Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Description: That Glint of Light

Description has a bad rap: bland, boring, basic. But it's also true that description is often overdone, or done badly.

In Thanks, But This Isn’t for Us, literary agent Jessica Page Morrell explains that good description should get readers out of their worlds by anchoring them in the setting and creating mood. Good description also reveals character and develops emotions. It establishes credibility for future events, and it intensifies scenes, slowing the pace and causing the reader to linger. In short, it’s primarily through description that the abstract is made understandable and that readers are able to suspend disbelief. 

Good description is beautiful, and as Mark Doty says, “Beauty is simply accuracy, to come as close as we can to what seems to be real.”

An obvious path to good description is attentiveness, which is broader than you might think. Sensory images are lovely. We draw meaning from what we see and intimacy from what we taste and touch. Sounds focus our attention, while smells affect the limbic, primitive part of our brains. 

From sensory images, it’s a short hop to show, don’t tell, that old writer’s adage. It’s among the first lessons writers learn: Telling reads like synopsis, while showing reads like art.

But it’s also possible to get way too much of a good thing, especially if you think showing happens only through sensory images. In fact, if taken too much to heart, show, don’t tell is bad advice. Study the writers you love, and you’ll find that part of showing is telling: what characters think, how they feel, what it all means.

Consider this passage from one of my favorite authors, Seth Kantner, in his novel Ordinary Wolves:

Dawna stood still.  The morning night and streetlight shared shadows on her face, glinting her eyes, laying dusk caves under her chin.  Frost jeweled the black silk of her hair.  She stood with her knees close, slightly bent in the cold, her stiff hard tennis shoes pressed together.  A smile lifted the top line of her lip, folding it back provocatively.  Behind her the school waited, for me a terribly cold heated place, for Dawna a pasture of popularity.  My chest was full of air and empty.  I loved her.  I wanted to hold her.  The magazines and TV didn’t know; beauty was Eskimo and brown and named Dawna Wolfglove.

We see the shared shadows, the glint in her eyes, her frost-jeweled hair. We see how Dawna stands, how she smiles. But it’s the oblique parts that set this description apart: the dusk caves lain under her chin, the school a cold heated place, the chest full of air and empty. And the telling is crucial : I loved her.  I wanted to hold her.  The magazines and TV didn’t know; beauty was Eskimo and brown and named Dawna Wolfglove.

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” If description were only a matter of precise, camera-like attentiveness, we wouldn’t have this beautiful line from George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

“Description is made both more moving and more exact when it is acknowledged that it is invariably INCOMPLETE,” Doty says, invoking capital letters as he points out that not everything can be described, or needs to be. “The choice of what to evoke, to make any scene seem REAL to the reader is a crucial one,” he adds. A few elements to ground the reader, and a few to evoke surprise - these, Doty says, will rescue a scene from the generic – from the bland, boring, and basic.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Emotion: What Words Can Express

Emotion is among the few things we don’t have to be taught, assuming that all the normal synapses are firing. No one has to tell us how to be sad or angry or cart-wheel happy. So when we speak of emotional resonance, or of the emotional core of our work, or of the emotional depth of our characters, we’re talking about what comes naturally, right?

Not exactly. It is true what Ron Carlson says, that “The literary story deals with the complicated human heart…people bearing up in the crucible of our days.”  It’s also true that feelings, translated as empathy, are what make our writing memorable and meaningful. But if the transfer of feelings to words were as instinctive as breathing, we wouldn’t need literature. And you can’t simply season your writing with emotion, like pepper in a pot. In the wrong hands, emotion comes off as sappy or melodramatic, or as toying with readers. 

“I was full of a tense excitement as well as regret,” says Del in Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, when her father announces he'll have to kill the family’s wayward dog. That won’t do, you say. She’s telling, not showing. Yes, but Munro has earned the right to announce these feelings, through the careful peeling back of who her characters are and the trouble they’ve gotten into.  And in a scene where Del’s brother prays that their dad won’t go through with the shooting, Munro proves she can show emotion, not just tell it: “With the making of his prayer his face went through several desperate, private grimaces, each of which seemed to me a reproach and an exposure, hard to look at as skinned flesh.”

You have to go deep to convey real emotion, boring to bedrock and sometimes beyond. You can’t be lazy or complacent with it. Consider this passage, also from Munro’s novel, in which Del, desperate to not have to view the body of her deceased uncle, bites her mentally challenged cousin, only to be forgiven by her hovering relatives:

“Being forgiven creates a peculiar shame. I felt hot, and not just from the blanket. I felt held close, stifled, as if it was not air I had to move and talk through in this world but something thick as cotton. This shame was physical, but went far beyond sexual shame, my former shame of nakedness; now it was as if not the naked body but all the organs inside it – stomach, heart, lungs, liver – were laid bare and helpless. The nearest thing to this that I had ever known before was the feeling I got when I was tickled beyond endurance – horrible, voluptuous feeling of exposure, of impotence, self-betrayal. And shame went spreading out from me all through the house, covered everybody, even Mary Agnes, even Uncle Craig in his present disposable, vacated condition. To be made of flesh was humiliation.  I was caught in a vision which was, in a way, the very opposite of the mystic’s incommunicable vision of order and light; a vision, also incommunicable, of confusion and obscenity – of helplessness, which was revealed as the most obscene thing there could be.”

Munro starts with a physical sensation associated with shame: “I felt hot.” Avoiding cliché, she expands on it:  “I felt held close, stifled, as if it was not air I had to move through but something thick as cotton.”  She pushes deeper: “This shame was physical, but went far beyond sexual shame,” connecting Del’s feeling with backstory, “my former shame of nakedness,” and goes on to evoke a unique and horrifying extension - organs laid out, bare and helpless. She doesn’t leave us there, shocked, but reels back with a comparison we can all relate to, being “tickled beyond endurance.” A lesser writer might have left it there, but Munro probes deeper, describing the “horrible, voluptuous feeling of exposure, of impotence, self-betrayal.” From emotion comes revelation: “To be made of flesh was humiliation.” To know we can’t escape shame is an anti-vision of confusion and obscenity – one more way for us to feel what Del feels.

Not every emotion must be mined this fully; if it were, the reader – not to mention the writer – would soon grow weary. Like all decisions we writers make, the depth with which an emotion is explored has everything to do with the characters and the spine of the narrative, as well as the style of the writer. In Swamplandia, Karen Russell shows what her main character Ava feels as she tries to deny to her brother that she’s like their sister Ossie, who claims to channel the dead:

“But in fact I was like Ossie, in this one regard: I was consumed by a helpless, often furious love for a ghost. Every rock on the island, every swaying tree branch or dirty dish in our house was like a word in a sentence that I could read about my mother. All objects and events on our island, every single thing that you could see with your eyes, were like clues I could use to reinvent her: would our mom love this thing, would she hate it? For a second I luxuriated in a real hatred of my brother.”

With simple adjectives and verbs, Russell conveys the paradox inherent in most strong emotions: “helpless, often furious love” and “luxuriated in real hatred.” Like all good metaphors, hers have a visual effect, implying action as she heightens our understanding of Ava’s love: ordinary household items are each “like a word in a sentence I could read about my mother,” and “everything you could see with your eyes” contains “clues I could use to reinvent her.”

Emotional depth is of sufficient interest among writers for Ann Hood to have written an entire book about it:  Creating Character Emotions.  In it, she identifies mistakes writers make with regard to emotion, warning especially of vagueness and ambiguity. “Instead of considering the plot of the story and the character’s own emotional place, the writer relies on a nonspecific emotion and hopes the reader fills in the blanks,” she says, noting that ambiguity is often the result of a writer not trusting enough in her own emotional experiences and therefore not being willing to explore them.

To get it right, Hood suggests making an emotional timeline, first for yourself and then for your characters. Another idea is to use props to suggest emotion, or to show a character trying to hide her feelings. Interior monologue can sometimes be used to great emotional effect, as can an unpredictable emotional response, like Uncle Benny in Munro’s novel, who starts to laugh when confronted with the truth about his mail order bride, who beat her child:  “Uncle Benny chuckled miserably…Once Uncle Benny had started chuckling he couldn’t stop, it was like hiccups.” This is the complicated human heart: paradoxical, challenged, and real.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Transcendence: Writing That Lasts

“I’m in love,” says Reagan Arthur, editor of the eponymous imprint at Little Brown Books. “I can’t wait to see what happens next.”

That’s how Arthur describes her response to exceptional books. Editors, agents, and readers often speak of books this way, with passion. Can this sort of book love be pinned down, described, analyzed?

Consider Anne Lamott’s enthusiastic endorsement of Kathleen Winter’s debut novel Anabel. “It reads with such caring,” Lamott says. “It’s such a gift.”  How we got here, who we are, what we do now, how we awaken if in fact we do – the novel delves into all of these questions, Lamott says.

Transcendence. That’s what literary agent Noah Lukeman calls a book that addresses such questions.  Of course, not everyone agrees on what transcendence means or where it applies. Winter’s book, for instance, garnered no starred reviews; in fact, a Publishers Weekly review calls its delivery “heavy-handed,” and its Amazon ranking is nothing to get excited about. Still, who wouldn’t be thrilled if even one writer with the chops of Lamott were to rave about the transcendence of our work, saying in essence that the world needs this book, Amazon rankings be damned.

Timing is everything when it comes to transcendence - not the timing of the project, though it is possible that what’s unappreciated in one era may transcend to another - but the writer’s timing in weighing the value of her work. Too much early concern about transcendence can kill a project before it ever gets off the ground. Too much early conviction regarding its importance breeds grandiosity, leading writers to invest large chunks of time into stuff no one wants to read, at which point the writers typically throw their hands in the air and complain that the world simply doesn’t get their particular manifestation of genius.

In The Plot Thickens, Lukeman warns that there are no formulas for genuine transcendence, but he does point to some of its common elements. Though not vague, transcendent works are open to interpretation. “The more levels, the more there is to work with,” Lukeman says. Transcendent writing also features multidimensional characters and circumstances. And transcendent work feels timeless. Regardless of era, readers will deeply identify with it. In reading, they’ll feel they’ve learned something, especially about themselves. 

“Works that leave lasting impressions are usually greater than the sum of their parts,” Lukeman says. “The greatness lies not in any individual character, or setting, or story twist, but in the coming together of these elements.” The ideal work, he adds, takes the audience through four stages, from curiosity to interest to need and, in rare instances, to action.

Though aiming for transcendence can be counterproductive, we can at least shoot for an awareness of what we mean to achieve. Lukeman suggests checking in with ourselves, at the deepest level, to discover what prompts us to write. If we write from defensiveness or insecurity, we’ll likely come off as aggressive. If we write out of pride, to prove how smart we are, our work becomes a showcase for high language and affected speech.  If at the root of our writing there’s fear, we wind up overstating. Revenge, control, deception – there are any number of poor motives that will show through in our work. 

“It is your job to clear the slate, to create a sacred space in your mind just for the writing, free from all your neuroses as a person. The writing must be about the art as much as possible,” Lukeman says. “No matter what your goal or motivation, you should strive to write from a place of truth and love.”  

When it comes to transcendence, try not to try too hard. Pushing for profundity, writing with an agenda, preaching a moral (or two or three or ten): don’t be fooled by any of these self-important pursuits. Humility, vulnerability – these are among the most transcendent perspectives in writing, because they open a work to its emotional core.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Character Reins

Recently I re-read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, one of the finest American books of the past few decades. Some will disagree heartily; in fact, such was the prevailing attitude when Robinson completed the manuscript. In an interview published in The Paris Review, Robinson says that though her friend’s agent offered to represent Housekeeping, she warned it might be difficult to place. Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux picked it up, but the editor warned it might not get reviewed.

Why the muted prospects? For one, the book lacks some of the basics fiction gurus preach, especially when it comes to character. The narrator, who goes unnamed for some time, speaks in first person but with omniscience, especially in the beginning. She exhibits none of the spunk or pluck that we’re told readers crave, unless you count her sheer survival in the face of circumstance. Quirky, yes, we’ll give her that, but not in a way that most of us would care to emulate. She and her sister are passive characters. What do they want? We’re not sure, not at first anyhow. Their motivation? Nothing conventional.

Hurray for Anatole Broyard, who did review the book, wanting to make sure it got noticed. It went on to win the Pen/Hemingway Award. If it had been up to me, it would have won the Pulitzer, too, but as often happens, that was awarded Robinson for the her next book, which is good but not nearly as finely wrought as Housekeeping.

How does Robinson, in defiance of conventional wisdom, grace us with a story of three utterly unforgettable women, plus a handful of intriguing “ghosts” whose influence lingers?

As it turns out, passive characters aren’t the kiss of death, necessarily. Using as an example “A Cautionary Tale” by Deborah EisenbergRobin Romm points out that some of the best fiction features passive protagonists, defined by Romm as full characters who aren’t in charge of the action of the story as opposed to characters that aren’t fully developed.  Passive characters, she says, benefit from latent desires that they haven’t acted on yet.  Fierce protagonists, on the other hand, can alarm or exhaust the reader, and they may not be capable of the same revelations as the more reticent protagonist. In fact, it’s the pressure to act that brings interest to the acting.  The trick, Romm says, is that even a passive character will have an intriguing way of judging the world, and of course the passive character doesn’t stay passive: a moment of complicated crisis makes us rethink them. 

These principles are applied to full effect in Housekeeping. Ruthie and Lucille aren’t in charge, and neither are they fully developed. Their latent desire – the attention of their last relative, Sylvie – emerges well into the story. Through the retrospective, semi-omniscient first person narrative, Ruthie offers revelation after revelation from her intriguing perspective. We feel with her the growing pressure to act, building to a moment of complicated crisis that makes us rethink not only the characters but also what we consider as “normal.”

Though traditional heroes may be easier to work with, I’m drawn to the passive protagonist, which means I have to maintain a certain vigilance regarding latent desires, revelations, the pressure to act, complications. I also pay a good deal of attention to what I call character “reins,” my acronym for the ways even the most passive characters can grow into themselves, by way of their regrets; their expectations; their insights, intentions, and instabilities; their needs; and their speculation.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Voice Matters

Voice matters. A lot. “Voice is the number one thing that separates the published from the unpublished and, after that, the good books from the mediocre ones,” says Mary Kole of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

Agent Donald Maass, author of The Fire in Fictionelaborates:
 “By voice, I think they [agents] mean not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre.  They want to read an author that is like no other.  An original.  A standout.  … To set your voice free, set your words free.  Set your characters free.  Most important, set your heart free…Your voice is your self in the story.”

It sounds easy enough: be yourself. But Maass admits that voice is a notoriously fuzzy concept, one that embraces everything from style to sensibility to purpose.

The terms voice and style may have once been almost synonymous, but in modern usage they’re more distinct. Style feels deliberate, something to be honed and shaped. We speak of it analytically, mostly from a reader’s perspective. Voice, on the other hand, feels organic. As readers, we’re more likely to appreciate than to analyze it. As writers, we discover it, unlock it, free it.

When it comes to voice, there’s plenty to unlearn from years of trying to sound like the teacher or sound like the book. Even after we’ve committed ourselves to the creative process, we fall into the academic habit of connecting dots for the reader, a sure voice-killer if ever there was one.

“My beginning students never write better than when responding to an in-class assignment so challenging that it leaves no room for stylistic self-consciousness,” says Adam Sexton, author of The Master Class in Fiction Writing. “So try to be yourself when you write. Focus on the story you want to tell, and tell that story as quickly and naturally as possible. Then go back and analyze, evaluate, improve.”

Grace Paley discovered her stylistic self-consciousness when a high school teacher questioned her stilted use of words like trousers and subaltern in her poems. Paley admits it was only when she began writing short stories that she was able to let go of such language. “When I was able to get into somebody else’s voice, when I was able to speak in other’s people’s voice, I found my own,” she says.

Author Jayne Anne Phillips, professor of English, Rutgers-Newark MFA program, echoes the importance of voice in the narrative form. “I don’t work with ideas, which for me would limit the material,” she says. “Voice itself has no limitations.  I work by ear, in a sense, in that I hear the voice, follow the voice into the narrative…For me, voice establishes the world of the novel and begins to hint at a kind of chimera of meaning.”

Voice is easy to recognize. Watch for it as you read. Compelling voice sounds more natural than artificial. In your own work, play with voice on the page. Switch it up, depending on your audience and your purpose. Trying out other voices is paradoxically one of the best ways to develop your own. Experiment with point of view, narrative distance, and narrative intelligence, all of which affect voice. Keep in mind that voice develops both consciously and subconsciously. Be patient. Voice matures over time. 

Attend to voice when you revise. Boot out jargon, clichés, and weak words. Reject parts that sound unnatural, language that seem to be trying too hard. Find where the piece first takes off, gets its legs, finds its rhythm. Could you start there? Can you rewrite other sections to match the strongest passages?