Tuesday, November 27, 2012

In the Beginning

How to start? This isn’t a question of motivation or of how to get ideas on the page, though these are important considerations. It’s a matter of those essential first lines, the ones on which all your readers, including agents and editors, will judge your work.

Author Sinclair Lewis learned firsthand the importance of beginnings. Cruising the Atlantic aboard the Queen Elizabeth, he was pleased to see a fellow passenger settle into a deck chair and open his latest novel. She read the first page, got up, and dropped the book over the railing, into the ocean. “If I didn’t know it already,” Lewis told his assistant Barnaby Conrad, “I learned then that the first page – even the first sentence – of one’s article, short story, novel, or nonfiction book is of paramount importance.”

Suppose you hand the first 250 words of your manuscript to an actress, who then reads it before a panel of four agents and editors. Each agent raises a hand at the point where his or her interest fades. When two hands are raised, the actress quits reading. Yours doesn’t get read to the end? Don’t feel bad: only 25 percent do.

This was the scenario that played out at a recent “Writer Idol” event. As reported by Livia Blackburne on the Guide to Literary Agents, there were many reasons the panelists rejected the beginnings. They were generic, or slow. There was too much unrealistic internal narration, or too much information. There were too many clichés, or the writing was unfocused, or the writer seemed to be trying too hard. In her PubRants blog, agent Kristen Nelson elaborates on this latter problem, pointing out that too often authors trying for active beginnings overload them with action.

The fundamental purpose of a beginning is simple: it must entice the reader to want more. In Learning to Write Fiction from the Masters, Conrad suggests several types of beginnings that, skillfully rendered, will lure readers into the prose. Conventions of the nineteenth century allowed the luxury of beginning with setting, or a combination of setting and character, strategies that are tougher, though not impossible, to pull off with today’s attention-challenged readers. If you begin with setting, Conrad warns, you need to be masterful with it, as was F. Scott Fitzgerald in launching Tender is the Night, using specific details, imagery, dynamic verbs, foreshadowing, and a hint of conflict.

You can also begin with a provocative thought, though you’ll want to follow it directly with specifics of the story. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” says Jane Austen in the opening of Pride and Prejudice. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” opens Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

By no means do beginnings need to be elaborate. The Old Man and the Sea opens like a news story, with the straight facts: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” The appeal can be more emotional, as in the opening sentence of Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps: “She would leave him, she thought, as soon as the petunias bloomed.” Or the novel can open with action: “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,” begins James Cain in The Postman Always Rings Twice. In each of these examples, there’s enough said to engage the reader, and there’s enough left out for the reader to want to know more.

With some beginnings, the reader dives with grace into the story. With others, it’s more of a cannonball splash. In media res takes the reader directly into the middle of a scene. Opening with dialogue has the same effect. When you’re suddenly immersed in a scene, you grab for bits to hang onto. You want to puzzle your way to some clarity. In short, you’re hooked.

Character beginnings prove equally enticing. Look no farther than Conrad’s Lord Jim or Nabokov’s Lolita for proof that a book can open successfully with character. Also endearing is the author’s appeal to the reader, as in Melville’s “Call me Ishmael,” or Twain’s “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that don’t matter.” Conrad calls this author-to-reader appeal “disarming, confidential, effective, and somewhat old-fashioned,” but given today’s emphasis on voice, it seems more than modern.

A final caveat: it’s all too easy to get attached to our beginnings. Because they come to us first, they soon feel indelible.  Remember - they’re not.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Confident Writer

“There is in you what’s beyond you.” Paul Valery

As a self-doubting teen (weren’t we all that, once?), I developed a passion for politics. For this I blame my parents, who before I entered kindergarten took our family to march for civil rights in our small Illinois town.

One of my deep childhood memories is holding a charred fragment of a Mississippi church that was burned by the Ku Klux Klan during Freedom Summer in 1964. My parents, like many others, were moved to action. My father traveled south to assist the civil rights movement there and brought back a piece of the church.

Though deeply shy, I grew up believing that activism mattered. Impassioned by Senator George McGovern’s bid for President, I volunteered, going door to door and making phone calls – lots of phone calls – to get out the vote.

McGovern lost, badly, but I came out a winner. I got hung up on and yelled at. I got scolded and ridiculed and cussed. In a word, I got tough. I learned that people could think and say what they wanted. At the end of the day, I was still me.

As it turned out, all that rejection was excellent preparation for becoming a writer. Our calling demands courage and confidence, even and especially in the face of all we don’t know. In this, it’s like parenting. You’re never exactly sure that you’re doing the right thing. Sometimes you’re not even sure what the right thing is. Yet you carry on. You don’t falter. You give it your best, and you try to get better. You stay open. And in the end, you let go.

Confident writers are not brazen or blustering. Even in doing the necessary work of promotion, they don’t brag. Bluster, brazenness, and bragging are thin disguises for the insecurity that accompanies a poorly formed sense of self and, in the case of writers, a poorly executed manuscript.

In The Poet’s Companion, Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux offer wisdom on the topic of confidence. Though they address poets, their truths apply to all writers. Don’t dwell on your failures, they advise: “In the literary life, which is full of rejected manuscripts, lost awards and prizes, and critical judgments of your work, it’s essential to develop some self-appreciation – to delight in your successes, wherever and however they arrive.”

Eschew competitiveness, they say. “Poetry, ultimately, is not a competition, in spite of the competitive nature of achieving publication and recognition. If you see it as such, you’re likely to feel unhappy, instead of being nourished by it.” Another pitfall to avoid: equating your self with your writing. As committed as we are to our craft, as much as we may bleed on the page, we must not wrap ourselves so completely into our writing that we are crushed by rejection and criticism. “The truth is that good poems come from a combination of things: awareness, talent, persistence, persistence, native and acquired language abilities, luck, persistence, knowledge, imagination, persistence,” note Addonizio and Laux. “Who you are contributes to your poetry in a number of important ways, but you shouldn’t identify with your poems so closely that when they are cut, you’re the one who bleeds.”

And finally, this good advice: “If you want to write poems, you have to acknowledge that that’s what you want to do, and quit sabotaging yourself. Don’t give in to doubt; feel it, recognize it, and then quit beating yourself up and get to work.”

Check This Out: The study of poetry is good for all writers, and this “guide to the pleasures of writing poetry” is among the best. Divided into sections on subjects, craft, and the writing life, The Poet’s Companion also includes twenty-minute writing exercises and four useful appendices.

Try This: In The Poet’sCompanion, Addonizio and Laux recommend this exercise: write down all your doubts about yourself as a writer. Once you’ve got it on the page, counter that voice. Argue back. Include why you write, and what you know to be true about your creative self.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Hearing Voices: Point of View, Perspective, and Narrative Distance

“I have wanted you to see out of my eyes so many times.” 

Point of view, perspective, and narrative distance: these aren’t difficult concepts, but they do trip up writers. Jarring switches in point of view or a character’s sudden omniscience are mistakes that imply you’re a novice.

Who narrates? How much does the narrator see and know? What perspective, including biases and blind spots, does the narrator bring? How close is the reader to the narrator, and how close is the narrator – we’re talking psychic distance here – to the story? These decisions are generally embedded in a narrative from the very first sentence.

Every author works differently, and for most of us, the process shifts from project to project. These days, I don’t generally begin a story until I hear the narrative voice. When I first began my novel Cold Spell, I heard sixteen-year-old Sylvie loud and clear. The novel began like this, in first person:

Kenny promised a new start at the glacier, where the wind blew mean and cold off the ice.   You’ll love it, he promised my mother, and being eager to love, she believed him. 

As the novel began to take shape, I felt it needed to be told from three points of view: sixteen-year-old Sylvie, her mother Ruth, and Kenny’s mother, Lena. For a long time, Sylvie’s portions stayed in first person, reflecting my strong connection to her, along with the fact that she’s sixteen, an age that favors a certain amount of self-absorption. Ruth and Lena narrated from the third person limited.

But as the novel came together, the shifts from first to third person began to feel lopsided. It’s not that such a thing can’t be done – Jayne Anne Phillip’s award-winning Lark and Termite is a great example – but I wasn’t achieving the intimacy I wanted with each of the three characters, and adjusting the point of view seemed one way to balance things out. Early readers concurred. Now the novel begins like this, still with Sylvie, but in third person:

I am a poem, Sylvie once thought, swollen like a springtime river, light swirled in dark, music and memory. Then her father ran off and her mother became obsessed with a glacier and she realized this was what happened to girls who believed themselves poems, poems in fact being prone to bad turns and misunderstandings.

In shifting from first to third person, no intimacy is lost. Third person can in fact allow for more latitude with voice and perspective, including self-insight. Sylvie herself wouldn’t have said “poems in fact being prone to bad turns and misunderstandings.” She’s sixteen, and that’s not how she talks. 

Consider how the process works in reverse, when the change is from third to first person. “Changing POV like this involves a great deal more than simply turning all the she’s into I’s,” explain Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter in What If? “The author must step out from the middle and let the I’s voice speak for itself.” There’s much to be said for the power of a strong, sustaining voice, rendered in the first person. But first person can also the most limiting of the point of view options. You can only tell what one character experiences, and it must be through her own set of filters, in her own voice.

I’ve had plenty of misadventures with point of view and perspective during my years in publishing. It felt like my first novel, A Distant Enemy, wrote itself, and it happened to be in third person, from the point of view of a sixteen-year-old boy. Buoyed with unearned confidence, I decided I’d be strategic with my second novel, which began with an idea instead of a voice: I’d write about a girl’s experience in the wilderness. I drafted and redrafted the whole novel a couple of times before my editor, the venerable Virginia Buckley, pointed out that it wasn’t the girl’s story after all. Before it was all said and done, I wrote four different versions of Out of the Wilderness, each with a different point of view: girl first, girl third, boy first, boy third. You might say I’m a slow learner.

We build intuition about point of view, perspective, and narrative distance through careful reading, awareness, and flexibility - a willingness to revise. As we grow in skill and confidence, it becomes easier to juggle pov, perspective, and distance. It took me a good long time to get comfortable, for instance, with the limited use of second person as part of a narrator’s voice, and with multiple points of view. In Cold Spell, the narration shifts completely in the final scene, as does the tense, and the characters aren’t referred to by name as they approach the glacier:

You feel it first in the dry sucking wind that shivers past shadows, empty and defiant, the air mean and low, siphoning warmth, the ice a large and perpetual testimony to cold. Two figures creep toward it, dwarfed by raw-edged mountains that chew at the sky, the illusion of ice so close you could reach out and feel the wet melt of it under your skin as you press as if for a pulse.

“The closing scene is especially masterful in this regard,” says one of my readers.“Taking Brody's and Sylvie's names out renders them both as the anguished, grasping, not-yet-fully developed characters we know so well AND spiritual archetypes.” Commenting on the multiple points of view in the novel, this same reader says, “I love the way you weave together the overlapping voices of the characters--a narrative technique that can easily come across as gimmicky, but that you manage beautifully.”

While multiple viewpoints can add layers of tension to a narrative, there are other pitfalls besides the gimmick. “A novel dominated by point of view often lacks the feeling of space and freedom, of security in the world, that permits the reader to transcend themselves, to grow and change by living for a period in the narrative,” notes Rachel Cusk

A more dire pitfall is what author and former literary agent Nathan Bransford terms head jumping. “Whatever perspective you choose,” Bransford says, “it has to be grounded. The reader has to know where they are in relation to the action so they can get their bearings and lose themselves in the story.” He likens point of view to a camera, noting that writers need to be mindful of the potentially jerky, dizzying effect of swapping perspectives within a scene.

Like so much else in writing, your skillful handling of point of view, perspective, and narrative distance earns you the trust of your readers, proving that they’re in capable hands, and that the narrative you’ve fashioned through a wild, messy, hair-pulling process now flows confidently in all its aspects.

Try This: In What If?, Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter suggest you write in 550 words or less about an early memory, something that occurred before you were seven years old. Use the first person and the perspective of a child. Keep the distance tight by not analyzing, reflecting, or interpreting.  Let the narrative speak for itself. Then write about the same incident in no more than two pages, this time with the distance created by time, and an adult perspective, in either first or third person.

Check This Out: What If? by Bernays and Painter offer a multitude of exercises for the fiction writer, on beginnings, memory, characterization, perspective, dialogue, plot, story elements, resolution, transformation, and mechanics. There’s even a section on games, and another on learning from the greats. With each are student examples.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Character Motivation

“It is not the mountains that we conquer, but ourselves.” ~ Sir Edmond Hillary

Steve Almond says it simply: in any narrative, we care first about the character, and then we care about what that character cares about. More than anything else, this is what compels a reader through a narrative.

It seems that Almond is referring to character motivation, and on one level, he is. But motivation runs even deeper. As Jennifer Van Bergen points out in Archetypes forWriters: Using the Power of Your Subconscious, it is a very small subset of motivations, which she calls “Universal Drives,” that motivate compelling characters: to survive, to love, to be loved, and (my addition) to matter.

These universal drives (I’m not keen on Van Bergen’s capitals, which smack of jargon) underlie virtually everything that matters in our lives, and in the lives of our characters. Universal drives are not conscious, nor are they situational. They are not emotions or reactions or beliefs. They are not doable in and of themselves. Being in love, for instance, is not a universal drive; rather, it is a situation compelled by the universal desire to love and be loved.

As writers, we discover the universal forces that motivate our characters by first acknowledging that our characters exist inside us. Despite the language we use to talk about characters – building, crafting, developing – character work is as much about discovery as anything else.

Though it seems inefficient, we typically uncover the universal desires of our characters by working backwards. My recently completed novel Cold Spell features Ruth, single mother of two, who becomes obsessed by a glacier. What’s behind this obsession? In part, that’s what the novel’s about, and what I had to discover myself in the process of writing it. Surface-level motivations – Ruth’s husband taking off for Florida with another woman, her fear that she’ll get stuck in her small Midwestern town, her deep hurts and longings – led me to her fundamental desire to love (her daughters especially) and be loved (by her girls, and by herself). As I sifted through these layers, it became more and more clear what’s truly at stake when Ruth abandons all that’s familiar and follows a man to the glacier.

In order to write effectively about our characters, Van Bergen points out that we must understand them from the inside, and with deep empathy. Readers care about characters who are motivated by universal desires. We all want to be secure. We all want to love and be loved. We all want to feel like we matter.

By definition, universal desires exist at all times, in everyone. In other words, they’re as common as dirt, yet they’re also highly intriguing because in each person these desires are uniquely manifested and suppressed. We are all damaged goods, pummeled by forces that keep us from attaining what we so desperately and fundamentally desire. What stands between our characters and their universal desires is what makes their stories truly compelling, along with the fact that the nature of these desires is such that none can ever be sure that they’ve always and forever achieved them.

Check This Out:  In Archetypes for Writers, Jennifer Van Bergen taps into acting strategies to explore archetypal elements of characters. Her insistence on Greek-based nomenclature (universal drives, for instance, are “nos-amianthy) is cumbersome, and the prose in some parts reads more like notes, but there are some useful ideas in the book, and plenty of exercises.

Try This: Modified from Van Bergen: Identify a character’s goal or goals within a single scene from a short story, then consider the same character’s goal or goals within the entire story. Finally, identify the universal desires that underlie these goals.