Friday, August 31, 2018
With all the talk about writing, building our process, crafting our various tools and using all our different tricks, it’s about time to discuss a few words you should rely upon, and a whole pile of bad words you should worry about. And as far as the bad words go, this isn’t about profanity. This is about using words that can make good writing sound flabby and boring, and make dramatic action scenes awkward and uneven.
Let’s start on the positive side. Here are my two favorite words in the entire English language – “Find” and “Replace.”
Okay – to be honest, those are my two favorite commands in Microsoft Word, and just about any word-processing suite has similar commands. I put them to use the most when I am looking to get rid of the bad stuff, the ugly things that hurt my writing.
(Side note: The bad words are only bad in the narrative part of writing. In dialogue, they are natural, even preferred. People speak in the passive voice, use the wrong words, split their infinitives, and wreak havoc with bad grammar and flabby words. Let them do that – it works. This only becomes a problem in narrative.)
First – the package of “was,” “were,” “had,” and “have.” These words are often used in dialogue and have many purposes. They are the hammers of the English language. However, as versatile as a hammer is, if you are using it to fix a car, you might be using the wrong tool. These words come out most often when people write in the passive voice – a voice where the verb is often a version of “to be” rather than an actual action verb. We frequently talk in the passive voice, so it feels natural, even proper. But in writing, it can downplay the action while an active voice can emphasize what’s going on.
Consider these two sentences:
“I was running to the store to get there before it closed.”
“I ran to the store before it closed.”
Same meaning, but the first one is passive. The verb is “was,” not “running.” The voice is the person telling you about their running. The second sentence is active, as the verb is “ran.” No waste or clutter – it gets to the point and the voice is about running. It is not a coincidence that the active sentence is shorter than the passive one. Active reads faster, keeps the reader engaged, and moves them with verbs, not explanations. (The omission of "to get there" is discussed shortly.)
These words are not always bad. “I was eight years old when I learned Santa was a myth.” Using “was” is perfect because it is simply part of a description. Most establishment phrases can do just fine with “was” or the others in its package. But I often do a “Find” command to review a polished manuscript and track down all the times I used “was” and ask if there’s a better verb. Usually, there is.
And on a related note, let’s mention some Dirty Verb Information. We use our verbs to describe an action, and adverbs to modify that action. “I quickly ran home” has “ran” as a verb and is modified by “quickly.” Very simple. But sometimes we defuse our best verbs with some very weak secondary modifiers. When we start using “kind of,” “seemed like,” “a little,” or “sort of,” we can lose definition and clarity. I offer the following exaggerated example:
“The house kind of seemed a little bit like a run-down orphanage, sort of like those in a Dickens novel.”
In using all the examples of bad phrases, the description above is brutally boring, useless, and a waste of the reader’s time. The sentence isn't weak because all those dirty terms are used – it gets worse as each term is added. Even using one of those nasty little pieces detracts from it. Without any of them, it can be a simple, concise description:
“The house looked like an orphanage from a Dickens novel.”
Even inserting just one of those four terrible word combos into the last sentence takes away a little clarity. The sentence becomes longer yet the words truly add nothing. Writing that is crisp and clean takes aggressive steps where it can, defining the environment in a way that establishes the scene then moves forward. When you come across informative go-between phrases such as those, ask yourself if it’s necessary. Can the house just look like a Dickensian orphanage, or is it important that it looks “a little” like that? The answer is usually obvious.
(Reminder: This is for narrative only; not dialogue. Dialogue can take on an entirely new shape with these phrases. Consider this line of dialogue: “Uh, Steve? Well, about your car – it seems that the car kind of blew up a little bit.” Now those phrases give the narrative depth, and it’s more than just a message to Steve.)
As writing clears away the clutter of uncertainty, each point is sharpened, each description polished. Then, once those phrases have a real clarity to them, any adverbs or other modifiers stand out brilliantly. However, make sure the right modifiers go in. The next post will move on to Dirty Modifiers and how they can wreck clean writing.
Monday, August 27, 2018
I can hear the groans already. “Poetry? I want to be a writer, not a poet.” Or my favorite, “I’m really not a poet.” I refuse to ever challenge those responses. I can always suggest that a person try to do the poetry thing, but it’s a pretty scary endeavor. I can also offer the testimonial that I once said the same thing, then I went off and wrote a bunch of poetry. However, these are not good arguments for exploring that world. So I will approach it from a simple direction – as a tool for better writing.
First, a few ground rules: Poetry has a lot of cousins – sonnets, prose, free-verse, haiku, etc. – and each has its own form and rules or lack of rules. Shakespeare’s sonnets followed a rigid structure and meter, while e. e. cummings wrote free-verse poetry that defied every rule of grammar, print style, and typesetting. For the sake of this post, I am targeting what composing poetry can offer you as a writer.
Rhyme patterns are all about structure. A standard fourteen-line sonnet has a standard rhyme scheme, and presents the first half of the sonnet as the dilemma and the last half as the solution. Rhyme schemes and structures have differed, with the current English standard following the Surrey rhyme pattern of the first and second lines rhyming with the third and fourth, respectively, the fifth and sixth with the seventh and eighth, the ninth and tenth with the eleventh and twelfth, and the last two lines rhyming each other.
Now that you know sonnets, here’s why this is important. The author needs to understand the question-and-answer being presented, and the moral conclusion of the discussion. Furthermore, this needs to be boiled down into fourteen lines, and follow the rhyme scheme. It’s easy to make an argument in 5,000 words, but could you make the same point in 500? 400? And can you make your discussion rhyme? The author better know their stuff to condense it into a sonnet.
And now the importance of trying to write something with meter. Please do not think that any narrative requires meter – just hear me out. One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken. It’s not a long read, and I think everyone should read it once. On that note, follow the link and read it once. Out loud. Now.
Let’s pretend you read it. I won’t ask what you got from it – maybe you enjoyed it, hated it, didn’t get it, thought “meh” or whatever. That’s fine. I only hope you heard the pattern and rhythm to each line, how each stanza had the same musical build to it. Frost wrote this poem to a specific meter, including breaking from that meter in the last line to give it impact.
Why is this important? The important part to a writer developing their craft isn’t the choice of meter or what kind of rhythm the author likes. Frost aimed for a particular rhythm, and had to select words that both fit the pattern and expressed his feelings. He could not just go on and on about his particular sentiment – each word had to be chosen specifically for those purposes. This forced him to truly understand what he wanted to express, and reveal it in a very efficient and meaningful way.
Which brings us to the haiku – the master of all poem structures. Haiku structure is simple – the first line can only use five syllables, the second line seven, and the last line five. There are variants, but let’s stick to this one. A haiku requires a person to present a feeling, emotion or sense of self in a mere seventeen syllables – not words, syllables. This means the writing has to be packed more efficiently than a week’s-worth of clothes in a tote bag. As writers, we learn to clear out the clutter, the filler, all the unnecessary talk and ugly words I will talk about in the next post. We take our broad idea and refine it; crystallize it into one clear, shining idea. One of my favorite people in one of my writing groups brought in haiku writing as an exercise, and I know everyone benefited from learning how to think and write just a little more effectively. In writing haiku, syllables express our souls; words just carry them.
(That last sentence was a haiku)
Not all writers have to write poetry – it’s not mandatory. I know plenty of writers who never wrote one poetic line (or at least never admitted to it.) Being a poet is to be an animal of an entirely different shape than a writer – though they are both incredible species to admire. However, the lessons that come from making poetry can definitely expand our skills as writers, even if we just read poems and marvel in how they express ideas without all the clutter that can come with narrative.
If poems arrive on our unsuspecting page, be proud of their birth.
(Yet another haiku)
Friday, August 24, 2018
As a kid, I loved Legos – just like everyone else. However, I didn’t have any of my own. Maybe this heightened my interest, because whenever I was at a friend’s house and the Legos came out, I dove right in. I tapped into that reservoir of Lego creativity and made everything possible while I had the chance. In that limited window, I was a perpetual generator of Lego items – and oh, the things I made!
I bring this up thanks to a comment that came from the writers group I attended last week. A new writer was impressed with everyone’s work – perhaps intimidated – and questioned whether she had the skills to sit with everyone else. One member – apologies that I forgot her name – responded with a nice metaphor about Legos – being a writer is like playing with Legos.
Now, this is a nice metaphor for the writing experience. However, I am now going to expand it in several directions. I am going to strain the limits of this example, just to show how versatile Legos and writing can be (plus, I love Legos just that much.)
A favorite Lego hobby of mine was to take apart things other kids had made. Not in a violent manner, but in a way where I could see how the pieces balanced out or came together with so few blocks. Then, hopefully, I could rebuild it. I could even try to modify it. Could it be customized? What would make it my own? And in this regard, all writers should read things. New things, different things, writing from different eras, different narratives, styles, and structures. And they should see what there is to learn from these different forms.
When those special Lego kits came out with all the customized pieces, those were fun to build and rebuild (I loved one that I called the Lego Star Destroyer.) Then came that tragic point where a critical piece was broken, eaten by the dog, or fell down the heating vent. To me, that’s when the challenge began. How could it be saved? What modifications could be done? How could the work be salvaged? In that regard, writing is all about improvisation. Discovering a new way to make things fit or finding a way to turn a phrase just so can make or break good writing. And if that means sitting there, studying a sentence for an hour to try to make it really jump from the page, then it should pay off just like when that one new fix allows the Lego Star Destroyer to fly again.
And of course, there was a quiet thrill about building a Lego Star Destroyer strictly out of scrap pieces, using absolutely nothing from the kit whatsoever – just salvage from that big box of blocks. Maybe it didn’t look the same, but it was mine and I loved it. It had special smuggling compartments, more room in the cockpit, and more guns – way more guns. It was mine and nobody could ever take away that accomplishment. That should be the feeling you get whenever you write something. Own it. Claim it as yours. Is it perfect? No – not yet. But it is special, and unique, and totally your creation. Take pride in it, even if you want to make something better.
I still love Legos to this day. They have that tactile feeling that somehow reminds me of better days. But now instead of my friend’s basket of Legos, I have my words. I can drag them out and make anything I want out of them. I can create masterpieces with those words, given enough time. My next book, expected to be published next year, is made out of words from that basket, and so will all future products. And this basket is even better, because it is an endless reservoir of words ready to help me create.
One other reason words are better than Legos: Have you ever stepped on a Lego in your bare feet? I would much rather step on a word.
Monday, August 20, 2018
I offer this note not just for writers but for all creative souls – I think it applies across the board.
Today, my father would’ve turned 84. I guess he technically still turns 84 regardless, but he hasn’t been alive to make a fuss about it for ten years. Anyway, I always give myself a moment on this day to remember something about him, so this time I will discuss his creative process.
|My father in 2007, carrying around my head for good luck.|
Where his process truly came to life was with his paintings. These were his personal works, ideas he needed to translate from concept to canvas. Sometimes he would not touch paint for months, but then the inspiration would hit and he would start sketching ideas on sheets of tracing paper or in notepads.
As a child, I never really understood why he would spend so much time doing little charcoal sketches when he wanted to make a painting. If it was supposed to be a painting, shouldn’t he start by painting it? This is the simple logic of a simple child. What I did not understand was his process.
In his mind, the idea was already complete, just like how an author already knows the story before they write it. But Dad needed to understand the details – the shapes, the poses, how the different figures related to each other. He would go through countless sketches of someone sitting at a desk just so he could envision just how that person should look, how the image best portrayed what he wanted it to say. Before he would paint, he would imagine, just as a writer thinks before they put down the words.
In some ways, I believe that the painting part of his creative process was the third act of a very long story, the conclusion of understanding everything. However, that does not do it justice. While a third act is supposed to be a conclusion, my father would go through an entirely separate set of frustrations in the painting stage that sketches and drawings could never reveal. Did the visual balance work? What parts drew the eye? Was the lighting appropriate? Did the shadows fall right? These parts were just as much an obsession with him as any component of a story would be for an author.
And if his paintings were novels, I know many that went through severe editing and rewrites. No matter what the creative medium may be, when something doesn’t work, it is the prime responsibility to either fix it or admit defeat. With my father this was no different. Many of his finished products had layers of secrets buried under the oil – characters that got painted over, cows replaced with horses, bushes overwritten with trees, entire landscapes changed with the stroke of a brush. One painting, now hanging in my brother’s house, went through at least four complete revisions without achieving the ideal in his mind. If my father became a ghost, I am sure his first task would be to go back to work on that painting.
The patience he put into his paintings is something I have carried through life, and it shows all the more in my writing process. I know that before a manuscript can come to life, I first have to go through the work of understanding what I am trying to say. For shorter stories, this process can be condensed just like my father’s contract work. However, the more invested I am in something, the more I need to develop my understanding of it before I can create the final product. And of course, I should be fearless in my willingness to edit, revise, and rewrite something until I am satisfied with it, even if that means the manuscript is still around after I am gone. It’s a scary proposal, but it’s what we do if the art matters.
Happy Birthday, Dad.
Friday, August 17, 2018
It never fails. Countless times I have edited someone’s story and commented that they need to convince the reader about the story’s believability. And the response is almost always, “But this really happened! Everything in that story is true!” And so begins the unwinnable battle.
I am fortunate to have many storytellers in my circles of friends. Plenty of them can tell the same story about something we did thirty-odd years ago, and they never fail to amuse. Sometimes they are requested to tell the “Super Salad” story for the bazillionth time, and it's still funny.
However, I also have friends who try to tell a story but fail horribly. They could tell the "Super Salad" story and actually disappoint their audience. Same story, same set of facts, but one friend gets laughs while another just makes us change the subject. It has nothing to do with the story, the salad, the reality behind it, or anything else. It’s just how it’s told, and no amount of “But it really happened!” will save it.
This is where the writer has the responsibility to convince their readers that the story is believable – regardless of whether it’s fact or fiction – and fact can actually be more difficult. When we write our factual story, we already know all the details. In our mind, the reality is very clear; so clear that we take many things for granted. And when we take such things for granted, it is easy to forget to write down these little details. And that’s where we lose the reader, despite the story being very real.
First off, when we write any story, we have to keep it in a consistent voice so the reader can stay in the moment. If I write about that time playing baseball when I was eleven and hit a triple off the Riegel Farm fence, I need to decide about my voice and go with it. If my voice is someone remembering what I did almost forty years ago, I need to write it as a memory, complete with reflecting on why this was so important at that time and why that event still sticks. But if I write it in the voice of me as a scrawny, eleven-year-old bundle of scrap wood, then that voice better sound like a child in 1979, thrilled to knock one to the fence.
Next, we have to offer the reason this story is so important. If the reader does not understand why this moment carries so much emotional gravity, they won’t invest themselves in the story and they won’t feel like a part of it. In the baseball example above, there isn’t much drama about someone getting a hit in baseball – that’s literally what every batter is supposed to do. However, if I let the reader know that this was my first summer of baseball after breaking my collarbone and I was terrified to even face a pitch or swing a bat, now there is reason to read. There is investment. Even for non-baseball fans, they can see the story as overcoming one’s fear.
Now let’s say something unbelievable happens. Let’s say that the reason that hit was a triple was because I hit the ball through the only hole in the fence big enough for a baseball. Hundreds of feet of fence with only one fist-sized hole, and my first hit of the summer went right through it. Coincidence? Definitely. But if I want to keep the reader, I need to say just how amazing this event was. I remember it as reality, but I need to overcome the reader’s disbelief through emphasis on all the details underlying this.
This step is critical. In the amazing situation scenario, I need to emphasize how unbelievable it was. I need to describe how the pitcher screamed for a do-over even as I rounded the bases, and how my team wanted to call it a home run. At this point, the disbelief of such an event has to be communicated to the reader or they will dismiss it as a useless fiction. As amazing as it is, that energy needs to come across that much more in the written word.
(Full disclosure: I didn’t hit it through the fence. I should be so lucky.)
Lastly, the conclusion of the story – the meaning of it all – should be something that the reader can relate to. Not necessarily agree with, but at least acknowledge. A story without meaning will not stick in the reader’s memory, and they won’t have much reason to discuss it afterward. Our example story could have a lot of concluding points – overcoming my fear could be one, or it could be that the amazing triple I hit was the last hit I ever got in baseball. It could be how I long for the more innocent days when something as simple as a triple could be bragging rights for a week. Maybe I wonder what ever happened to all those kids on the Riegel Farm baseball field that day, and if any of them remember my special moment. But as long as there is something, that is the bow on the package that people will remember.
Most of the time, when a real-life story does not get good reviews or it gets the “not very believable” comment, the issue is not the story, but how it is told. And these steps work for any story – fact or fiction. If these steps are included in a fictitious story, the reader will be just as drawn in, just as immersed, and that much more likely to engage with the story. And of course, the best comment that can result from this is someone reading your fictitious story and saying, “Wow! That really happened?” That’s when you know you got them. When the reader has disposed of true or false and immersed themselves into your story, you don’t need to say, “This really happened.” In their mind, it’s happening as they read it.
And yes, that triple at Riegel Farm really happened.
Monday, August 13, 2018
Some things never change. Santa is always overweight. Family picnics are picturesque, sun-dappled scenes. Kittens are cute, dogs are furry bundles of unconditional love. These are the things we have grown up with; they are what we expect. If you want to win over the audience, you immediately resort to these situations.
In my experience, Santa Claus has at times been pretty gaunt. It has rained on our family reunion more than once. My neighbors owned a kitten that was uglier than a baby Chupacabra, and my aunt’s Dachshunds were angry little monsters that didn’t do any justice to that cute term of “wiener-dog.” These examples are all true, and they all go against the predefined images we carry around in our mind’s back pocket.
This post is not a debate about forcing reality into the story process, nor is it about whether or not Santa should be fat or Dachshunds are actually nice. This is about how much of our storytelling should be grounded in reality, and how much should do service to the genre one is writing about.
First and foremost, if we are writing life narratives or stories based on our own experiences, we can use this difference to our advantage. If I write about a particular family gathering, I can describe the non-stop rain forcing all thirty of us to spend six hours under one roof, sitting among the bags of unusable softball bats and volleyballs, watching each other eat. This becomes interesting because it goes against the expectation of a sunny summer day, and I can add all the other contradictions that made that particular day stand out. Or I can write about the one reunion that matched the stereotypical perfect day, and showcase all of those elements. This way, the contrast or agreement becomes just as important as the story.
In genre-based fiction, this becomes all the more important. The further the genre is from the reality we understand, the more we need to remind people of these differences. In science fiction, it is critical to make up some jargon for the 22nd, 25th, or 30th century people so they sound like a different people, along with devices and gadgets that remind us that it’s no longer 2018. In good old sword-and-sorcery fiction fantasy, there should be an ample garnish of different intelligent races (elves, dwarfs, goblins, etc.), magic or at least the awareness of magic at every turn, and as many bold knights and brave warriors as the king can command. And in the genre of horror, well, let’s just say that an unsettling creepiness should fill the air.
But then there’s reality, and we have to decide where reality gives in to the genre. Consider a novel that is a police drama. In reality, most policemen will go through their career without killing one suspect. In a troubled area, maybe a cop has a handful of shootings during their twenty years on the force. In a novel, our police officer hero might knock off ten bad guys between the first and last pages. It’s not reality, but it’s drama in the name of writing for the genre.
Horror is particularly tricky because it has a lot of sub-genres, each with their own expectations. In the more reality-grounded genre of the killer on the loose, certain things come with the package: the criminal has incredible timing, an insurmountable amount of patience, a surprising degree of luck, and yet enough moxie to leave a string of clues leading to their demise. Paranormal horror steps further away from reality, but there is still the coincidental awakening of a long-buried evil. And with supernatural horror, all bets are off. Monsters and demons roam about inexplicably, their presence more metaphor than reality but horrible nevertheless. And through all this we are given the task of making all of this feel just real enough to happen, yet amazing enough to keep us turning the pages.
And yet through all of this, there is some foundation of reality that we at least have to acknowledge, but not to the point where it obstructs the story. Dramatic swordfights are a strong part of the fantasy genre, with all the derring-do and dramatic beheadings that can fit the page. In reality, beheadings are very difficult, swordplay is genuinely exhausting, and the fantasy part is more often brutality with a blade. And we all know the crime drama where the hero takes a bullet in the shoulder and is injured but we don’t worry about it because after all, it’s just the shoulder. Reality shows that is a very dangerous wound difficult to bandage and easily fatal. So where do we put reality?
We should always offer consideration toward reality, but find a balance where we can do the genre justice. Research swords, but allow wiggle room for the fantasy to win the day. Find out about guns and bullets, then decide how you want them represented in your drama. And when you stretch further out, you gain more liberty but still need to tip your hat to the genre. Thirtieth-century drinks are often blue so maybe include that, but give yourself the liberty to put in your own versions of sci-fi, knowing they also respect the genre.
In short, reality has its place, but when you write fiction it is your responsibility to make the story enjoyable and engaging, not scientifically reproduceable. As long as there is enough reality salted in to make the reader say, “Okay, I’ll go with that,” then you are satisfying your audience and maintaining an engaging read.
Except for the wiener-dog thing. They’re just mean and nobody can tell me otherwise.
Friday, August 10, 2018
Anyone who knows me knows that my favorite cocktail is gin and tonic. It goes beyond just enjoying the drink; the history of gin is an obsession. Given the opportunity, I will talk about the origins of juniper wine, the Gin Riots in England, and how the need to administer quinine to British troops stationed in malaria zones gave rise to the infamous gin and tonic. To me, this is part of my knowledge base, so don’t get me started about the difference between London Dry versus aromatic gin.
As a writer, however, I have to remember that my characters likely neither know nor care about gin the way I do. If I talked to my characters about gin, they would probably leave the page. The rules of gin would still apply, but they would likely not affect the characters.
This is where we have to delineate between what we know as writers, what our characters know, and the space between.
At a very interesting meeting of the writing group, WriteOn Joliet, we had a few engaging discussions about these very boundaries. Writers had done extensive research into the facts underlying their stories, and the results were satisfying narratives. However, one question would always come up as a point of clarity. People would ask, “That’s factually accurate, but does the character know that?” A weird question, but one with a lot of value.
Here’s a simple question: What percentage of the world’s tiger population lives in Africa? The overwhelming majority of people answer between 30-80%. The real answer is zero. Tigers are not native to Africa, but most people believe some are. So now that you know this fact, ask yourself – does your character know this? The truth is known by a minority of people, so if your character is one, how did they get this bit of wisdom? And will your readers think differently of the character because of this additional knowledge?
I spent more years than I care to admit working in economics. Yes, economics – a career often described as a job for businesspeople who can’t handle the fast pace of accounting. During those many years, I learned the nitty-gritty of incentives, the lead and lag of supply and demand triggers, policy responses, interest rate moves, and so on (I can hear you dozing off already). This professional education changed my view of the world, which was for the better, but was the same information helpful for my characters? Was it even appropriate?
Any character we create will, by their very nature, contain pieces of ourselves. Whether we are writing a fictionalized version of us or creating something altogether different, some of their blood will be ours. What makes those characters become believable, three-dimensional personalities is when we understand everything that they know and don’t know. Once we learn their boundaries, their limits, their strengths and especially their weaknesses, it will show up in our writing. When we learn how they differ from us, they become more fascinating to write about. However, good fiction demands that this character has its own life, not just a projection of ours onto paper.
There’s an exercise I always recommend that helps the writer understand a particular character. I call it “Walking in their Skin.” It’s very simple. Start writing about the character in the simplest social environment – going to the store, walking past a park, having a drink at a bar. And as you write, think about the little things. What store would the character go to? Does the character prefer fresh produce or frozen food? Do they walk in, get their stuff, then go through the express line and leave, or do they look around? Then ask yourself why they do that. Have the character think aloud about those things. Write a narrative of their thought process. Challenge the character to explain their habits. Make them justify every action. This is an exercise so it doesn’t have to be good storytelling. It just has to test all the things you know about the character.
Once you’ve done that, look at the piece and ask yourself whether the character is a unique being or just a projection of yourself. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with a character being a lot like you, as long as those mannerisms fit the story. If the story works with the character, that’s great. But if there’s a mismatch, be open to some change. If I wanted to write about a young, brash, naïve man stepping into the big city, I would not want him to carry the economic tools I picked up over the decades – it wouldn’t do the story justice.
The other trick I use to remind myself about the character being different from me is to insert specific quirks that I personally would never do. As a lifelong Chicagoan, I have deep-seated issues about putting ketchup on a hotdog – so that becomes my character’s favorite thing. The character might also have conflicting political leanings, religious beliefs, or any other number of differences. This forces me as a writer to really feel out that character and understand them on their own terms rather than interpretations of myself.
Admittedly, I have writer a fair share of characters based on myself, and a few alter-egos walk about the pages of some as-of-yet unpublished manuscripts. I mix up some of the traits, but anyone who knows me can identify those details in the character that come straight from my psychological DNA. And not surprisingly, all those alter-egos drink gin and tonic.
Monday, August 6, 2018
In Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, “The Road,” a father and son are trying to survive in a dying world, staying alive as resources run out and those few remaining people are turning on each other in the most horrible of ways. Every day is a struggle for survival, with death one of many threats lingering in their world. These are the standard elements of a post-apocalyptic story, so what makes this such a particularly good novel?
A good novel will bring the reader something more than a story. Obviously, a story should convey a message; a takeaway after the last word. However, all the words leading up to that should shape themselves around a set of ideas that are repeatedly reinforced throughout the novel. These are the themes, and they take any story to the next level.
Any story should have a few simple themes – more than one simple theme, but six might be too many – that are reinforced throughout the narrative. They do not have to be large in scope and scale. The best ones are as simple as “the importance of a strong independent nature” or “the nostalgic beauty of the hero’s hometown.” As long as it says something more than, “he loves chocolate,” it can help build the story’s message. However, if the story is about a person’s diet problems, sugar addiction, fight with diabetes, etc., the chocolate thing is allowed because it is a theme that creates conflict. By the end, all those themes should become the chorus that sings out the novel’s meaning – if it’s a real good novel.
In The Road, we see in every fashion how humanity has been stripped away from the world. This is not only shown in the actions and descriptions of the many adversaries, but in the simplest of points. The main characters – the man and his son – are never named. They talk with each other but names are never mentioned, as if the most fundamental social construct has vanished. Adversaries are avoided – just as nameless as our heroes. This post-apocalyptic world is not just devoid of humans, the writing takes every opportunity to show how humanity is gone. This is a simple theme.
This leads us to the man and his son. The two are all that each other has, and they survive from one day to the next, the father continuing to make sacrifices so his son can live another day. Though society has broken down, we see how even in the worst of conditions, their bond as father and son is all the more unbreakable. The importance of family carries throughout the book.
As they travel, we only know their goal is to survive, and to head south before winter comes. But with their actions, with how they discuss how to avoid dangerous situations, we see how they still stand for something good in the world. As other people descend into barbarism and cannibalism, the father and son hold true to an ideal that may no longer exist anywhere else. As their struggle becomes more difficult and the tension builds, we see how much they struggle to hold on to their beliefs. These ideals become incredibly important.
And throughout their travels through a world falling apart, moments of joy remind us of the better parts of the human experience. Chapters of pushing a shopping cart of possessions through the worst of conditions allow us to witness the joy of simple comforts such as a warm bed, a complete meal, a full night’s sleep. Moments of appreciation exist throughout the book.
I’m not going to spoil this novel – it’s well worth the read. But to address the question presented at the beginning of this post, what makes this so good are how the themes are presented. Even in a world stripped down to the barest of bones, these themes create a very full, rich experience. This goes well beyond a post-apocalyptic story just for that reason – it’s not about the end of humanity, it’s about the importance of humanity.
Whether Cormac McCarthy wrote the story based on those themes or found the themes while writing the story is something I may never know. However, when writing your novel, keep in mind a few of those themes, and be open to seeing some more pop up as you progress -- and rewriting as necessary to make them stand out.
Friday, August 3, 2018
When I used to work downtown, one of my regular but awkward ordeals was the periodic doctor’s appointment. My doctor was conveniently a mere six blocks from where I worked, but because it was such a busy practice, getting an appointment before or after business hours was next to impossible. Therefore, my appointment usually ended up interrupting my workday.
These appointments were important to my wellbeing, but they did not mesh well with my career. Rather, they took me away from my job for a valuable hour, sometimes to the inconvenience of coworkers who had little investment in how those doctor visits went. My colleagues focused on work and how my presence or absence affected them. They never realized how crucial those appointments were to maintain my capacity to work, but if I didn’t have those visits, things would fall apart quickly.
Yes, those visits were the perfect subplot.
The story of our life is full of subplots. With a few exceptions, most of them are not worth writing about. If I wrote a story about my working week, would the doctor appointment even need to be brought up? Depending on the story's focus, it may not be relevant, but the appointment may also be a source of tension because it creates a critical scheduling conflict. What happened with my doctor would not matter, only that an important meeting clashed with an appointment, and the situation needed to be resolved.
However, a subplot can be a valuable device in enriching both the story and the characters. A subplot should either inform the reader about important parts of the character that might not otherwise come naturally in the main story arc, or it should create a secondary environment that will at some point collide with the main plot. Obviously, it can do both, but at least one is required.
We can now revisit my appointment situation with an eye toward turning it into an effective subplot (Note to all former coworkers – this is all hypothetical). Let’s say the main story was about trying to rise through the ranks at a very stressful job with pressure to perform and improve the bottom line. Just for fun, let’s make it during the Great Recession to turn up the pressure.
That’s a fine story in itself, but then we offer the subplot: the doctor appointments are for treating dangerously high blood pressure – 220/180 and rising with every new demand from work. We now see the two storylines are going to collide at some point, because the plot and the subplot cannot coincide forever. Work is the main subject, but the subplot makes every part of the main story more tense and compelling. The pivot here is that the reader has to actively worry about the inevitability that these two threads will collide, and the hero will suffer as a result.
As brutally intriguing as that route may sound, the other option can be just as effective. Instead of the situation with high blood pressure, what if the appointments are with a therapist? At those sessions, the hero discusses deep fears of failure, an obsessive urge to please others, past tragedies that now make him a workaholic, or any other problem that would feed into his work life. Now the subplot becomes a tool to give the hero depth and dimension. Because these problems already factor into work, the subplot and the main story arc have already collided, However, these sessions now inform us about the roots of his dysfunction. The reader sees the character develop and begins to understand his dilemma more completely.
The classic book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” is mostly about a man reconnecting with his son as they take a motorcycle trip across the Badlands with a couple of friends. Amidst the sightseeing and philosophical discussions, we are introduced through a series of flashback narratives to a brilliant man who is referred to as Phaedrus. The connection between the main character and Phaedrus is seen as student and teacher, though this is never explicitly demonstrated. Rather, the flashbacks are a subplot that is a story unto itself, challenging the reader to see just how the present-day arc and the secondary story are going to meet. No spoilers here – read the book yourself.
The main danger of using a subplot can come from an imbalance in interests. In the example of going between work and doctor’s appointments, the reader needs to be interested in the subplot just as much as the main arc. Think about stories where there’s that one character you just don’t care about, or that one story line that doesn’t grab your attention. If it’s a character, we can just flip past them. If the subplot of the appointments makes the reader want to skim past, there’s a real problem.
Ideally, the subplot should be able to stand on its own as a smaller story. However, its main purpose is to add energy and depth to the main story. If you can’t explain how it contributes to the main arc, consider leaving it out.