Tag Archives: Larry Brooks

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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