Tag Archives: Novel

A Synopsis and a Critique: Distance is a Good Thing

A few months ago, I took a novel writing workshop. Most of us in the group had little experience critiquing another’s work. And, several of us were beginners when it came to writing a novel.

Everyone looked forward to the critiques; no one wanted to tackle the required one-page synopsis. In fact, several groans broke out as the word hung in the air above us.

Synopsis.

I had never attempted a synopsis, and – since this was a class for beginners – I stuck to my motto of “I have nothing to lose.” I remained optimistic.

But, it was hard to write. In an essay, entitled “Writing a synopsis can rock your novel,” Roz Morris explains – in a more concise way – why writing one overwhelms most writers.

[W]riting a synopsis is hard…because we’re so close to the detail that we can’t see what to include and what to leave out. It’s all important, right? Writing a synopsis requires you to view the novel from a distance, which is all but impossible when you’ve been living in the thick of it. But it also gives you distance. Like looking at a maze from above, you can see patterns you couldn’t see when it’s all wood and trees.

I didn’t have that distance. I spent too much time on the back story and the beginning and very little time talking about the end of the story. When I took my synopsis to class for critique, I expected pointers on how to tighten it up, maybe thoughts on what to delete or add (like a few forgotten characters). But, being the first to go under the knife, that critique ran long, detailed and painful. My spirits fell, and I left wondering if I should continue to write the story.*

Joni B. Cole published an article in the July 2010 issue of The Writer on the “7 Myths About Feedback.” Two stand out for me as reasons why that particular critique was so discouraging.

“Writers should be silent during their story discussions.” This was my first face-to-face critique. When the workshop leader suggested the writer sit quietly while everyone else discussed the story, I did exactly that. In Cole’s article, she says that many workshops use the “silent writer” policy, but there comes a time when the writer should speak up.

…[When] negative comments are flying at you like the arrows at St. Sebastian, don’t just sit there.

Much of the criticism that night came across very harsh, a lot of it based on the synopsis alone. Critiquing a synopsis to such depths while still in the revision process threw me off track, especially because I sat quiet and fielded the “arrows” with my open chest.

That said, another myth – “The goal of feedback is to help ‘fix’ a story” - reminded me how reeling in the negative part of the experience and focusing on the positive can keep a writer moving forward.  Cole says a writer should:

…[T]hink of feedback not in terms of fixes, but reader responses. And by this I mean any response that gets the writer to write more and write better.”

After my experience, I took several days “off” from my story until I recovered from the sting of some of the other writers’ comments. Then, I looked deeper into the issues their comments addressed: problems of clarity, character development, and plot.

Next weekend, I’m heading out of town. One of my writing goals during my vacation (because a writer is always writing, even when we’re digging our toes in the sand or traipsing through the woods) is to look at the chapter one rewrite of my current novel in progress, with the first draft of the full manuscript, and write out a new synopsis. Then, I hope to give the first chapter and synopsis to a friend for critique.

After reading Morris’s essay and Cole’s article, and after reviewing my own past experience again, I’m confident of a few things. First, I know I want to write a synopsis early in the process again. I agree with Morris when she explains how a writer can use a synopsis to her benefit:

Summarizing like this lets me kick away the clutter to see the strong core of the story. I’ve seen patterns I didn’t know were there and given real punch to my plot.

I love the image of looking down on the story from a distance and seeing the patterns unfold, seeing the core of the story and the path of the character. I need that kind of perspective in revision.

Second, when I send the synopsis and first chapter out for critique, I will remember:

  • This synopsis is a draft, a first draft.
  • To find a critique partner who knows how to talk about what works, as well as how to ask questions about what doesn’t work.
  • That I don’t have to sit and listen to critique with my heart in my hand and my mouth closed. I can ask questions.

A synopsis doesn’t have to be a thorn in my side, and neither does another writer’s feedback. With a little distance, I can incorporate both into a successful revision.

* I did eventually put that story down, though the decision wasn’t a result of that particular critique.

__________

Step Away from the Internet

Staring at a shelf of books on all things writing, I never know which one to choose. I want the best one. I want the one that will infuse my writing brain with the knowledge and inspiration of all the great authors.

But, there’s so many. Click on author, Jody Hedlund’s Helpful Writing Books page alone, and you’ll find a long list of choices.

Stuck with the funds to buy only one book recently, I gravitated towards a collection of authors’ advice on writing, a book whose cover stood out to me: bright orange and red and yielding the words “Secret” and “Miracle.” I picked it up because, well, I want to know the secret to and the miracle of writing a complete novel.

I’ve mentioned Daniel Alarćon’s book (The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook) before when I talked about walking away from a novel in progress, and his book continues to be a great resource.

In Alarćon’s chapter titled “Getting Started,” he asks several published authors, “What is most distracting for you? How do you deal with it?”

About one third of the authors he interviewed answered with the same irresistable pull: the Internet.

This I write, as I work diligently on a post I hope readers will click to, read, and comment on in their own spare time.

While the Internet as a distraction is nothing new – there are plenty of articles by other writers about ways to avoid the Internet when you should be writing – what’s new for me is a glimpse I got, from Alarćon’s interviews, into the reasons why I turn to the Internet instead of my work in progress.

Jennifer Egan (author of The Keep) says:

I find that there is some part of me that is always looking for a way to pull  myself out of a state of deep concentration….The Internet is a naughty accomplice to that desire (p. 118).

Anne Enright (author of The Gathering) says:

I think a lot of distraction is anxiety. If I am too anxious to work on the piece at hand, then I work on something else (p. 119).

For me, that “something else” often turns out to be emails and Twitter. Ouch.

Today, I wrote in my morning pages about how many precious minutes I use up browsing Twitter or reading articles on writing, instead of using that time to write. I will avoid working on a draft if I don’t have a significant amount of time to tackle a big chunk of the project.

Just as soon as I get started, get into the grove, I think to myself, I’ll have to stop. It’s difficult for me to trust that short spurts of writing eventually add up, even as I do trust authors like Becky Levine who can attest to the fact that “baby steps [in writing] can lead to big productivity.”

Of course, I produce better work when I have bigger chunks of time to sit and concentrate. Still, something is better than nothing, and I wonder how much of my quick dips into the Internet don’t stem from a little writer’s anxiety?

Jennifer Egan shares a little more of her experience, which might explain why I cling to the internet, and she offers one strategy for getting back to the work:

A writer friend of mine, Lisa Fugard, once told me that she had a sign next to the door of her office that said, ‘Why are you leaving?’ Many times she found herself walking through that door with no idea of why. Then she made herself sit down again and continue working. I try to have a mental sign that asks why I’m leaving when I find myself suddenly typing something into Google for no particular reason, as if I had nothing else to do (p. 118).

I value Google, email and Twitter. But, on days when I have to ration my writing time, I have to be more vigilant about avoiding their draw and ask myself “What am I looking for?”

If what I’m surfing through isn’t time sensitive or relevant research for the story I want to write, then I can close down the application and open up that draft instead.

What are your biggest distractions and how do you deal with them?

***

Alarćon, Daniel. The Secret Miracle: the Novelist’s Handbook. New York, New York: Henry Hold and Company, LLC, 2010. Print.

Short Story Techniques for Novel Writing

If you want to be a great writer, you have to learn to write well.

On that advice, beginning writers often spend more of their time studying the craft of writing instead of creating the stories.

Or, at least I do. Still attempting to crank out my first novel, I assume that how-to books on writing (successful) 80,000+ word stories should find permanent space on my bookshelf and time in my hands. But, I’m discovering that techniques for crafting longer works can be found from other sources that don’t focus on the novel specifically.

Back in March, Lydia Sharp (from The Sharp Angle) published a post where she explains that “[a] good way to improve your skills as a novelist is to write short fiction.” Short stories require structure the same as novels — clear plot points and solid character development. And, short stories have less time (and word count) to accomplish these goals.

If you can master the techniques in short fiction, you can master them in novels.

But even with Sharp’s convincing post, it’s easy to minimize the benefits of short story writing, because Oh…a whole novel gives me plenty of word count to fill in plot points and work in characterization. Yet, under the protection of more space to “fill,” each word must have a strong purpose or the reader will lose interest. And, fast.

Tom Bailey’s A Short Story Writer’s Companion* offers plenty of lessons on characterization, dialogue, and voice. But it was Andre Dubus’s essay – filed under the category of Rewriting – that solidified the translation of short story techniques to novels.

Andre Dubus, image from Wikipedia.org

In “The Habit of Writing,” Dubus speaks about character development and draws on a technique he calls “vertical writing.” After pushing through a story and still feeling a strong disconnect from the character, Anna (in his novella, Adultery), Dubus decides to dig deeper into her psyche and to find out exactly what Anna was feeling.

“…[F]or years I had been writing horizontally, trying to move forward (those five pages); now I would try to move down, as deeply as I could. Very slowly, I worked on feeling all of her physical sensations. Following her through her day [thinking]: “Just follow the dots: become the character and follow; there will be a story” p. 137.

I’ve heard of character journals, and there are several great worksheets online that help characters come to life. But, Dubus’s words “vertical writing” and “follow the dots” give me a much better visual. And, it’s a technique that complements my tendency to write a story more organically. For me, character worksheets act like lists, which can be confining (in writing, anyway…everyday life is a different story), and I always stray from outlines.

I know, some writers cringe at the thought of organic writing – No outline, No peace! – but Dubus makes a good case when he talks about his own process:

“I try never to think about where a story will go…I want to know what the story will do and how it will end and whether or not I can write it; but I must not know, or I will kill the story by controlling it; I work to surrender” p. 136.

Larry Brooks, in his essay (posted on WriteToDone), “SOLVED: The Outlining vs. Organic Writing Debate,” also supports organic writing. He says, in comparing premeditated with by-the-seat-of-your-pants, neither process is better than the other. Both can work as long as certain protocol is followed:

“[S]tory architecture is universal. If a writer understands basic story architecture, organic drafting becomes an efficient and joyful process.”

Short story techniques – like Dubus’s ideas of organic and vertical writing – offer me more ideas on how to tackle that novel. If the story is moving forward but feeling flat, I can pause and then write downward instead: follow the dots of the character that alludes me — an organic writing technique that doesn’t ignore the structure of the story, but enhances it.

***

* Bailey, Tom. A Short Story Writer’s Companion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print. (check citation format)

Putting a Story to Rest for a While

Recently, I wrote a post on the roller coaster ride of novel writing — about the highs from the little successes and the lows of constant uncertainty.

I battled my self doubts about the novel I’m trying to write (a story about a woman named Millie) by focusing on better character development, reassessing plot points, and scratching out a new outline for chapter one. Still, each writing session ended with a persistent twist in my gut, an uncomfortable feeling that suggested, No. This is not the story you should be writing. Not today.

I ignored my gut, thinking “today” meant not this particular 24 hour period. Really, I was afraid I’d mark myself as a quitter if I put this manuscript down.

All I have to do is finish the draft, I told myself. It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done.

Continue reading

On Stanley Kunitz, Memoir, and Fiction

Sitting in my critique group the other night, it was Stanley Kunitz who came to mind as we discussed the challenges in writing memoir.

Not because Stanley Kunitz wrote memoir, but because his poem, The Layers, seemed to answer the question of how to write memoir.

How does a writer condense decades of one’s life into 300 pages?

What years do you ignore? Which memories do you highlight? And, how do you make it all come together without retelling every minute of every day of how you got from there to here?

After my mother passed away, a good friend gave me Stanley Kunitz’s book, The Collected Poems, and she pointed me to page 217. The poem,  The Layers, in its entirety, is a beautiful tribute to loved ones gone but never forgotten. We are touched by the people in our lives in a way that, even after their presence is diminished – for one reason or another – we still feel their power.

Two specific passages from that poem stayed with me during the early days, months, years of grieving for my mother. Then, as I sat around the table with other writers and talked about memoir, those passages burst forth again:

When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.


Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

Writing memoir isn’t about retelling every detail of every day. It’s about picking and choosing those pivotal moments, or about recounting those powerful relationships in our lives, that served as a catalyst – that swayed us one way or another or shifted our perspective slightly – and forced us to grow and to change.

I mentioned the poem to my critique partners, and the second I related it to memoir, I realized the same principle applies to fiction. The main character in my WIP has experienced pivotal moments in her life as well. I don’t have to wrestle her into confessing every gorey detail about her life from first memory and beyond. I only need to discover places along her journey where she stayed – just long enough – that they left an imprint, and I only need to write on the people in her life who, like precious stones, line her path of character development.

*****

Kunitz, Stanley. The Collected Poems. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print.

The Mother, The Writer: History repeats itself.

When I was pregnant with my first child, experienced parents approached me and my rounded belly and always smiled an empathetic smile.

One by one, they hinted at what I was in for once that baby arrived: no sleep, life as I knew it would be over, and the crying…oh the crying.

I heard them, but I didn’t heed their words, because I was riding high on the excitement of holding a baby in my arms. Sleep is underrated, I thought. Life is boring anyway, and a baby’s cry? Like the sound of sweet music.

But after my son was born, I realized the crying of which they warned me were the sobs of a new mother. Cries from me, falling apart after several sleepless days and nights and battles with feeding and a moment in the hospital when I feared I would never be a good mother.

“I told you that you’d feel this way,” my sister said, through her own tears, as she tried to comfort me.

My recent attempt at fixing my WIP brought with it a similar flood of emotion and self doubt.

I’ve read over and over how novel writing is hard work – the first draft may come out easy, but the real challenge comes in rewriting. I nodded each time I read those words, because the logistics made sense. A first draft is never perfect. I got it.

Then, I pushed those wise words aside and set my gaze on a dreamy image of me holding a published novel in hand. I told myself, I can do this rewrite thing, chapter by chapter. And, character development (my latest issue)? That’s easy enough. I’m the author. I can make up whatever I want.

But, that’s not exactly true. While I, the author, control all the variables, those variables must make sense in relation to the real world. As Larry Brooks says it in his book on character development*, a character’s “…major behavioral tendencies and specific actions need to be in context to psychological truths, and if [they aren’t] your story will suffer for it.”

After a few days of scribbling notes and typing frantic details into a new document, I stared at my WIP with wide eyes and climbed aboard that same roller coaster that new mothers ride. My head swelled and my stomach fell and soon enough I said out loud, I’m not so sure I can do this. What if I get it all wrong? What made me think I could ever write a novel?

As I write this post, it all sounds so dramatic. But, that’s the way I felt in the last few days. And, I don’t think I’m alone.

Ray Bradbury was talking to some self-doubting writer when he said, “You fail only if you stop writing.”

And, Amy Tan was easing the fears of another writer when she said, “I started a second novel seven times and had to throw them all away.”

Whether I start over completely from scratch, or I get back into the ring with my main character and wrestle her into confession, I’m not sure. Regardless, I have a WIP in my hands, a story that needs finishing, and I am the only one who can do it.

~

* Brooks, Larry. 2010. The Three Dimensions of Character Development: Going Deep and Wide to Create Compelling Heroes and Villains. [e-book] Larry Brooks, available at http://www.storyfix.com.

Plot Holes and Character Development

Last Tuesday, my WIP was put to the readers’ test. Now that the dust has cleared, and the flurry of emotion settled, I see that some of the feedback I received points to key structural problems in my story: plot holes and character development.

I’m not surprised that my main character lacks depth and definition in many areas. I’m still in the early drafts (as a good writing friend reminded me). But, a recent post this week on Jason Black’s Plot to Punctuation blog (“What potholes can teach you about plot holes”) brought to my attention how underdeveloped characters negatively affect plot.

Jason Black talks about two kinds of plot holes: strange actions and strange inactions.

A “strange action” is when a character does something that makes no sense to the reader. A “strange inaction” means just the opposite: the character sits, unaffected, and doesn’t take action when the reader expects they will. The reader asks, “Why?” She might say, “What the heck?” She might even put the book down.

Those kinds of questions, Jason Black suggests, are clear signs that a story contains plot holes.

After I read Jason Black’s post, I remembered moments during my critique when readers asked why. They said they wanted to empathize with my main character but couldn’t. They said they couldn’t imagine my main character taking any action that might lead to her radical evolution suggested in my synopsis.

I couldn’t give a good answer to their questions on the spot. Later, I realized if I couldn’t explain the why’s or why not’s, I had an even more serious problem at hand: underdeveloped characters.

Of course, they haven’t read the whole manuscript, but their feedback began to make sense as I compared Jason Black’s post to Larry Brooks’s (from Storyfix.com) book on character development (The Three Dimensions of Character: Going Deep and Wide to Create Compelling Heroes and Villains).

In his book, Brooks introduces the first, second, and third dimensions of characters.

The first dimension equates to an “exterior landscape” of the character or – as Brooks puts it – the character’s “surface traits, quirks and habits.”

In my WIP, my main character has plenty of quirks and only a few surface traits, so I already had some revisions on my list. Then, I read this:

“…Newer writers [often] infuse their characters with all manner of quirks and kinks and little tics designed to make them either cool, weird or supposedly – best intentions – compelling. But if those quirks and kinks are all you offer the reader, in the hope that the reader will fill in all the blanks, then chances are you’ve created a one-dimensional character” (p. 17).

Oops. I did that. I created an odd woman as my main character but never explained why she was so odd.

The second dimension reveals the character’s “inner landscape,” the reasons why she does what she does.

“Glimpsing an inner landscape allows the reader to understand, which is the key to eliciting empathy – [and] the more [empathy] the reader feels, the more they’ll invest themselves in the reading experience” (p. 20).

That information about the second dimension suggests I need to create a slew of new scenes that will allow my main character to explain herself. Those explanations might come in the form of backstory or dialogue.

The third dimension gives real definition to the character through the character’s “decisions and behaviors” (p. 23). The reader understands the character’s core being at the beginning of the story, through the character arc, and at the end of the story when the character comes out a changed person.

As a new writer tackling my first novel, I jumped from exterior descriptions of a character to her actions and decisions. That only got me so far with the readers. Brooks makes a good point when he says, each layer – each dimension – of character works together “to create the most compelling, complex, frightening, endearing and empathetic character that you can” (p. 25).

If I neglect to write in even one of the three dimensions, the character falls flat and the plot begins to buckle.

Lesson learned. Now, I get down to business and dig deeper into my character’s psyche.