Friday, April 28, 2017

A Great Key to Building Your Story: Things Are Never as They Appear

I got some of the best writing advice this week:  In a good story, things are never as they appear. 

At first, I debated this advice:  Why not tell the truth in story?  I try to be honest in my daily life, so why would I be otherwise in my books?  Nonfiction writers, you always tell the truth, so keep debating the idea.  But fiction and memoir writers, listen up.  There's something to this.

Consider that story often starts with false ideas, an unstable status quo, or agreements that are worn out and need replacing.  In my classes, we look at something called the "false agreement" that characters embrace at the beginning of their narrative.  Each character might have their own false agreement, unique to their journey in the story.  In my current novel, one of the narrators believes that she can conquer all odds by herself, without help.  This is a false agreement because the story continually puts her into situations where she can't go it alone.  Readers can see this belief, or agreement she's made with herself, isn't going to last.  But the character is blind to that.  By the end, the character must acknowledge that the agreement isn't working.  She must reinvent herself and her agreements.  That makes up her narrative arc--the progress of this change.

I like to look at each of my main players to be sure the false agreement is in place, so they can have someplace to grow towards.

Then I thought of this writing advice in another way:  the writer knows where the story is going to end up.  What needs to happen by the last page.  But if we lay all the steps out in a straight and predictable line, the story feels just that:  predictable.  So the writer's goal might also be to continually sidetrack the reader--create false ideas that might be true, but turn out not to be.  In thrillers, these are sometimes called "red herrings."  They appear to be a bonefide clue, but they are eventually disproved. 

Then I thought of dialogue.  Skilled dialogue contains something called "subtext," which is the undercurrent, what's not being said.  In a way, good dialogue also follows this idea of "things are not what they appear."  If characters speak the truth every time you have a scene with dialogue, there's little tension.  It's like the straight and predictable path of truthful story.  Tension comes from incongruence, the difference between what's said and what's really meant. 

I began to research well-loved novels and memoirs.  White Oleander by Janet Fitch offers the young narrator's false belief that she can manage her crazy mother and have a safe childhood.  It creates such tension, even in the opening scene where the mother walks the edge of a rooftop while the daughter watches. 

The Glass Castle, a well-known memoir by Jeannette Walls, is about another young narrator who also lives in a crazy family and carries, for much of the story, the false agreement is that they live a normal life. 

In both cases, the reader can see this is nowhere near normal.  But we read on because we wonder if we're right, and if we are, how the narrator will reconcile this disconnect.

In All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, a large-scale false agreement exists between two countries at war.  When two young people become allies, despite the war, it busts the belief that war always trumps humanity.  They save each other at the end, disproving that false agreement, at least in a small way.

The trick to making this work is in two steps:

1.  Create a strong false agreement to start your story.
2.  Plan clues that make us readers uncertain about where it's going to go. 

Good writing doesn't predict the end.  It's anticipated but not expected, as one of my favorite teachers used to say.  Readers track the hints and clues you plant, letting us know the false agreement isn't going to hold up, but we want to be carried along with high tension, not really sure of where you will land up by the last page.

Your weekly writing exercise is to consider the two steps above.  Ask yourself, what is your story's (or your narrator's) false agreement.  Then, how does it slowly get dismantled by the end.  If you already have these two steps in place, track backwards from the last page and note how you plant the clues--be sure you aren't making the end too predictable, evolve too fast, or sidetrack into different false agreements. 

This takes focus and discipline, as a writer, but the end result is a satisfied reader.

Friday, April 21, 2017

How NOT to Give Up When You Get Feedback on Your Manuscript

A good friend recently attended a top-level writing conference, one where you have to be approved to enter.  She was accepted and went with her manuscript in hand.  She got some expert feedback from one of the published writers who taught there.  She came home excited, shared the news with me.  "He liked so much of it, and he had some great comments for next steps," she said.  Her voice was full of enthusiasm and energy to tackle the changes.
Weeks passed.  I emailed her to find out how the revision was going.  She'd gotten sick, the kids had gotten sick, politics were making her crazy, in-laws had visited, spring vacation arrived.  No time for writing, she said, knowing I'd understand.
I did.  Life comes up, gets in the way, changes our plans.  That's normal.  But I also heard something else in her voice:  overwhelm about the feedback she'd received.  It was extensive, it came from someone who really knew what he was doing, and although it excited her, it also got her inner critic up in arms.  She needed time to process the feedback and that's also normal, but she'd waited so long to take even a small step towards implementing it, she'd become strangers with her story.
That was a shame.  Because it's a good, even great, story, and she's an excellent writer who could easily take it to the finish line.
I see this all the time.  It's happened to me--often. 
My friend is a first-time author, though, so she doesn't realize the danger she's in right now.  We've discussed, she's avowed it wasn't the feedback at all (recall the illnesses, holidays, visitors).  She's good with that, she's happy with the suggestions. 
But, I thought, why isn't she writing?  That's the real proof of it:  if we write or if we don't. 
Feedback is useless unless you do something with it.  So how does a writer not give up when she gets feedback--even expert, excellent feedback? 
Feedback creates questions.  It's supposed to.  It's designed to put cracks in the structure you've so carefully built to house your story.  It's supposed to show where that structure has weaknesses or could be stronger.  It's supposed to raise questions about the characters' motivations or the use of setting details or time markers or plot logic.  One of my most troubling pieces of feedback, recently received from a beloved editor, was "I'm troubled by the logic here."  Another way of saying, "As a reader, I stopped believing the story just here." 
Super valuable to know about.  But what do you do with such a comment?  How do you keep writing?
Below is my step-by-step method for making good use of feedback.  It requires two lists, but they have saved me many times.  And I have finished and published books to prove it works.  Try it, if you wish, and see if it works for you!
Your Weekly Writing Exercise:  Feedback List and To-Do List for Revision
When you get feedback from readers, writers group, classmates, or editors, set aside an hour or two where you have quiet to think.  You're going to make two lists:  a feedback list and a to-do list.  Start with the feedback list.
1.  Make a list of ALL the feedback, even small changes suggested, even stuff you don't agree with.  (I usually put the questionable comments at the end of the list.)  Don't worry about making the list in any order--it doesn't matter.  Mix large and small changes.  This can take time.  Its purpose is to help your brain absorb each item individually, reducing the sheer overwhelm.  As you write the list, you may get ideas or solutions to the concerns of your reader/editor.  See below.
2.  I like to put the ideas/solutions on a separate piece of paper or document.  This becomes my to-do list.  It's much more proactive and inspiring than the feedback, which is all stuff that doesn't quite work.  The ideas/solutions are the stuff that could work, if I try it.
3.  If you don't get ideas when you're writing the first list, don't sweat it.  It can take time for the inner critic's reaction (oh no! might as well give up!) to settle down. 
4.  Once you have the list as complete as possible, choose the EASIEST item to work on first.  Make that change in your draft.  Cross it off your feedback list.
5.  Find the next easiest item; work on that.  Cross it off.  Keep going.  Save the huge global changes for last unless you get an equally huge brainstorm and want to dive in.
6.  Some changes, even small ones, have a ripple effect.  Rather than pausing to address another idea while you're changing the first one, write the new idea on your to-do list.  It'll keep.  It makes most writers crazy (at least, it does me) to multi-task too much at revision.  We tend to lose threads that way.  Stay with what you're working on, finish it, cross it off, then go to the next item.