Friday, October 2, 2015

Why False Agreements Make Strong Chapters

The inner story of a book is the transformation of a person, the main character or narrator, through a series of outer events.  This is called a narrative arc.  Without this narrative arc, a book is just like reading a list of crises.  
Readers want to witness growth.  The narrative arc is the journey of growth. A clear narrative arc makes a book feel cohesive. 

But since narrative arcs are about change, the character's journey often starts with something they don't understand.  Something they are challenged by.  Another way to look at this:  it starts with a false agreement.

This essay by Charles Baxter proposes that the character or narrator needs to be engaged in whatever triggers your story.  Consider the idea that this engagement comes from a belief, a conviction, a desire or hope or fear that is a kind of false agreement with self, another, or situation.  

Presented at the beginning, the story itself will show how this agreement is broken down.  By the end, there is a new realization.

What are some false agreements in story?

In Janet Fitch's novel White Oleander, the false agreement is that the narrator, a teenage girl, believes she can help her mother stay out of danger.  This proves false when the mother decides to kill her boyfriend and ends up in prison, abandoning her daughter.

In Jeanette Walls's memoir The Glass Castle, the false agreement is that the narrator, a young girl, believes that her crazy family is eccentric but normal.  This falls apart as the parents take more risks and put the girl in danger.   

In Lief Enger's novel Peace Like a River, the false agreement is that justice can prevail--when a young girl is attacked by boys in town and her brother defends her, his family can bring him back into the family.  Proven false when the brother runs away and aligns with a serial killer.

A false agreement will always be revealed as false by the end of the book.  It may be accepted, then denied, then accepted again during the story--humans rarely travel a straight line in growth--but it is exposed by the end for what it is. 

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
Consider the false agreement that launches your book.  It will be hinted at in the first chapter, often in the first pages.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Big Fights and Little Fights--How Conflict Drives Your Story's Success

This week I am teaching about fighting--at a serene writer's retreat on beautiful Madeline Island in Lake Superior.  An odd topic for a retreat, maybe, but conflict seems to always be in the driver's seat in successful books.

We began our first lesson with a brainstorming session about big fights and little fights.  I wrote the word fighting on the whiteboard and asked the group of thirteen writers to call out different ways fighting can appear in life--and in stories.  We came up with dozens of ways.  Everything from jihads and riots to hate mail and stony silences.  We also explored the subtler kinds of fighting that happen inside a character or narrator in a story--or even a reader trying out a new idea by reading a nonfiction book.  What does a person have to give up to grow?  And how does this internal resistance to surrender cause conflict in their outer lives?

Once we talked through the ways conflict can appear in story, we sections them into the big fights and the little fights.  Big fights are deal-breakers in a book:  think earthquakes.  Or 9/11.  Or escaping from a civil war.  Or a train wreck.

Big fights, in fact, do cause a train wreck in story structure--they stop everything for a while, because people need to recover and figure out what to do.

Big fights in some books may not be catastrophic externally--like an earthquake definitely is--but only internally.  Big fight could be a divorce.  A death, even an expected one after long illness.  I categorize big fights as anything that brings forward movement to a standstill; there is only reaction, not action.

Little fights are different.  They are the everyday problems, the small annoyances, and the internal challenges.  Life can go on despite little fights.  They can be acted against.  They don't bring everything to standstill.

Structuring Your Big Fights and Little Fights
Most stories start with something called a triggering event.  That can easily be a big fight, for your story.  Look at any number of recently published books and see if you can find a triggering event within the first pages, or first chapter.  So many have these now, because as readers we've become less tolerant of slow starts.  Blame movies!  Or video games.  Whatever the reason, our brains are changing and we aren't as inclined to wait.

(Doubt this?  Rent a movie from the 1980s or 1990s.  See how slow it begins.  Watch your attention span--do you want to fast forward?)

Because of our inclination toward more dramatic triggering events, many agents and publishers look at manuscripts to see if there's a big fight in the first few pages.  If there's not one, it can be considered less dramatic, less intense--and not "right" for that agent or publisher.  I've been there, as a writer submitting manuscripts.  And also as an editor reading them.

Structurally, big fights are placed most logically at the main turning points of a story.  It may be the same fight, in different iterations.  Or slightly different aspects of a big fight. 

Little fights are placed throughout the story, and they often increase in size.  Little fights are so important because they cause the forward momentum.  A little fight, such as jealousy or a small lie, causes a person to act differently.  Which causes, perhaps, a reaction in another person.

In fiction and memoir, this is pretty straightforward.  Nonfiction writers, think of the reader as your character who is experiencing the fights.  What they are having to give up, face, or change as they read your story and consider your ideas.

This Week's Writing Exercise
1.  Freewrite or brainstorm this question:  What is my book's big fight.  Then skim the draft of your first chapter.  Can you find the big fight?  Where does it happen?

2.  Make a list of the little fights in your story.  Does each primary character or narrator have them? 

It's very helpful to study your favorite books for their big fights and little fights.  You'll discover how carefully they are placed, and how they create a strong structure that the reader may not even be aware of--but enjoy nonetheless.

Monday, September 14, 2015

What Thriller Writers Can Teach You about Stellar Dialogue: Learning about Beats, Tags, Interruptions and Other Techniques to Increase Tension

I'm not a thriller writer.  I've edited thrillers, I've read them, I've taught thriller writers how to structure and refine their books.  But writing that high-tension stuff doesn't come naturally to me. 

But I've learned a LOT from working on thrillers.  One skill that's translated over into my own memoir and fiction is the thriller style of dialogue.  It's tense, it builds, it can take a mundane subject and create undercurrent that makes the reader shiver.  Best of all, it's aces at revealing character.

In preparing to teach my dialogue workshop on September 26, I've been reading some thrillers again for great dialogue examples.  I've learned (once more!) how thriller writers use two techniques--beats and interruptions--to increase tension.  I wanted to give you a small taste of what we'll be covering in the September 26 workshop and one of the excerpts we'll be using, from Peter Abrahams' 1995 thriller, The Fan, about a man who becomes obsessed with a baseball player. 

Here's a great section from the novel, where Gil, the main character, is calling in to a radio show.  Look at how Abrahams uses beats--the pauses that heighten certain sections of dialogue.  He breaks the dialogue at certain places and we absorb, as readers, the last word as most important.  Also, look at how he uses the DJ's interruptions and changes of subject, the slight ridicule of Gil's obsession, to show us the difference between the two men in this conversation:

“What about the Sox, Gil?”
“Just that I’m psyched, Bernie.”
“Bernie’s off today. This is Norm. Everybody gets psyched in the spring. That’s a given in this game. Like ballpark mustard.”
“This is different.”
Dead air.
“I’ve been waiting a long time.”
“For what?”
“This year.”
“What’s special about it?”
“It’s their year.”
“Why so tentative?”
“Just pulling your leg. The way you sound so sure. Like it’s a lead-pipe cinch. The mark of the true-blue fan.”
Dead air.

Abrahams uses no tags, the "he said, she said" that dialogue usually contains.  Why not?  Because without tags, there's a faster pace.  Tags are useful only if it's potentially confusing, like three speakers might be.  Here, we can follow easily.

What else does Abrahams make use of?  Short, short sentences.  Dialogue on the page, unlike some of our long-winded friends, is short.  Punchy, fast. 

Finally, see how this author steers clear of any exposition, or telling us about the topic, the people, the day, the weather, the location.  Thriller writers are good at this--not revealing information, just letting the undercurrents of dialogue reveal tension instead.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise

If you enjoyed this, and want more, consider joining me on September 26 at the Loft. 

1.  Read the section of dialogue above aloud.  What do you notice?  It's sharp, isn't it, almost staccato.  Now find a section--about 1/2 page--of your own dialogue and read it aloud.  What do you notice about its pacing?  How are the two different?

2.  Rewrite your 1/2 page of dialogue, using Abrahams' section above as a model.  Where he uses two words, you do the same.  Where there's an interruption ("dead air") add an interruption.  Where the DJ changes subject or makes fun, try that too.

Some writers seem to just have an ear for dialogue.  They know how to take an idea and translate it into spoken words on the page.  Others of us have to work at it.  This exercise shares two of of the best ways to learn dialogue:  read aloud and compare, and model it. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

Taking a Break from Your Book: When It's a Good Idea . . . and How to Know

I just spent ten days at a cabin on a lake, high in the mountains, and I didn't work on my novel.  I intended to.  I brought my laptop, the files all updated in Scrivener.  I brought the latest feedback from my writing partners, the comments and changes I was considering.  I brought a bag of inspirational books on writing and creativity.

But I didn't write.

A couple of times I opened the laptop but it always generated a weighted dull feeling, like chains around my neck and shoulders.  I would shut it and go off to the dock.  Or start a new painting in my little porch studio.  Or play with colored pencils.  Or take a nap.

I'd been exhausted for about a year, since caring for a dying aunt.  It took me months to recover from the year of tending her, and after her death, there were months of grieving and estate nonsense to go through.  All through, I kept at my book, doggedly.  It offered great relief from internal misery--to distract myself with fictional characters who were only a tiny bit crazier than my real life relatives.  So, naturally, I expected to make great strides when all tension was released, when I had nothing to do and nobody to care about, during these ten days at the lake last week. 

But no writing came.  I felt zero pull toward the book.  I didn't even feel like reading--an astonishing change for me. 

After a few days of growing guilt, I decided to not fight it.  I knew my brain was word-saturated.  Maybe the book needed a break too!  So I began to watch my creative desires each day.  Ask myself what I was naturally drawn to, each morning when I woke.  My desires would dictate the course of each day, rather than any shoulds.  

Discipline Doesn't Always Foster Creativity
I like to write every day, and I have found even fifteen minutes of touching in with my writing keeps it alive in my mind.  I believe in the routine or rhythm of creative work, of showing up at the page, of keeping butt in chair and trying.  I am a very disciplined writer. 

But discipline doesn't always foster creativity.  When we're stale, when we're exhausted from pushing a door that only opens inwardly, it may be time to give the book (and ourselves) a break. 

All week I found myself drawn to right-brain activities.  Non-linear, non-language stuff like swimming, painting, hiking, staring at clouds.  I stopped even opening the laptop after day three.  It didn't come out again until I returned home.

When I got back to my regular life, I began to think about my book.  What had come from the ten-day break that might generate some new ideas?  Today I took myself to a favorite cafe for lunch and the laptop finally got opened.  I began considering some of the feedback, make some changes, and suddenly I was completely engaged in writing again.
Best of all, I had a fresh perspective on my story.  The chapters felt like someone else had written them, and from this distance I could finally see a path to correct some of the more gnarly places.  I was excited about the book--and it was excited to have me back.  All because we had both taken a break.

Sometimes breaks are dangerous.  When we absent ourselves because of bad feedback, for instance, that confuses and derails our vision.  When we doubt our ability to write.  These are more abandonment than natural pause, and much more difficult to recover from.

My break was different.  I knew it was all about filling the creative well versus abandoning the project. 

I also learned something new about my personal creative rhythm:  it doesn't always work to write out of a sense of duty and discipline.  It's good to pause and regain inspiration--and write from that place instead. 

Don't get me wrong:  I still believe in routine:  in sitting down each day and saying hello to my work-in-progress.  I totally buy the rhythm of producing pages regularly.  But now I also have a space inside for the beauty of a break. 

If you feel the need this week, here are a few favorite "breaks" that can easily be incorporated into your daily rhythm.  They are surprisingly powerful ways to refill the creative well.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise

1.  If you are a steady writer, consider a day off from your writing project.  Work outside the story--only on writing that has nothing to do with your goal. 

2.  Walk or try an activity that is not language-based, such as sketching, doodling, or working with clay. 

3.  Take a break by reading a different genre.  If you are a nonfiction writer, read some poetry.  If writing a novel, read a play script or screenplay (search online) to see how playwrights and screenwriters have to incorporate setting without describing it. 

4.  Go aural:  Listen to a favorite book on CD instead of reading it on the page.  Sit in a coffee shop and record snippets of conversation on your phone (use for dialogue ideas later).   Play music and close your eyes for no distractions.

After your break, pick up your writing again.  What feels different?  How has your break refilled the well?   

Friday, August 28, 2015

When Should I Share My Writing? How to Know When You're Ready to Get Feedback

Is your manuscript, chapter, scene reader ready?  How do you know when it's time to share it?  Are you just looking for feedback because you're stuck or bored--hoping it'll jump start you?  Or are you asking for reassurance about a new approach or idea you're testing? 

Feedback is a tricky game.  Timing and choice of reader is everything.  First, how do you know when to share? 

When to Share--And When It's Too Soon
One of my blog readers told me, "I give my writing to readers way too soon. That comes from my public policy advocacy work where we share drafts early in order to get creative juices flowing and creative ideas spinning.  I get it that this writing has a different process." 

Those of us who are naturally collaborative, who love the synergy of group creative process, often make this mistake.  We think our writing can be helped by many voices, perhaps?  We want to test drive an idea before we've gotten deeply into it ourselves.

Others have trouble with something I call "creative tension."  Most artists have to deal with this.  The ferment of a creative idea can be intensely disturbing.  It brings up doubt, bad memories of past failures, the critical voices in our minds.  I liken it to the surface tension on a very full glass.  One small jiggle and it's all over the place.  Impossible to scoop back into its container.

How is your ability to hold "creative tension" around your project and not share it?  Can you keep going?  I highly recommend Ron Carlson's little book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story.  Great demonstration of what it takes to have creative tension, from a brilliant writer.

When my writing makes me itchy, nervous, anxious, sad, or mad--which happens in many of my writing sessions--I know that the feeling is fleeting.  If I can sit with it, breathe into it, not drown it or distract myself, it usually leads to better writing.  Stay in the chair, don't call the friend or spouse and say, "Can I just read you this one thing?"  That's breaking the creative tension you've worked so hard to build.

The good time for feedback, I've learned, is when I feel almost detached from the writing.  As if someone else has written it.  Then I'm usually ready to hear reader reactions.  As a memoir writer with a very traumatic story told me, "If I'm excited about the story I write, it probably means that it's still in healing and developing phase.  It may not be time to share it yet." 

Caveat:  Since I teach workshopping classes, where feedback is given weekly, I want to distinguish between peer review (unmoderated, as described above), and the wonderful results that can happen in a moderated (instructor monitored) feedback session.  Creative tension is usually built in those groups, rather than dispersed.  A weekly rhythm of feedback also gives safety and accountability.  Good writers groups can get there too.

Who to Share With?
A new student was excited after a semester of my workshopping class.  "Last time I got feedback, it was devastating," she told me.  The class had been a very positive experience, opening her eyes to several skills she already had in place, the solid strength of her story, and a few areas she needed to work on.  "Before your class, I showed parts of my manuscript to a good friend, someone who reads a lot and whose opinion I really respect.  She was noncommittal.  Maybe my book idea wasn't her style, but no response really hurt my feelings."  The writer decided to set her manuscript aside.  A year later, she came to my class.

"It really matters who you share with," she said.  "And if it's sensitive material, it helps to have a teacher or moderator, who can help with too-strong comments and questions."

I like to take online writing classes myself three times a year--winter/spring, summer, and fall.   I hunt feedback partners in those classes.  I watch how different classmates respond to others' work.  Is it kind, generous, insightful?  Do they take time to think about the piece?  Do they try to find something encouraging to say, as well as more critical comments?  If I find a few, I often get together with them after the class ends, and we continue to exchange chapters or stories.

Readers are powerful!  They are totally necessary.  But good timing and good choice is the way to get what you need from feedback.

Next week, this writer will be on retreat, enjoying some quiet in a lakeside cabin, so the blog will resume on Friday, September 11.

Friday, August 21, 2015

It May Be Real, But Is It a Good Story? Traveling the Crucial Distance between Reality and Narrative

Years ago, in a fiction class, a writer was defending his work.  "It really happened," he kept insisting to the feedback group who wanted to suggest a few changes.  "Yes, it probably did," our instructor finally said.  "It's real.  But is it a good story?"

Fast forward to a memoir group I taught this past spring.  A woman writing her first memoir was concerned about leaving anything out.  "It all really happened," she kept telling me.  "It's my life!"  And it was quite a life, full of challenges and crises.  I remembered that fiction class long ago.  "Yes, it is your life," I told her, borrowing from my long ago teacher.  "But can you find the narrative within it?  What parts of your life would make a good story?"

Abigail Thomas, author of two wonderful writing books and the memoir Three Dog Life, talked about what we leave out being as vital to our narrative as what we include.  Both writers above were caught in that terrible place of deciding what to say no to.  A life is huge, too big for a book.  Selecting the narrative out of the life is the biggest work of a writer.

Selecting the Narrative
For me, sleuthing a good narrative often starts with a freewrite.  Freewriting, or stream-of-consciousness writing, allows me to get beyond the linear, critical mind.  I choose a prompt, begin to scribe the details, then set it aside to let it "cook" into a possible narrative. 

Recently, following a class assignment, I wrote from the prompt "glasses."  The freewrite was about my terrible years of taking ballroom dancing when I was a preteen.  My mother firmly believed in dancing class as part of a young girl's education, so I attended each weekend.  But I had also gotten my first glasses in fifth grade, and my mother thought I looked better without them.  Before I exited the car to climb the church steps to my dancing class, she'd relieve me of my glasses.  She folded them carefully and promised to return them when I came out of class.

I was blind as a bat, as the saying goes.  I struggled to the rec room and  danced in a daze, each face blurry.  A miracle I made it back to the parking lot, where my mother waited in our station wagon.  "How was the class?" she'd ask me.  "I don't know," I always said.

A somewhat painful memory.  I scribbled it down and set it aside, mildly intrigued.  I knew there wasn't a story there yet.  I knew I'd do more with it. 

Weeks later, I wrote another freewrite from the same prompt, "glasses."  This one came from a memory about ten years ago.  One winter night when I lived in Minnesota, my dog had knocked my glasses off the nightstand.  I panicked when I had to get up in the dark and couldn't find them.

Two pieces, very different.  Still not a story, but now there was a parallel.  To me, parallels hint at narrative.  I thought about them and realized they both described an experience of blindness. 

My third freewrite came soon after.  Instead of "glasses" as my prompt, I used the image of "blindness."  I wrote about scratching my cornea and being patched for twenty-four hours.  Led around by my husband, I felt very fragile without my precious eyesight.

Soon, with thought, and ruthless editing, I birthed first a short memoir piece, then a short fiction story.  Some other pieces got added on, the narrative rounded out, and I was very pleased with the result.

I built the story from three disparate pieces, and I looked beyond the actual real-life details for the narrative. 

A former student from New England happened to send me this link to an excellent article about the difference between life and narrative, published recently in the Atlantic Monthly.  Although it focuses on memoir, it's also applicable to anyone writing autobiographical fiction--fiction that stems from a real-life experience.     

It forms the basis for this week's writing exercise.

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Read the Atlantic Monthly article.  Link is above.
2.  Comb your half-written pieces, especially memory (real-life) freewrites or journal entries.  Select two that have disparate details but some cross over:  maybe a common theme, as blindness was in my pieces above.  Or maybe a common location, era, or person.
  3.  See if you can take these two pieces forward into one, by finding the narrative thread in both real-life stories. 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Ten Things Not to Say to a Writer--You Gotta Read This!

A Twitter post from well-known novelist Joanne Harris, became a funny-wise commentary on what people think about writers, published recently in The New Republic.  It's worth a read--and you'll laugh, curse, and learn.  Thanks to Nancy, a memoir writer in my intermediate online class, for this priceless essay.

Your weekly writing exercise is to eavesdrop on a party with Phillip Roth, and hear what people say about the "real" work of writing.

Click here for the article.

Friday, August 7, 2015

When You Tell Your Truth and No One Wants to Hear It: How Honest Can You Be in Your Writing?

A writer from New York emailed me:  "I'm learning how to create from who I am, show up and connect to readers," she said.  "I get stuck because I'm not good at the connection part. The mistake that I often make is that people say be honest and authentic - tell me what you are thinking and feeling and I do and they don't connect with my reality. I show up and people don't understand and I get stuck."

Honesty in writing is much-heard advice.  You need to be authentic on the page, because readers can spot a fake a mile away.  But then, what's the balance with knowing your reader, and knowing how to talk with that reader?  This writer asks a good question.
She says more:  "I've discovered that showing up in one's own authenticity works fine as long as you fit into society. When your story is outside of ordinary experience and/or challenges prevailing views of reality, then one has to figure out adaptations that are consistent with authenticity while also extending into readers' way of seeing the world so that a connection can be found."

I used to teach a class called "Writing through Healing."  It was based on James Pennebaker's research on how the simple act of writing can heal.  Writing that's authentic has three components:

1.  It reveals the facts of the situation, using details that evoke the senses.
2.  It shows how the writer felt then.
3.  It shows how the writer feels now about what happened.

Each of us can do one or more of these, but it's rare to find a writer who does them all.  But I've learned that until all three are present, the alchemy cannot happen--either for writer or reader.

In my classes, a writer might draft an intimate scene about something traumatic.  Anything from lying to stealing to death to abuse, and everything in between.  Each of us has suffered trauma.  Our stories are important.

At first, most drafts include one end of the spectrum.  Either the writer enters from what I call the "inner story," and writes about the feelings and memories in an abstract, conceptual way.   Or the writer will lay out all the details, unafraid of the facts.  My job is to coach the other aspect into being.  Interestingly enough, the tears begin (in both writer and reader) when all three elements are finally on the page.  And it truly becomes healing.

Say you've practiced this.  Your writing is beginning to include all three elements.  You've worked on bringing in the scene details (time of day or year or season, smells and sounds) and the movements of players on the stage (what actually happened) to satisfy point #1.  You've thought about how you felt then--terrorized, enraged, incredibly sad--and you've begun to show this on the page, perhaps by gesture, body sensation, how you moved or stayed very still.  That satisfies point #2.  You've also allowed yourself to compare how you are now, with how you were then.  Even one line slipped in, brings that #3 point to play.

You're ready to workshop this, see how it reads to others.  The litmus test.

Choose your readers wisely.  Very wisely.  At this stage, you don't need people to get hung up on what happened to you, begin to pity or avoid you, or--worse--suggest you tone down the drama.  For this first exposure reading after you've incorporated the three points, above, you need feedback on their ratios.  How much drama is present, and is there enough of the other two points to balance it?  Have you made your own reactions invisible, so the reader can't understand why you let yourself go through this?  (Some of us don't have a choice, granted.  But on the page, readers need to see your reasoning, your presence, not your numbness.)

You need someone who will (1) not make light of your trauma, (2) but not overly react to just the trauma facts.  See it as writing, not as your life--in other words.  To you, it is your life.  To the reader, it has to be a good story.

Because we are after good writing here, right?  I think of some of the most admired trauma stories--All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, about two victims of World War II;  White Oleander, by Janet Fitch, about a girl whose mother murders her boyfriend; The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls, about a child growing up with insane parents; The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, about the horrors of the Vietnam War; and so many others.   

What took these stories beyond the personal, into the universal?  First, the elegant balancing of the three points above.  Good crafting with a kind readership that could get beyond the trauma into the writing.  And finally, the release of the story to the reader when it was ready.    

We write what we're given to write.  It's your story.  It's yours to tell. 

You may get to the place of 0ne of my students, writing about her horrific abuse, who initially told her readers to go f*ck themselves when they objected to her descriptions.  Her fierceness has carried her through to a final--and very strong--draft, but only when she found a group of equally fierce readers who could handle her rage on the page.  Her advice:  If you get messages to tone it down, find yourself a different group.  They are out there.  Stay true to your voice, your story. 

I agree.  But I'll add:  Make sure you are writing through to healing, using the technique above, improving your craft skills, and releasing the writing itself to a larger purpose, not just your own.     

Friday, July 24, 2015

Three "Lures" to Attract Stronger Theme in Your Fiction and Memoir

Tomorrow I will be at one of my favorite writing havens--the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis--teaching a room full of writers about theme.  How it emerges from your work, almost without you knowing.  How it connects to authentic voice. 

Especially:  How theme revealed by certain elements in your story.

I thought it would be fun to give a tiny taste of those elements, in case you live far from the Twin Cities (or even the U.S.) and won't be joining us.

Most writers know something about theme.  It's that silvery thread that holds a story together, that transmits meaning by the end.  Some newer writers say they want to write a book on a certain theme:  "I want to write about _______ (fill in the blank)," not realizing that that type of intention circumvents theme.   Intended theme is not the same as the magic that emerges organically. 

Trying to write about esoteric sadness, for instance, most likely will come to readers not as theme.  To readers, it may feel like you are telling your opinion, or sharing great thinkers' opinions.  There's no surprising undercurrent of meaning. 

Theme works best when the writer is surprised--as well as the reader.  Theme sneaks up on both writer and reader, in its best appearances.  It's like an underground river, like the subconscious movement beneath your story's subject.  And it's delivered to our subconscious as readers, not as the opinion or thoughts of the writer, necessarily.  But how we "grok" it.

I also consider theme that lingering sensation we have when we finish a good book.  Maybe a friend asks, "What was it about?" and we try to answer:  "It's about a woman who travels to India, but . . . it's much more than that.  You have to read to understand."

That's theme.

Some writing teachers say theme can't be taught.  It has to be caught.  But there are some good lures for theme, if you're fishing.  I'll share a few of the ways we'll explore in the workshop tomorrow at the Loft.  Your weekly writing exercise is to pick one and see what you catch.

1.  Mirroring image.   Make a list of images that occur repeatedly in your writing.  Where are they, in the chapters of your book?  Where can they be placed more?  Ask yourself what meaning they communicate to you.  Does this evoke any themes?

2.  Subtext.  Subtext is dialogue's "theme," the meaning behind what's being said.  Most emotion and meaning comes via subtext.  It's rare we communicate truth on the page, when our characters speak, but that truth comes through in what they don't say.
Find a section of your dialogue and see if there's any subtext.  Can you add it, via gestures, what's noticed in the surrounding setting that might mirror meaning?

3.  Senses.  Theme comes through very strongly when a writer uses sensory detail.  Most of us only lean on one sense, usually sight, when we write.  We can describe a setting via visual senses.  But what about the more primal ones, like sound and smell?  Read through one of your rough draft chapters and see if you can add three sounds and three smells.  Do they start to evoke a surprising meaning, once they're in place?    

If you'd like to join me tomorrow at the Loft and learn more--and get some feedback on your use of theme--you can find out more here.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Satisfaction versus Hunger: Two Pivots in Our Stories and How to Toggle Between Them to Keep the Writing Fresh

Good discussion this week in one of my online writing classes:  Bored with her story, a writer asked:  "How do I keep my own interest in my book?  Without reinventing the plot every five minutes?  How can I keep my writing fresh for me, first?"

Smart woman.  She knew that her own boredom with her chapters would soon translate into boring writing.  Right now, it might just be an overactive Inner Critic.  Soon, her blahs would indeed translate to the page.

We toggle between two pivots as we write a book.  When things are clicking along, the writing going well, it's easy to fall into complacency.  A kind of satisfaction or contentment.  Like in life, too much of that becomes boredom.

The other pivot is hunger.  Hunger drives a story initially--the opening chapter or scenes usually demonstrate a longing.  A desire to change.  Push away from the status quo, whether it's a move, a marriage, a divorce, a job change, a discovery, an outer event that causes mayhem.  It might also be within a reader, as in nonfiction readers picking up your book to solve a problem or find information to change their lives.

Too much hunger and there is no integration of learning.  Too much movement in a story and the reader grows weary of change, gets exhausted.

It's a fine balance between the two.  We have to find out where we are on the continuum, when boredom comes to call.

Here are three techniques to try this week, as your weekly writing exercise.  Each will reveal where you are on the line between satisfaction and hunger.  Wherever you find yourself, add more of the opposite to get freshness into your writing again.

1.  Look for repeating patterns.  Study your storyboard (or book map).  Where are thing moving too much?  Where not at all?  Too much movement comes as action after action with no time to absorb or find balance.  Settle it down, space the action scenes, add reflection.  Too much status quo for too long shows up as reflection or interior monologue (thoughts and feelings) versus outer events that force change.  How can you to push your narrator, your characters, closer to the edge?

2.  Study the middle.  Most book slump there.   Make a list of 10 things you are afraid to add to the middle of the book.  Choose one and freewrite on it, telling yourself you don't have to use what you get.  Often, fear keeps writers within a carefully fenced space in their story.  Just the taste of "edgy" reignites interest.

3.  Look at your own life.  Is it off-the-charts crazy?  You may be spending all your "hunger" energy off the page.  See what you can settle down outwardly, surrender, let go off.  Do less.  The pages might come alive.