Friday, May 26, 2017
For the most part, both short stories and novels fall into two categories: literary and mainstream. Agents and editors differentiate between them in several ways, but the two forms often overlap.
Mainstream fiction is categorized as entertainment. A mainstream work of fiction usually incorporates overt conflict, whether between characters or humanity at large. The reader is told what is happening in a physical, clearly-defined world. Action drives the story forward. Tension is more apparent and less nuanced in "popular" fiction, making the work more accessible to a wider range of readers. Plot takes precedence in mainstream -- also called commercial -- fiction. In this type of fiction, the protagonist does the work.
Commercial genres include romance, mystery, and thriller, sci-fi and fantasy, and even some forms of humor in fiction.
Literary genres are more difficult to define.
Literary works can be a manifesto of sorts, where the ideal is more complex than the plot. In literary fiction, the reader does the work. This type of fiction is directed to impact society in thought-provoking, and often controversial, ways by taking on social and cultural issues. Readers are led to question preconceived notions. Writing style for this kind of story doesn't rely on convention, but can be experimental, transcending structural elements, with subtext often used to reinforce the theme. The language is broad, elegant, and imaginative, putting the art of prose foremost. The pace is slower in literary fiction than in commercial fiction.
It used to be said that mainstream fiction was "light reading" and literary works were "serious fiction." But today, the genres often overlap into a category called "upmarket," a cross between literary and commercial fiction. The work is still literary but will also appeal to commercial readership. The story is written with a high command of language, but without being pretentious or "stuffy," which makes this type of fiction easier to market than it once was.
In the past, literary fiction was easy to identify, Most of these stories were classic English assignments: Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird, among others that most of us have read. (Whether we wanted to or not. And hurray for Cliff Notes.)
Today's A-list literary fiction authors include writers like Alice Sebold, Jodie Picoult, Annie Proulx, Toni Morrison, Sara Gruen, and Joyce Carol Oates.
As writers, we should read in the categories we most want to break into with our own work. Remember that a well-read writer will soon turn into a well-read writer. (Think about that and it will make sense.) Actually, that's all we writers want, we want readers to read our work.
And money. We want money.
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Loosely, the definition of writing style is: The ability to write in a unique manner, clearly, effectively, and with a readable rhythm that makes the work sound right to the ear.
We all have our favorite writers when it comes to style. Jodie Picoult, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Lisa Gardner, Wally Lamb. So many excellent writers, and not one of them writes like another, they've honed their writing skills over many years to develop their unique style. As writers, we usually read those whose work reflects the kind of writing we want to do. We take note of how our favorite authors achieve their colorful figures of speech, their flavor, their rhythm, without considering how many words these people have written in order to find their voice.
Style is a matter of choice. There are writers who are terse, blunt, or brisk. There are those whose words flow like untroubled waters. It's our own preferences -- and I would think, our personalities -- that for the most part dictates our writing style.
Technically, writing style involves both addition and subtraction. It involves subtracting words and phrases that clutter or muddy the meaning. When editing, cut all those fusty, pompous, or complex passages. Replace them with simple, clear, lively and engaging words and phrases. Or, if the passages are unnecessary, don't even bother to replace them. Cut out everything that isn't story.
Style also involves adding the perfect combination of words, when necessary, to express something in a way that moves the reader either emotionally, or in an Ah Ha, I get it now! way.
A pleasing style is one of continuing originality, using fresh, arresting word visions, with little twists of surprise in the manner of syntax. Avoid rare, difficult words, trite sentences, and cliches that are stale from overuse. There are times, however, when a cliche works, when the writer is sharp enough to use a cliche in a "tongue in cheek" (sorry) manner simply to point out that it is a cliche, especially when uttered by a cliche character.
In a previous post "Enhancing Your Fiction with Figurative Language", I offered a list of figures of speech that add flavor to writing. These devices, such as alliteration, assonance, consonance, personification, and many more -- are all language forms that can create a trademark writing style, adding flow, harmony, and grace.
Short sentences make more impact. Longer sentences smooth things out, and offer a lull in action so that the reader can relax and look around the fascinating world you've created for them.
Twist it. Turn it upside down. Let it go. Pull it back. Invent new words, play with old words. Punctuate it your way.
Sunday, March 5, 2017
Writing a full-length novel gives one far more leeway to practice the craft of storytelling without the pressure of trying to put all you need to say in 5000-7000 words or less. There just seems to be more anxiety when you attempt to create characters and story lines to fit into a concise, well-developed short story. So much to say, so little space. However, it's an art form that can build a loyal readership, and sometimes even put a few bucks in your bank account if you hit the right publication. At the least, you just might find your work published in an anthology that affords you bragging rights and the opportunity get your name "out there".
While there are "literary" or "quality" short stories that are based mainly on characterization, most general market short stories require strong conflict to entice a reader to read on. Instead of pondering or musing about a universal condition or truth, or questioning the philosophies of the masses, mainstream short stories need to present a specific conflict.
The scenes in a short story are used to characterize, to convey information, and most important, to produce conflict, whether that conflict is emotional or physical. Short story conflict has four main elements. 1. There must be a meeting between two opposing forces. 2. There should be exploitation of the conflict. 3. There should be a suggestion as to the result of the conflict. 4. The conflict should set up the transition to the next scene.
The meeting between two opposing forces sets up a win or lose situation. Somebody, or something (a force of nature, etc.), wins or loses, concedes a point, is forced into a decision, or brings about a revelation. And in those plot points lies the exploitation of the conflict, and the result, and thus sets the next scene.
There are three plot reasons for conflict: To eliminate an opponent, to overcome an obstacle (physical or mental), or to divert disaster. And although it's been said that there are only three plots to choose from, there are many variations for which conflict is possible.
Man against man.
Man against men (war).
Man against woman.
Woman against man.
Woman against woman.
Man against nature.
Man against disaster.
Man against environment.
Man against himself.
Short story scenes are created for conflict in each stage.
1. Set the scene.
2. Introduce characters, pertinent information, and point of view.
3. Suggest the type of story it is through tone, style, and voice.
4. Relay background circumstances which led to the conflict.
5. Use a narrative hook to raise interest in the protagonist's welfare.
1. Present the complication.
2. Relay the series of efforts and attempts to solve the complications, and the failures to do so.
3. Present a situation that suggests a failed resolution of the conflict that convinces the reader that there is no hope of a satisfactory solution.
4. Present a decision that will point to the solution of the conflict, and put that decision into play.
The decision and the solution must be satisfactory and believable to the reader.
There's a lot that goes into a successful short story, but if you break it down into manageable components, 5000 words is no harder than 80,000 words.
"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story."
Tuesday, February 21, 2017
"If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." Toni Morrison.
Great advice, but what kind of novel do you want to write? In addition to choosing your genre, you also have to decide whether you want to spend more writing hours working on your exciting plot, or on those fascinating characters that live in your head. Often, your chosen genre dictates the structure of the book, but sometimes the lines can cross.
Although literary purists would say that you need to focus on one or the other, it's perfectly acceptable to blend the character-driven story with the plot-driven one. The key is balance.
A plot-driven novel focuses on the anticipation and excitement of what happens next. It involves physical events, and unexpected twists. There are often large-scale concepts involved in this type of novel. Like car crashes and kidnappings, aliens and avalanches.
Adventure, fantasy, horror, sci-fi, crime, and mystery novels are most often plot-driven stories. They are external, and considered commercial fiction by agents, editors, and publishers.
In a character-driven novel, readers connect with people like themselves, how they would or would not like to be seen. These are emotional stories and don't need a complex plot to progress from beginning to end. Of course, there is still a plot but it is based on character growth and change. There are goals and personal issues to resolve in a character-driven novel. Characters usually have to overcome obstacles to their happiness, and plot happens because of a character's desires, deeds, and needs. Decisions are made, whether they are right or wrong, and there is more internal conflict than there is action.
Romance, coming-of-age, friendship, and family novels are character-driven and are usually considered literary novels.
But there are no longer concrete rules for fiction, as in the past. Today's fiction often incorporates both types of stories in one. It's okay to create a story wherein you display your character's most intense emotions and psychological traits with an active plot that highlights their soul's journey. There's no reason your "hard-boiled" detective can't sign up for meditation classes, and you won't commit literary sin if your introspective, mousy librarian transforms into a kick-ass roller-derby gal on Friday nights.
As writers, I believe we write what we enjoy reading. The kind of book you should write is probably sitting on your bedside table right now.
Saturday, January 21, 2017
Characters don't need quite as much as your real children. For instance, you don't have to take them to the dentist, or rent bouncy houses for their birthdays.
But you do have to give them gifts. You have to endow them with the same kinds of interesting qualities as your kids might display as they grow. Some of these things are probably not qualities you would wish for your own children, but who's to say she won't give up that stoner boyfriend with the bad haircut and no job or driver's license on her own? Or that your son might actually attend a classes at the community college he enrolled in because he didn't want to go away to an Ivy League school and leave his gamer buds behind?
Oh. Wait . . . Never mind.
Anyway, your characters are going to have to have things.
Here's a list of five things your characters should have.
Flat, dull characters don't sell novels. Scarlet O'Hara wasn't flat or dull. She was unique, complex. She had contradictory traits. Characters need to be strong-minded, outspoken, but hiding insecurities. Genteel, but with an iron will.
Bashful, but charming. Characters are people, we have personalities.
Personality is nothing without interests. A character who doesn't read books, jog, collect teapots, study philosophy, love game shows, paint portraits, enjoy scuba diving, or has a passion for something, is not a character I want to hang out with for 300 pages.
Humans are the products of their environments. And their upbringing or past circumstances. A person's history plays a large part in how that person thinks and feels. A child who grows up in a ghetto with abusive parents will probably have a far different outlook than one who has grown up in a blue-collar home with conscientious parents. While it's true that violent or deviant characters can simply be born violent or deviant, background and history will still dictate much of that character's story. Give your characters a history, it will affect their reactions to what happens to them in your story. Their history will reflect in their situations.
Give your characters something to work toward; whether the goal is good or bad, depends on who they are. Obviously, if the character is a bad guy, his goal is to get rid of the good guy. Or vice-versa. A character who is poor can want to reach a goal of having money. Or a would-be lover will work toward capturing the heart of his perfect lady. Give your protagonist something to want. A goal creates motivation.
Nobody would read a book where the pretty protagonist grew up in a happy home, became head cheerleader in freshman year, was voted homecoming queen for four years, attended Harvard and aced every class, got the degree she wanted, sailed around the world, met the man of her dreams, got married, had a child who grew up in a happy home and became a beloved high school quarterback . . . Well, you get it. No setbacks, no failures. No story. There have to be obstacles. Something has to prevent her from being named homecoming queen. He has to overcome something in order for him to become the quarterback instead of that pimply-faced guy nobody likes, who gets sacked every other play, and who made the team simply because he knows where to get the steroids. Throw bricks at your characters. Give her some strange disease that puts her in a wheelchair and make her go through physical therapy in order to walk again. Let him find out that his grandpa is the town heroin dealer. Put him in jail for something he didn't (or did) do. Obstacles.
Remember, characters are like children. They're going to demand things.
"Every secret of a writer's soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works."
Thursday, January 12, 2017
Eyes of blue, hair of gold, and she's got Dolly Parton dimples. He's tall, dark, and handsome, with a twinkle in his eye. She's a sweetheart. He helps old ladies cross the street.
First chapter in, I'm bored to tears by these people, and I'm pretty sure they're not going to get any more interesting in chapter two.
These characters couldn't possibly be real people, because real people have depth. And that depth needs to be apparent the minute they leave the womb of your imagination, or your readers might just close the book on those babies.
Stereotypes don't sell books. I mean, that's the goal, right? You're wanting to market this thing that's taken you months or years to write. (Unless you're James Patterson and you began writing the book last Tuesday night and finished it Saturday morning for publication on Monday afternoon.)
In addition to whatever physical qualities you might bestow upon your characters, you have to add some mental and emotional quirks if you want them to grow up to be interesting enough to read about.
Even the most fascinating plot can't carry a novel for 300 pages or more without characters who come off as human. (Unless they're aliens, of course.) They have to have emotions, passions, and attitudes to back up their physical appearances. They must have personalities that express their needs and fears, goals and desires.
Even though your protagonist, antagonist, and supporting characters might change in ways you can never anticipate while you're writing the story
-- characters quite often do that -- there should be an initial outline of the most important characteristics to draw from as you write. In addition to physical appearance, a personality outline is the place to note all those things that will round out the people in your imaginary world.
Here are some pertinent questions and suggestions for outlining fascinating characters before you send them out into your world.
In addition to outward physical descriptions (and please don't do blond, blue-eyed cardboard cutouts), create body language and gestures. What happens to their faces when they smile or frown? What is it about their eyes that indicates that they're shy? Do they chuckle at a joke, or break out into a full-blast belly laugh? They curl their lips when they see a cat to show that they're not animal lovers. Describe the tone of their voices when they talk to a child, or to their own mothers, or a waitress. These things go a long way in identifying character. (Remember show don't tell?)
Know your characters' favorite activities, the kind of clothes they wear, their favorite alcoholic drinks. What are their interests -- art, travel, museums, acrylic nails? Give them specific kinds of cars, or make them take the bus. Do they play golf, do Pilates? When they cook, do they wear aprons?
How do others see them? Who are their friends, their enemies? How do they handle stress? Are they optimistic, or pessimistic? What are they afraid of? Snakes? Rabbits? Lightning bugs? Money? What are their favorite colors? What makes them sad, happy, pissed off? Note their favorite books, the TV shows they routinely watch.
Where did they grow up, what childhood games did they play? What is the worst and the best things that ever happened to them? Give them family backgrounds, economic positions, educational experiences, religious or moral beliefs.
Fill a notebook or file cards with this information. Give each character a page or color-coded card of his/her own, even if they have just a minor role in your story. Background characters might never display any of these traits or speak of their particular histories anywhere on those 300 pages. But they are just as important as the setting of your story. They are the people who will ooh and ahh over, or torment and torture, those unique, colorful characters born of your labor.
You brought them into your imaginary world, now give them lives.
"A writer without interest or sympathy for the foibles of his fellow man is not conceivable as a writer."
Friday, December 30, 2016
Until I started writing Bloody Hollow Summer, I had only a surface knowledge of what scenes in a novel should accomplish. I thought, Well, something is supposed to happen here, so I'll just put my characters someplace and have them do something and say something. I soon had a bunch of boring, lazy, worthless so-called "scenes" that a twelve-year-old might have written.
I believe I've said this before, but this writing stuff is hard.
After many revisions (ongoing, perhaps until I'm old and gray -- oh, wait, I am old and gray) I am learning the importance of writing scenes that serve a purpose.
Every scene in a novel must work toward something. A good scene should move the story forward and engage the reader. It should highlight character motivation, enhance setting, foreshadow future events, complement the tone of the story, or add some other important element to the whole. Obviously, a scene shouldn't just be there for the heck of it, or just so the characters can talk about what they had for breakfast.
Even though the rules of writing are broken for any number of good reasons, there are patterns which have been proven successful with regard to creating scenes. Those who have been doing this writing thing for a long time advise that scenes that open with long, involved descriptions, history or backstory, are a distraction. Avoid launching a scene with paragraph after paragraph of narrative. If a particular setting, or pertinent information about a character's thoughts or intentions contribute to the action of the scene, keep the summary short, no more than 2 or 3 quick paragraphs, if possible, and then get quickly to the action.
Good scenes should incorporate 3 elements: The point-of-view character must have a clearly-defined goal, must face obstacles and conflict in order to achieve that goal, and must face disaster because of that goal. These 3 elements should lead naturally to 3 more scene points which are called the sequel: An emotional follow-through, a dilemma for the character, and a decision which involves new goals. This 3-part sequel allows the reader to absorb what has happened in the scene.
Scene endings are the perfect place for cliffhangers, surprising revelations, and emotional turmoil. The ending of a scene should always involve a promise of further compelling situations.
Building a novel takes almost as many tools building a house, just in different forms. That, I think, is what makes us writers unique. We have to use tools that nobody but another writer can see. We have to build something from nothing.
It's a hell of a job, but somebody's got to do it.
"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."