals character. The events in your story or novel should be born out of your character’s primary weaknesses and desires, and how the character then reacts to these events further reveal him to your reader. (see # 3)
6. Beginnings: Consider John Barth’s “Incremental Perturbances: How to Know if You’ve Got a Plot or Not” (from Creating Fiction). A perfect beginning combines two elements: the unstable ground situation and the activating incident. Happy, emotionally balanced characters with perfect lives are boring. Something needs to be wrong from the beginning—an old emotional wound, a setting full of strife—and this wrongness needs to have reached a horrible kind of numb stability for many months at least, sometimes a character’s whole life. Picture your character on a see-saw, desperately keeping balance but refusing to jump off. The activating incident then becomes an outside event that forces your character to jump off the see-saw, to do something about his/her instability, even if the character only winds up making matters worse.
7. Middles: Plot is stupid. Plot is boring. Plot is absolutely necessary. Why not make it as simple as possible so you can pay attention to the more important things such as your characters? In “Architecture of Light” (from Creating Fiction) Philip Gerard writes: “encapsulate the thrust of your novel into a signature—as in music: defining the key, the pace, the range of tonal possibilities. Think of Moby Dick: Madman goes hunting for a white whale. Anna Kareninna: Beautiful woman marries the wrong man. Huckleberry Finn: Two guys float down a river on raft, trying to escape to freedom. The signature, expressed as one simple defining sentence, may sound trivial, but it can focus your effect.” I find the most useful signatures involve a concrete desire, as in the whale. Even better, they involve both a concrete and abstract desire, as in the concrete river and the abstract idea of freedom. (see #4)
8. Endings: Flannery O’Connor claimed that a story found its end when a character’s mystery was revealed. Further scenes will only repeat our sense of this person instead of altering or deepening it. Fewer scenes only leave us puzzled about who this person was and why he did what he did.
9. Revise using Robert Boswell’s idea of transitional drafts. Make a list of at least five fixes, from as difficult as taking out a particular character, digging into setting, or changing a protagonist’s choices to as easy as checking on a character’s age throughout a novel. When you face the page every day, you always have something to work on, even if you aren’t ready to tackle the big stuff. Keep a notebook next to you as you revise to simply jot down other ideas and problems that rear their head, but then turn back to your task at hand. As you revise, start a new document, a blank slate, and type in your previous work as you go, leaving some of it behind to wither (as some must). Otherwise, revision is like hammering at a brick wall with a toothpick.
10. Having problems separating yourself from your character or your narrator (Did you even know this separation is necessary)? Does your semi-autobiographical tale seem flat to others (or even you) because it’s too close to you? Read Frederick Reiken’s “The Author-Narrator-Character Merge: Why Many First-time Novelists Wind up with Flat, Uninteresting Protagonists.” Just read it.
11. Ok, this is more than ten, but the idea is important: Simplify, simplify , simplify. Have ten characters? Determine which ones do the most work, which ones merely do the same work as others, and cut that number in half. Have fifteen locales? Returning to the same locale (a house, a pond, etc.) helps to reveal the passage of time and also allows past actions and events to resonate during present ones. Cut those locales to four at most. For every choice you make for your novel or story, whittle those references, people, places, and ideas down to the fewest you can muster. Doing so will save you energy for what remains. I refer to this idea as “reducing the sauce.” Work on your manuscript long enough to simmer away the extras, leaving you with the tasty heart of what you were writing toward all along.
Feel free to add your own, everybody. I’m certainly not the expert in solving other’s people’s problems. And in truth, none of the above solves anything unless you sit in that chair and have the courage to follow something real.