Friday, December 11, 2009

Why Bad Decisions Make Good Stories--A Cure for Writer's Block

Still life--it doesn't make for good stories. Bad decisions? They do.

A friend from Florida just emailed me a list of random thoughts, truisms to laugh at or shake your head over. Here's the one that grabbed me for this week's writing exercise: "Bad decisions make good stories." Funny, but really accurate. A good motto for writers.

Bad decisions are one of the only ways plot is furthered in memoir and fiction. If you're stuck in a rut, chances are your writing is staying too safe.

This week's discussion and exercise looks at a simple question. Why are you keeping bad decisions out of your book?

Staying Safe
A student in my classes complained about her writer's block. She wrote several chapters that just flowed out. Then, about chapter 5, she got stuck. Nothing happened--either on the page or with the pen. I suggested she look at the bad decisions in her chapters. Try to find something that made everyone uneasy or got them into trouble.

What you're after here are the qualities of risk. What does the edge feel like? What does it feel like to "up the stakes" in your writing?

This writer was working on her storyboard (see post two weeks ago) so she went back to it. As she reviewed the plot points, she realized nothing big had happened. She was saving the big stuff for later. No bad decisions yet, so very little momentum. Very little energy to propel the plot.

I asked her why not. As she explained, I saw that this writer is a very nice person. She believes in a world where most people are good at heart. She just couldn't see getting her characters in trouble, painting them as anything but good people too.

I like her, who wouldn't? And I also believe in that kind of world. But not on paper. Not in fiction or memoir, especially if you want to publish today.

I'm not suggesting you have to make murder and mayhem. Bad decisions can just be telling a white lie, and watching the consequences unfold. I asked this writer if she'd ever told a white lie, and she said, "Of course, who hasn't?"

"Find your bad decisions," I suggested. "List them, then transport one into your story."

Finding Bad Decisions--This Week's Writing Exercise
We've all made bad decisions. We've been on the receiving end of other people's, too. They are hard to forget, no matter how hard we try. Think of what your "story" was after the decision. It probably had drama, movement, energy, and consequences. That's what you're after in your writing.

This week write about one really bad decision you made in your life. Write about it in all its glory. I like to set a kitchen timer for 15 minutes, to limit the agony. Maybe you're far enough away to not feel the pain of it again, but if you do feel some embarrassment or unease as you write, good thing--because it'll make the writing that much more emotionally grabbing for a reader.

Now look at your book draft. Where are the bad decisions? If you don't have many, make a list of 10 things your character would never do. (Use this equally for memoir or fiction.) Now write one scene, one moment, using one item on the list--imagining it happening.

See if this provides momentum. Gets you unstuck. Out of that "still life."

PS We'll carry this one step further next week, with an update on storyboards. I've been learning a lot as I work on my novel's sequel, and I'm feeling far from stuck now--hooray!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Working with Unsavory Characters

A reader recently posted this excellent question: "I have many stories in which the characters are not easily appreciated. I am sure many of my stories will be filled with hints of resentment, bitterness and disdain. Many players acted badly, and hurt the lives of many people. I guess forgiveness is due, but the facts are the facts. How do I deal with that?"

Another reader wrote me the same week, very disappointed in the ending of a popular thriller which let the bad guys triumph. Why'd the author do that? he wondered. Such a let down, after a great story.

So here we have the same dilemma, from both sides.

What do you do, as a writer, when one or more of your characters is not very likeable (at best) or downright horrible (at worst)? You'll be spending time with this person. A negative character isn't like a downward turn of plot. Plot changes. People often do, but they don't always, especially if their nastiness is part of who they are.

And how does a negative character affect a reader? Will they stop following your story, or will they read to the end and be so disgusted, they won't want to recommend your book to anyone?

An Example from Tobias Wolff
Tobias Wolff wrote a fabulous short story called "Bullet in the Brain." I teach this story in one of my one-day workshops because it's complex, amazing, and gives writers so much information on working with unsavory characters.

Wolff presents a character, Anders, who is thoroughly despicable. So much so that he gets himself killed halfway through the story. But the way Wolff continues the story, revealing Anders beneath the anger, boredom, and frustration that makes him a really bad guy, is brilliant.

We end the story actually feeling the depths of humanness, even in this miserable person. How is this possible? How does the process work, for the writer, while he or she is putting the story together?

My Challenge with Melvin
Melvin Fisher is the main male character in my novel Qualities of Light. He's the first character that "came" to me, nine years ago, and was the subject for a short story published many years before the novel. Melvin was a pest; he didn't let me stop writing about him, even though I grew to really dislike him.

He's everything you don't want in a friend or relative: self-absorbed, terrifically talented but pretty mean-spirited about it, short with loved ones, a betrayer at his worst. A painter, who hasn't actually had affairs, Melvin falls in love with his models and does everything but sleep with them. Somehow he believes this is OK, justified by his need to "absorb beauty."

Bleech. My writing groups, three of them over the years Melvin has haunted me, agree. The first one actually told me they really didn't want to hear more Melvin scenes until he got nicer.

So what's a writer to do?

I would've dumped Melvin like a bad lunch date if he hadn't presented some interesting writerly problems for me. I needed to learn how to make him less evil. In other words, if my basic belief in life and in writing is that human beings have many sides, not just bad or good, where was Melvin's compassion, beauty, shades of gray? Could I show him as vulnerable, learning and growing? Who in my story would help me do this?

It turned out to be Molly, his teenage daughter. She saves the entire family in Qualities of Light, but mostly she saves her dad. From himself.

One reader told me, "I loved your book, and by the end I even got to like Melvin." That was my biggest complement.

This Week's Exercise: Write a "Good" Bad Character
Find someone bad in your story, be it a real person or a fictional one, and interview them on paper. Pretend you are a very skilled interviewer who knows how to get to the truth about someone. First ask them what bad stuff they've done. Get them to be specific--who have they cheated, lied to, stolen from, or worse? Then begin asking them about good stuff they've done--even small.

Finally ask your character about their missed chances, their longings, what they wanted from life but never got. Go beneath their bitterness if you can, into the innocence they once had.

If you can, get ahold of "Bullet in the Brain" (search for it online, or better, get ahold of the short-story collection--you'll love Wolff's other stories too). Read it as a writer, asking yourself how Tobias Wolff allows us to see a bad character in a good light.

The ending lines are particularly important, so pay attention, but don't read ahead. It's a great surprise.

Monday, December 7, 2009

What Makes Strong Writing? Something to Think about as You Work on Your Book

How does a book writer create writing that pulls a reader in, that engages us so well, we can't stop reading? A favorite nonfiction writer, Malcolm Gladwell, spoke about this in the preface to his book What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures.

Gladwell's topics are potentially dry. I love his ability to present his material in an amazingly engaging way.

"Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade," he said. "It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head--even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be."

Each book writer has their topic, the thing they must write about. Some write about flowers, some write about addictions. No matter your topic, the trick is to make it engaging. It's harder than it sounds. The key is something called "container."

On Sunday I taught a one-day workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis called "Self-Editing for Book Writers." We spent all day on this question: How does a book writer move from the writer's view to the reader's? How do we get the reader engaged in our work? It usually happens in the crafting stage, or editing stage. In the class, I guide writers through a series of exercises that let them move to the reader's chair, instead of the writer's.

This is the first step to producing the engaging writing that Gladwell is talking about.

Tough Material, Great Container
In the class, we read an essay by Susan J. Miller, excerpted from her book Never Let Me Down. Miller's father was a well-respected jazz musician who hung out with the likes of George Handy and Stan Getz. But he was also a heroin addict, and her life was terribly affected by this. Her memoir is heart-breaking.

Some of the class members were really repulsed by the essay. Some couldn't even finish it. Others loved it. No one was nuetral. We had a lively debate, trying to understand why the essay affected us so much.

In the end, we concluded it was because of her extraordinary "container," the living environment of her story.

Container Equals Emotion
This is the key to engaging writing. Container, the enviroment of your book's story, delivers more emotion than plot, characters, topic, structure, or all of these combined.

"It's counter-intuitive," said one class member. You would think that good plot, exciting action, would create emotional response.

Good plot creates momentum. It drives the story forward. Container creates emotional response. It's what makes us feel hit in the gut by a story's tender moment or feel our hearts racing with anticipation by a twist. Without container, plot is just a series of events, like a newspaper report.

Why else would I, as a reader, become so engaged in the healing of a crime-ridden neighborhood, the comeback of Hush Puppy Shoes, and other examples from Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point? I don't care about Hush Puppies. Really. But I did when he talked about them. Same with Susan Miller's work. Heroin addiction is not on my list of fun things to read about. But I was totally engrossed by her tale.

Because both Gladwell and Miller are masters of writing container.

How Is Container Presented?
Container is presented in writing in several ways. Here are a few from just one paragraph of Miller's essay:

1. physical setting (being on a speeding subway train, watching the night flash by outside the grimy windows)
2. use of the five senses (screech of train wheels, whisper of her father's voice against her ear)
3. physical sensations (the rocking of a train causing nausea, felt in the body)
4. word choice ("screech" and "whisper" echo the sounds of jazz being played--Miller's overall container for the essay)
5. paragraph length and flow (a series of clauses, separated by commas, giving the impression of movement and jerkiness while on the subway train)

The effect of this paragraph--one where her father takes her on a train ride then gleefully whispers that he just dropped acid--is one of terror. A young girl is aware that her father might at any moment decide the train car is a tomb and try to jump off. What can she do? Not much. She just has to ride out the ride.

It's an astonishing container.

This Week's Exercise
Choose a dead spot in your writing--a paragraph or a page. Insert one of the above tools to increase container. See if you can let go of your preferences as a writer and be willing to see your work from the reader's view. Does more emotion come through?