Sunday, May 24, 2015

Fiction Action!

I read a magazine article titled, “Action, the Heartbeat of Fiction” by Jordan E. Rosenfeld that I thought was worth noting. Rosenfeld said, “Action is a dynamic word that calls to mind a director hooting into a megaphone at his actors. It's also the heartbeat of good fiction that keeps readers riveted to the page. Action is comprised of all the elements a reader can 'witness' taking place. From physical movement to spoken dialogue, action transports your readers into your writing and brings your writing to life. Despite all this, many writers have a tendency to shuffle important action ‘offstage,’ relying on pace-dragging narrative summaries and recaps instead.”

The solution to preventing pace-dragging scenes is to write them within a framework. By presenting scenes as though they were happening on a theater stage, all the drama takes place as it happens, not offstage and something for the characters to discuss. Readers remember what happens on stage and can make their own deductions. They needn’t wait for the characters to endlessly discuss what has just taken place.

The scene’s momentum keeps the reader reading and her heart pounding as the action accelerates if the plot situation seems real, particularly when the character is in danger. Instead of characters talking about a past experience, replay the scene in flashback action. By reliving it in living color, the reader can experience it for himself.

Another good way to involve your reader in a scene is to reveal information in dialogue. A good plot reveals new information in each chapter and one of the best ways to deliver the news is to have the characters act it out. Give the narrator a rest. It’s much more powerful to have events happen now than to hear about it later, secondhand.

Character movement is essential in a good scene, whether the protagonist throws a chair through a window in anger, or flicks ashes from a cigarette into his cup. Don’t leave your characters standing around without something to do. Body language is a giveaway when a character’s motives are in question. If a man drops his head when asked if he killed someone, it usually means he’s guilty or knows who committed the crime. If a woman lifts a palm to her chest while denying something, changes are she’s telling the truth.

If your character comes to an important decision or suddenly realizes that he has the answer to a problem, avoid internal monologue as much as possible. The realization will have more impact if it happens in someone else’s presence because it raises the emotional stakes for all concerned, as well as your storyline.

And finally, turn your back story into front story whenever possible or delete it from the plot. Back story is your character’s past, which you feel needs to be included. It’s usually spooned in as narrative summary instead of dialogue and lacks the elements of scene writing. Because it doesn’t take place in the present, there’s no dialogue or scene setting or action taking place. When that happens, the best part of back story is casually written off without the slightest hint of emotion. And as I've said before, emotion drives the plot.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Rescuing a Stalled Plot

by Jean Henry Mead

Writers have all been there at one time or another. The story’s going along great when all of a sudden you come to a complete stop as though a stone wall stands in your path. Surprised and a little fearful, you can’t seem to get going again. You either abandon the project or put it aside, hoping you’ll eventually come back to it.

A good plot is like a good marriage. It begins with plenty of enthusiasm and energy, but after that first rush you have to settle in for the long haul. Your story has to deepen and acquire rich details so that your reader doesn’t lose interest. Sometimes, when you’ve run out of action and detail, you might begin to hate your story and wish you’d never started it. That’s when you’ve run out of what William McCranor Henderson calls “character knowledge.” He says, “When you hit that wall and don’t know where to go next, the best solution is to dig deeper.”

It's time to unearth intimate facts about your characters. Not everything about them, Henderson says, “it’s just the stuff we really need to know about our characters. Ideally, this includes the two or three key nuggets of personality or character history than can make you fall back in love with your story.”

An example of character knowledge may be that Terry likes ice cream and is allergic to chocolate. These facts don’t necessarily add up to character knowledge unless they cause something crucial to happen in the story. If Terry is investigating a murder case and eats a dish of ice cream containing white chocolate that he’s unaware of, he may wind up in the hospital just as he’s about to crack the case. Or Julie comes down with a bad case of poison ivy just before her wedding because her jealous rival puts snippets of the woody vines in her bouquet.

One way to dig deeper into your character's past is to interview yourself. In a focused freewrite, you jot down a few lines and answer the questions honestly. Such as:

Q. Why would Johnny marry a girl he doesn’t love?
A. Her father owns a large company and will offer Johnny a management job. His wife will inherit the company some day, making Johnny a wealthy man. Maybe the old man will have an unfortunate accident and Johnny won’t have to wait that long for the money.
Q. But won’t his wife know that he doesn’t love her.
A. He’ll shower her with gifts and pretend that she’s the love of his life.
Q. But everyone thinks he’s a great guy.
A. So did I until I started resaerching his character.

If you’re not getting the right answers from yourself, interview your characters.

Q. Why were you involved in an accident?
A. The road was slick and I lost control of my car.
Q. Weren't you paying attention to your driving?
A. Well, I guess I overcorrected when Sara distracted me.

Properly interviewing characters can bring out traits and faults you never knew existed, which can lead to all sorts of plot complications and solutions. Then, when you rewrite that blocked scene, you can take a new run at the wall and watch it disappear because you have character knowledge that allows you to view the scene through new eyes.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Writer Envy

by Jean Henry Mead

I've been fortunate to interview hundreds of writers, some bestselling and award-winning, who have offered great advice for those just getting started in the publishing business. Some of the best advice regarding submissions and rejections has been: when a rejection arrives, allow yourself one hour to grieve, then get back to the computer and query that same editor with another story idea. Or, if the rejection was harsh, dig out your list of editors and begin querying again. Don’t think that John Grisham was immune to rejections. His first novel was rejected nearly thirty times before it was accepted for publication.

If it isn’t happening for you right now, don’t let the green-eyed monster invade your soul if you read congratulations to other writers when they announce a sale or writing award. They’ve been where you are any number of times before they were discovered.

Professional envy seems to be more prevalent in writers than other professions because we invest more of ourselves in our work. Psychologist Eric Maisel, the author of Coaching the Artist Within, says that the wide gap between successful writers and those still struggling to succeed enhances feelings of envy. And, unlike most occupations, there is no linear path to success.

You may have been writing steadily for years, selling sporadically, when you notice that someone half your age is on the bestseller list. How could that happen when you’re a much better writer? You may think that she’s the editor’s cousin or she happened to meet a top agent at a cocktail party. Luck does play a large role in publishing successes. So you’ve got to put yourself out there and make your work known. What better place than the Internet?

Diana Burrell wrote that “envy is a real burden for writers because it can derail a promising career. Envy manifests itself in two destructive ways: as psychological pain, such as lowered self-confidence or depression, and acting out behaviors that include self-sabotage (sending out sloppy query letters, for example) and withdrawal (failing to network with other writers for fear of hearing someone else’s good news).”

Mansel said, “It becomes a vicious cycle. You have more to envy because you have fewer successes because you’ve been hiding out.” In the long run, depression and negative feelings can cause writers to develop creative blocks and they may stop writing altogether. The good news is that you can conquer your feelings of envy by admitting them aloud to yourself, which helps to dissipate the power they hold over you.

“You must take action in spite of how you feel," Mansel added. Burrell defined that action as transforming envy into desire. Begrudging a shameless self-promoter only causes you pain. Instead, study how the writer works his or her press and create a promotional plan of your own.

Success is relative. For some it’s getting a single book published. For others it’s the bestseller list. Create your own list of goals that you want to achieve and figure out how to get there. Some writers consider themselves successful if they earn enough money to quit their day job. What are your writing goals? Write them down and paste them to your computer so that you never lose sight of them.

What if a writer friend is envious of your book sales and it’s ruining your relationship? How do you handle that? Mansel advises us to “Be your best self. Act as a mentor, freely giving advice to those who ask for it, and try to be of help. It can be painful when you sense other writers are rejoicing in your setbacks, so take a deep breath, smile and remain compassionate. If you take your successes too seriously and notice that your relationships with other writers are becoming difficult, he advises to: “Get over yourself.”