Monday, October 31, 2011

Show & Tell

They don't have to tell the audience there's a problem

“Show, don’t tell.” Writers hear this advice so often, it must become permanently tattooed on our brains. But what does it actually mean? When we tell a story, we are telling it. We’re using words, after all. So how can a writer show a story?

The trick I use is to envision my scene on a stage. I become a playwright. This prevents me from engaging in two bad writing habits: long-winded explanations, and endless interior monologue. The former is something we tend to do at the beginning of a story; we want to establish context, so we info-dump. But you can’t info-dump on a stage, unless you have a Greek chorus up there explaining everything (frowned upon these days). You have to present your story with action: characters must move, speak, do

Staging the scene takes care of another common narrative problem: the tendency to hang out in the POV character’s head, thinking, feeling, remembering, plotting. We have to do this sometimes, and the ability to do it is one serious advantage literature has over stage. But a little goes a long way: you don’t want to bore your audience. Forward momentum in a story comes almost entirely from action. Emotion needs to be dramatized as well: an actor on a stage can’t look at the audience and announce, “So, like, I’m angry in this scene, OK?” He has to show his anger with action; with his body, with his words. Put your guy on a stage: imagine how you, as stage director, would have him communicate his feelings. 
Your scene: here

Showing takes extra effort, so it’s no wonder we prize it so, especially when it’s well done. Showing draws the reader into the story on an emotional level, by encouraging her to experience it. 

There's a flip side to this excellent advice, however. As a young writer, I heard “show-don’t-tell” so many times I started to get carried away. By the time I’d demonstrated how very worried my poor protagonist was (studiously avoiding the word “worried” meanwhile, because that’s telling), I’d written two paragraphs instead of one word. My writing was becoming bogged down with all the showing. Showing is dramatic, but it can also be inefficient. Some things simply need to be established quickly, so we can move the story along.

I still struggle with this line. In fact, it’s probably my biggest writing struggle after "sit butt down at computer and start typing." What bits of my story need straightforward narration, and what bits need to be dramatized? There are so many choices to make. What about you? Have you ever been told you need to show more and tell less? How have you applied the advice — and has it changed your writing?

That's one way to intrigue your audience

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Five Reasons I Still Believe in Traditional Publishing

"That is one heavy bag of wishes you've got there!"
Nowadays, when it comes to getting your novel traditionally published, most writers believe it holds about as much merit as believing in Santa Claus. When we first start out, we dream of that instant success. We envision agents fawning over our manuscript, quickly signing us, even quicker yet getting us a publisher, the huge advance and, of course, that book tour we're going to take that goes from New York City all the way to the star-studded mania of Hollywood. But then we grow up. The shininess of this wonderland quickly fades into a swift-kick-in-the-pants reality. There is no shiny wrapped present under our tree, containing our fantastic masterpiece. This getting an agent thing is harder than we thought!

And so it should be.

Honing your craft as a writer is no easy task, to which just about any serious writer can attest. Sure, we write those first few crappy stories and we think they're brilliant, but then we do the one thing we were unprepared to do. We start querying agents. And we get rejection after rejection after rejection. Now, I'll admit, most agents give very little feedback anymore, which is a bit disheartening. And because so many first time novelists are either a) too scared to put their work out there for others to read, or b) so frustrated with the persistent rejections, they tend to turn to self-publishing in the e-book format.

I've stated before in previous posts that I have nothing against the wonderful world of e-books. I do, however, take issue with what's flooding the self-published e-market. If anything, a lot of what's out there is taking the writing world down a few pegs. Thus, why I still believe in traditional publishing. Yeah, you know -- the kind where an agent, editor, and publisher are involved. Here are five good things that come out of having an agent and being persistent when it comes to getting traditionally published:

  1. Agents work as filters -- For a long time, I couldn't figure out what was really bothering me about self-published works, but then I attended a writers' meeting where the speaker spoke on how agents function. They are the filter to a seemingly endless line of aspiring work. We may not all agree on what constitutes good literature, but we can all agree that when we've read a satisfying novel we are happy to see it was published. True, some junk still gets out there when it's run through agents and publishers, but it was never so prevalent ten or fifteen years ago as it is today.
  2. We are not all business men and women -- I cannot tell you how many blogs and websites I've read about those who took the self-pub route and just ended up frustrated. These authors came to realize that, although they may be good writers, they confessed that they knew nothing about balancing finances, keeping track of sales, promoting their book at every turn, etc. In one blog I read, the author confessed to so many sleepless nights over whether the book was selling or not that she became physically sick. Sure, we do have to handle much of the promotion responsibility now, but wouldn't it be nice to have someone extending a helping hand whenever you needed one?
  3. Agents are contractually bound to root for you -- You get your own personal cheerleader, otherwise, the agent would never have taken you on in the first place. The self-pub route can be lonely. You (and usually your husband or wife) end up being the cheerleader for your team. Your agent wants your work to sell, so he/she will be pushing, pushing, pushing to get it out on the market. Encouragement always helps.
  4. Other writers tend to take you more seriously -- Because the self-pub industry has become so flooded (and many of us have read some of those new "authors"), there's a certain kind of stigma that goes along with it. I've seen those looks some self-published authors get and I find it hard to take. And I'm just the bystander! The writing market is like any other entertainment market. We'd be hard-pressed to buy a low-quality rock album cut in someone's garage with horrible acoustics, and yet, self-published authors of all genres think their work should be taken seriously even if the work is filled with glaring errors. Until the self-publishing industry learns how to turn a filter on again, unfortunately, this stigma will always be there.
  5. Deadlines make it feel like a true profession -- When we self-publish, we have no real deadlines. We make them up as we go along. A real agent or publishing house is going to set limits on our time. They will want things when they want them, and that means our butt is going to be in that chair each day pounding out a manuscript. If, as writers, we want our careers to be taken seriously, then we need to treat them as such.
Like many of you out there, I've struggled with getting my work published. It's no easy task. The thought to self-publish has crossed my mind, but every time I feel there is something holding me back from doing so. And I think that "something" relates back to the five things I mentioned above. I want to be taken seriously, not just by an agent or publisher, but also by my peers and the writing community at large. Personally, I don't believe self-publishing is what it's all trumped up to be by the hard-core believers. If it was, then why do so many self-pubbed authors still crave traditional representation? Because one of these five points causes this craving. The luster might wear away the more "grown-up" we become with our writing, but there still remains a wish. And don't all of us want our wishes to come true?

Some basic light literature all would-be authors need in in his/her arsenal:

I'm asking for it! Give me your feedback when it comes to self-publishing and the e-book market. Do you still believe in traditional publishing? Why or why not? Would you add any useful points to my list?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

This is The End, Beautiful Friend*

Note: This article contains SPOILERS for the following films/novels: The Perfect Storm, Little Women, The Age of Innocence, Gone With the Wind, Love Story, Romeo & Juliet, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, My Girl, Titanic, Stella, Juno, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Lonesome Dove, Life is Beautiful, Inception, Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz and several Nicholas Sparks’ novels.

They say all roads lead to Rome. Mrs. Margaret Atwood must believe this statement since a few years ago she made a very good point: there is only one authentic ending for any story. For her hypothesis, read Happy Endings.

Since not every novel can end with the death of all its participants (unless it’s The Perfect Storm), we have to come up with a spot to end the story before the inevitable happens. But where? At what point should we stop tormenting our characters and type “The End”? They say that a satisfactory ending is fundamental in storytelling. A reader will forgive a slow beginning or even a sagging middle, but NOT a poor ending. Sounds easy enough, but how do we achieve that “surprising inevitability” everyone talks about? How do we please our audience when everyone has different tastes? Is it even a matter of pleasing or making a strong statement about the human condition despite the audience’s expectations? I’m afraid I don’t have a perfect answer (in fact, I’m struggling as-we-type with the ending of my second novel) but perhaps a glance at different novel endings—those we have liked and disliked—may give us (me!) a clue of how to find the ideal conclusion for our masterpieces.

Happy, sad or just plain confusing?

Many stories end with the happy nuptials of the protagonists after they’ve overcome innumerable ordeals and tribulations. Other novels (most of them written by callous men such as Shakespeare, Nicholas Sparks, Erich Segal, Herman Raucher, Jorge Isaacs and James Cameron) end with the tragic death of one of the lovers. But what about those in-between/vague endings where the couple inexplicably part ways much to the reader’s astonishment and heartbreak? Would these stories have had equal success had they had different, perhaps jollier, endings?

Scene from Little Women
Good thing you're happy, Jo, because many of your fans--including this one--did NOT approve of your final selection and how quickly you forgot Laurie!

In The Age of Innocence, why did Newland Archer walk away from his beloved’s apartment without even stopping for a cup of tea after twenty six years of separation?

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” Would we have still loved Gone With the Wind if Rhett had never said those infamous words? Perhaps Margaret Mitchell was trying to give us a clue of the ending with the book’s title.

I still cry when I watch this heartbreaking scene in Love Story.

But Sir William, must both of them die?

What if you’re not writing a love story?

It seems that stories that focus on one character’s journey or growth give the writer more freedom on how to end it. I’m talking about coming-of-age stories or those that focus on a character overcoming a minor or big flaw, such as George VI’s stammer in The King’s Speech, Forrest Gump and his low IQ, Juno and her unwanted pregnancy, Benjamin Button and his reversal growth problem, Vada and her strange connection to death and loss (My Girl). The commonality I see in these endings is that all these characters eventually come to terms with their problem and overcome it (all but poor Benjamin Button, who, let’s face it, was doomed from the beginning.) There is also an issue of “inevitability” here. Juno’s pregnancy has to come to completion as does Benjamin Button’s life. The question here would be: did the protagonist achieve his/her goal and if so, was the end result satisfactory? Did he/she grow as a result?

In My Girl, Vada had to grow up the hard way.

The self sacrificial hero

These are the kinds of endings that leave the audience in absolute silence at the end of the show or book (except for a sob here and there.) We love them, but at the same time they make us lift our heads to the skies and yell in despair: “Why?”

Not sure I’m brave enough to attempt this kind of cruelty in my own writing, but it may be worth a try. After all, it’s these poignant endings that leave an audience captivated. (Ever heard someone say “I love this movie. I cried so much with it!”?)

In Titanic, Jack gives up his space on a floating door so that Rose can survive.

In Stella, a mother renounces to be part of her daughter’s life so she can have a better future without her.

In Juno, the young heroine gives up her baby for adoption because she knows he’ll be better off with an adult mother.

Those twisted minds

We cannot forget the masters of suspense and film noir Alfred Hitchcock and Cornell Woolrich. These guys sure knew how to twist our expectation with jaw-dropping conclusions to their very dark stories. They didn’t want to leave their audiences with a smile. They wanted to provoke thought. They wanted to surprise. How do readers respond to unexpected endings? (Probably well since The Twilight Zone was a very successful show.) Current examples of this kind of ending are The Sixth Sense, The Village and The Others.

In comedy the only twisted ending I can think of is in Julia Roberts’s film My Best Friend’s Wedding, where the main character doesn’t get the guy. (But then again, maybe this was a “character-growth” story?) What are your thoughts on this? Is it acceptable to have a “unhappy” ending in a romantic comedy?

And how about those endings where the protagonist dies and another one must take the lead, like in Lonesome Dove or Life is Beautiful?

How very sad was the day Augustus McCrae left this world.

I don’t get it!

What about those endings that leave the audience bewildered and we need hours of conversation (or therapy) to figure out what the writer was trying to tell us (or a website with graphics to explain the story’s ending.) Click here for an interpretation of Inception's ending. I wish The Ring also had an explanation website!

Did that elusive totem stop spinning after Inception ended? Was the protagonist still dreaming?

Oh, crap, it’s not over.

Don’t get too happy that the blood and guts spread throughout your movie screen are no longer there. When you watch a horror film, the final scene (guaranteed) is a lurking shadow behind the only character left alive or a hand climbing out of the tomb.

Don’t worry, folks, it’s just a dream.

Need I say anything about these endings? Do the names Alice and Dorothy give you a clue?

Now to recap: What do you think makes a good ending? Do you favor happy love stories or sad ones? Is a novel considered more “literary” if it has a tragic ending? Do you mind predictability (good guys always win)? Can you think of a memorable ending that was unexpected or particularly touching?

* To enjoy the soundtrack for this post while you read, please press the play button.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Characters to Die For: Why Do We Love Them?

Melanie and Mammy, my favorite GWTW characters

Despite the constant requests for action-filled scenes and plot-oriented novels, there are still those who are drawn to fiction because of the creatures that inhabit it. Well-loved books are linked to solid and loveable characters that capture an audience’s imagination. What is the appeal behind those fictional individuals? That is a question I pose to all of us character-oriented readers. While waiting for your answers, I’ll try to provide some reasons that lead me (and hopefully others) to get hooked on characters.

After much thought, I arrived to the conclusion that I will read a novel over and over again, to the point that it merits a place in my lengthy list of favorite works of literature, for two reasons: atmosphere and characters to die for. Usually the bond developed between readers and those characters stem from four emotions: identification, empathy, admiration and fascination.

Identification: The reader relates to the character, they share common traits, mores or tastes. They may share similar backgrounds, cultures, faith, and ideologies. Sometimes a character could be confronting a problem, dilemma, or situation similar to what the reader is undergoing. They may even be in the same line of work.  I remember enjoying Anne of Windy Poplars much more than Anne of Green Gables, because when I read the Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novels, I was teaching at an all girls’ school.  I could and did relate to Anne’s teaching experiences and her problems with her students.

Empathy: The character goes through a situation totally alien to the reader, but the latter understands the character’s motivations and imagines he/she would do the same in that situation. I have never attended a witchcraft school like Hogwarts, yet I know if I had, I would behave just like Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series.

Admiration: The reader looks up to the character for his/her guts and values.  No matter how hard or painful they are, the reader lives vicariously through the character´s experiences.

Beth March is the least loved of the Little Women, but when I was very ill, a couple of years ago; it was she whom I selected as a model of valor and endurance. I also loved Melanie in Gone with the Wind because she possessed both, physical and spiritual courage unlike Scarlett who was a moral coward.

                                               Beth March's last days
I have always admired characters that are willing to stand up for their beliefs even if it causes them grief. As a I child I adored Ligia in Quo Vadis because she was willing to live in poverty rather than become a dissolute Roman patrician’s concubine, and Ivanhoe’s Rebecca threatening to jump from a window rather than surrendering to Sir Brian’s lust moved me to tears of respect. And even though it breaks my heart, I stand with Julia at the end of Brideshead Revisited when she refuses to divorce, in order to marry her true love, because it goes against her Catholic faith.

Julia's Farewell in Brideshead Revisited

Fascination: This is an old quirk of mine. Since childhood I was in the habit of developing crushes on literary heroes. My mother claims that I was in love with Sinbad, the Sailor before I learned to read!

Though embarrassing to confess, I am sure there is more than a bookworm out there who uses protagonists as reference for ideal lovers. Or maybe a fictional character does remind you of an old flame. Then there are characters that represent our secret object of desire, but are only safe to encounter between the pages of a book. My list of fictional paramours (going back to my childhood reading material)   is huge, from Hector in The Iliad to Ari Be Canaan in Leon Uris’ Exodus, from Petronius in Quo Vadis to Stendhal’s Julien Sorel.

                                                       Eric Bana playing Hector in Troy
Now that I have shown you mine, show me yours. What does a character have to do for you to get hook on him/her?  And what fictional people do you admire, feel close to, or have fallen in love with?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Perilous Pleasure: The Difficulty of Writing Sex Scenes

I’m not a squeamish person, but when I get to the point in my stories where a sex scene seems like it belongs, I find a sudden urge to go brew yet another cup of tea. Or wash the dog. Or pay some bills. For a while I blamed my hesitation on some sort of latent prudishness, but I’ve since decided it has more to do with the inherent dangers of writing a workable, readable sex scene.
It’s very difficult to do well.

In one sense, writing a sex scene is like writing any action scene: you’ve got to choreograph it properly, make sure the emotional stakes are in place, and keep the level of description in line with your genre — and thus with the reader’s expectations.

But sex scenes pose a special challenge to the writer: they’re inherently going to evoke a stronger reaction from readers than your average action scene, except perhaps an especially violent one. It’s the oldest essence of our evolutionary past: run or reproduce. The most basic stuff is also the likeliest to fall flat if you do it wrong. With that in mind, here are some tips.
This might not be what you're going for

• Don’t go on and on. There’s only so long you can whitter on about this body part meeting that body part before you bore the reader — or worse, make her laugh. If you want to write a comical sex scene, that’s fine. But if you think you’re writing the most passionate scene since Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and your reader is sniggering like a fifth grader in sex-ed class, you’ve done something wrong. The longer your scene goes on, the more at risk it is of becoming unintentionally hilarious. Keep it short. (If you don’t believe me, read John Updike’s “Rabbit, Run.” Great novel generally, peppered with horrible many-page sex scenes.)

• There’s a difference between sex and romance. Sex is just body parts interacting. Romance is about relationship. Certainly there is a place in many novels for simple, straightforward sex: but if the characters are important, then their relationship is more vital than what their bodies are doing. Or, to put it another way, their bodies should be expressing what they feel, how they interact, what they mean to each other. It’s usually better to spend more time on sensation and reaction — the perception of events — than in describing the events themselves.
A lot can be conveyed with setting and intimation: don't overdescribe

• Match genre to level of description. I’ve noticed that Pulitzer-prize winners can’t write sex scenes. (See Updike comment, above.) If anyone can think of an exception, please list it, because I’m genuinely curious if my theory holds up. I suspect that writers who are poetry-minded, who are seeking to capture the sublime, fumble badly when it comes to the profane. They can do love scenes, sometimes, but need to dance around sex itself — or skip it entirely. Commercial fiction writers are often much more adept. The best writer I can think of, offhand, at choreographing and pulling off complicated (and engrossing!) love scenes is Diana Gabaldon, in her Outlander series. She blogged once that her fans often thank her for helping their marriages — more than most fiction writers could hope for!

• Avoid crude terminology. This isn’t about prudish modesty. Certain words light up a danger zone in the normal human brain, and so must be used carefully lest you elicit an unintended “ick” reaction from your reader. The exception to this is if your character would naturally use a particular word. If you really feel you must use certain terminology to remain true to character or situation, do it — but be aware of the pitfalls. Otherwise you can use the anatomically correct terms, the less-crude everyday terms, or write around the nouns and focus on reaction.

• Know why you’re including it before you write it. Don’t throw it in there for no reason — or worse, as a cheap way to titillate the reader. She won’t fall for it. A sex scene, like any scene, must highlight character, create tension, move the plot forward, elicit a mood, or perform some other vital storytelling function.

What about you? Do you struggle with writing these potentially difficult scenes? Do you feel pressured to include them, or exclude them, from your writing? What authors do you feel handle this aspect of writing well?