Wow, it's October. And while I'd love for my excuse this time to be that I was off partying or traveling or away at a conference again, nope, this time I just caught a really bad cold.
(Okay, there was this one bachelorette party that involved attending the local Theatre Sports event last weekend, and I may have been called up on stage and had the chance to, among other things, play a helmet, dressage trophy, and horse, but hey, the bride was entertained, and I was sick before that, honest!)
The of-course-I've-been-querying-too aside, I've also been plotting and planning my next novel, because I am a firm believer in having an outline. And the magic system for this new book needed serious work. Dang, it feels good to be working on something besides the book I'm trying to sell!
Anyway. Back to my original point: it's October, and the end of the month is one of my favourite events: the Surrey International Writers' Conference. While I still have some notes left to share from ConCarolinas, I just discovered a few gems from last year's SIWC that hadn't been posted. So here's the first one, and to make up for my absence, it's a doozy: the Master Class with amazing literary agent Donald Maass.
The class was called "Writing 21st Century Fiction" and is based on his book of the same title that came out last year. (And speaking as one who owns the book, these notes are just a snapshot of that, because he elaborates on all of what I'm about to share there.) This was an incredible class, and even just editing these notes for posting reminded me of how valuable it was. Enjoy ... and definitely check out the book!
Writing 21st Century Fiction
Purpose: To dig into new dimensions of fiction writing.
New book: Writing 21st Century Fiction
- Observed changes in the NYT bestseller list: in recent yrs (during a recession at that when the book industry has struggled) – The hardcover bestseller list looks as usual – lots of thrillers, brand name authors; but the duration numbers have dropped (7 or 8 at the most) – an indication that sales are very front-ended, but Trade paperbacks are different: Trades have extended shelflife – groups of books that have been running for 1 to 2 years, with one exception – and some of them are literary fiction – there’s something odd about this – why are literary fiction selling in such numbers, for such lengths of time? Not just because they’re lit lite, but they’re selling incredibly well week after week. Some have been made into movies, but only long after the book was successful.
What makes them big? What’s between the covers. The stories and what makes them interesting.
E.g. Nancy Picard, Laura Litman both left category fiction and started writing in a different way as writers of standalone fiction. So what makes them so powerful? What are they doing?
1. Telling terrific stories.
2. Telling them beautifully.
Great storytelling and beautiful writing are the perfect combination.
So how do you do it? What’s different? How can you write a great story beautifully?
Literary Writers vs. Genre Writers
- The literary world looks at commercial fiction with a sneer – plot is gimmicky, cheap.
- Plot can be gimmicky, contrived, but not always. Likewise, literary fiction isn’t always just pretty words.
- Depends on the writer you are, too – identify yourself as the kind of writer you are.
- Do you identify as a genre writer? Nothing wrong with that. BUT if you work in a particular genre, whether you like it or not you’re putting yourself in a box and will reach for genre tropes, specific character types and language, default choices, stereotypical choices that make that box smaller, familiar.
- Literary writers tend to think they’re original but it’s not the case. There are just as many stereotypes that are true about them, too.
- Basically, you will think and identify in certain kinds of ways depending on what kind of writer you are.
- If you think of yourself as not a novelist but a storyteller, then you probably look at lit world and think “That’s nice, but that doesn’t have anything to do with me”.
- Literary writer trying to capture something that is true, realistic, fresh, you look at the genre world and think: “That’s crap. That’s not real writing.”
Plotters vs. Pantsers
- Other dichotomies in the kinds of writers we are that we need to think about. e.g. are you a Plotter, a Pantser, or somewhere in between?
- Outline writers will have certain advantages in crafting fiction, but certain shortcomings. By following a map you’ll miss detours; by intuiting your way through you might get distracted by the detours and wander too much; exploring is sometimes a way of not focusing. (This is why I'm a huge fan of organic plotting. Best of both worlds!)
Warm Temperature vs. Cold Temperature
- Are you a warm temperature writer or a cold temperature writer?
- Jane Austen vs Ernest Hemingway
- Austen: warm temperature writer: Austen plumbed the depths of the human soul and experience—rich emotional stew, immersion in point of view, the life and times of feelings on the page
- Hemingway: cold temperature writer—evokes feelings on the page with coldness
How Attached Are You?
- Authors who love to be edited, love revisions—that’s where writing really happens
- Others who have such an emotional attachment it makes it difficult for them to see the need for changes
- Agents love authors who love to be edited, who follow directions. (*raises hand* Me-me-me! Yes! The good of the story is what matters!)
- Waiting for agent/editor feedback is about getting their feedback, to see if you managed to accomplish what you intended to do. If you’re looking for a checklist of things to do, that’s wrong.
- If your book is your baby—it’s wise to stand up for your story, but not just “That’s not how I see it” or “My character would never do that”—you put up barriers to your own story, and the perfect story that is in you.
So, we need to delve into these dimensions that we don’t do first, naturally, or well.
The Inner Journey
- Goes hand in hand with the Hero’s Journey.
- The arc of change, how the character grows from one story to another.
- Stories far more powerful when the character transforms.
- Work through the journey that takes character from one place to another
- Story needs to be grounded in the character’s inner struggle.
The Emotional Landscape
Exercise: Emotional Landscape
1. Start with the emotional landscape of the writer. Character feels, is going through something. So whatever your style is, it can work with that.
- Take a deep breath, close your eyes. Just be with yourself in the moment. Then, think: what is too fearful, what is too inappropriate, to messy, to out of bounds, to angry, too trite, too personal with your story?
2. Next, write how it’s going to happen in your story, how you can put it to use. How’s it going to get on the page? What’s the moment when the reader will feel what you feel, be afraid, will experience what you’ve experienced, will go “holy crap”? What’s that moment that you’ll make such a mess you won’t know how to get out? You want the readers to feel that, heighten the “how is this character going to get out of it?" feeling for the reader?
- This begins to open the emotional landscape, the feeling of authentic experience.
- When you write what you think you should write, you are thinking in a box. You are preventing yourself from doing things that will make your story your story. You have to get inside of you.
3. Next: What’s an emotion that’s new in your life and experience? Something in the last year that you’ve felt that came upon you and was new, a revelation? Death of anger, a specific kind of hope, sth you discovered about yourself? What new understanding or insight? In what way are you new?
4. Next: When is your character going to have that same feeling, of being new, of understanding one’s self, a death or depth of a familiar emotion?
- Here we’re thinking about what we feel. The point? To bring to our fiction an emotional life and richness. That depth of righteous anger, that outrage we feel. We need characterss who feel strongly about things.
5. What’s the last scene you were working on in your WIP? Or that you seriously revised? Write down the strongest emotion your character feels in that scene.
- Write down two other things that s/he also feels.
- Out of these two, pick the one that’s most interesting.
- Take a look at this feeling. Why is it a good feeling to have right now? Or, why is it a bad, unhelpful feeling to have? How does it lead your protagonist down the wrong path? Or, how does it point your character in the right direction? Do they feel glad or not? Why? What is good or bad about this feeling?
- How does your character own the feeling, or how are they avoiding it? Why does your character have a right to this feeling? Or, why do they not have a right to this feeling or feeling this way? If this is an emotion your character would normally suppress, write down why. If this is a feeling your character feels too easily, then why do they feel entitled or ashamed of going to this emotional place so readily? Why is it a weakness?
- What colour is this emotion? What hue, what shade?
- Give yourself some space for a few minutes to write about the emotion you’ve identified. This secondary, also-felt emotion. Describe what is good or bad or both? Why it’s an entitlement or shame. Is it welcome or abhorrent – what does it make your character felt? How do you make this character feel this? Then write a paragraph about how this emotion, this experience is conveyed. What happens?
- Is this passage just about the feeling? Do you like what you wrote? Does it have a place on the page, in this scene? Is this not your style?
- What if you did this exercise in twelve scenes? What if you had twelve passages like this where the rich, nuanced, deep and yet not necessarily obvious that you’re blowing up and pulling out?
- Why did we pick a secondary emotion? Because the primary emotions are the neon emotions.
6. Write down: rage, fear, desire, joy, grief, happiness, anguish, gut, twisted, (or phrase guts twisted).
- Why these words? Because they’re obvious emotions. Neon emotions – it’s not that we don’t feel these, it’s that on the page these are obvious emotions, easy emotions. To get your reader to feel something, they need to be surprised. So the character needs to be surprised by the emotions. So you’ve got to surprise yourself.
- Find something that’s true but less expected. Magnify it, and make it a predominant emotion, so your reader will feel something that is new, surprising, fresh, and it will grab their heart in a way that “rage” will not because it’s lost its teeth.
- Work with this rich emotional landscape.
Why is it that we would bother to work on this at all? Isn’t stuff like this on the page the stuff they tell you to cut because it doesn’t move the action along, is extra wallowy self-indulgent unnecessary stuff that drags the pace of the novel down?
- No, it adds depth. Depth of emotion, depth of character.
What do we mean by depth?
- The unique, nuanced, experience of the character that immerses us in the world and the point of view and the feelings they have – we’re drawing the reader into it.
- Mile-a-minute action isn’t what hooks us. What hooks us is what we feel.
- The emotional experience of the characters is as important as the action they undergo, the themes of the book, the world they find themselves in and what they see there. The issues in play in the story. Even their own feelings.
- What we feel is fascinating to us (and not just to women). It’s deeply absorbing and we want our readers to feel that. Replace the neon words with secondary emotions. Give your characters feelings about anything.
Exercise: Objects and Feelings
1. Pick say, 6 scenes.
2. In each scene, pick an object in the environment in the scene and write a paragraph about character’s feelings about that object) – part of storytelling is creating the world in which our character is in. What feelings do they have about this thing? How does it reflect on their lives? What does it make them think about? The protagonist’s feelings about all of these things are part of that world, they’re important, they need to be on the page.
3. If you found this exercise difficult, there are other ways to work with the emotional life of our characters. So write this down:
In the story as a whole, what is the predominant feeling that your protagonist has? The dominant, unshakable feeling that drives them through the story?
Exercise: Showing Your Character
1. Make your main character mute. They cannot speak. What is the one thing they must do or can do that he or she feels this way, that would show everybody exactly what is in his or her heart? Either tear something down or build something up. Take up arms or lay them down. Give a gift or an act of retribution.
2. What you just wrote, is it in the manuscript already? If not, what are you waiting for? Put it in. Why aren’t they doing that thing? Do it! Your story will be so much better.
3. You can also adapt this. For those of you who are cool-temperature writers and have trouble exploring emotions, pick six other scenes, find out what the strongest emotion this character feels in this scene, and don’t have them say it internally or externally but the reader will pick up on it and it will be very obvious by what they do. Then go back and look at that scene. There may be some talking and exposition you can take out. Probably also some gesture or action the character can do that will show the reader what we need to know.
Strengthen Your Weak Spots
All of this is about working on the things we aren’t good at. What we don’t do naturally and well. The hope is that the writing blends action and rich landscape. When you blend all of this together seamlessly in a story, that’s what the experience want the reader to have when they read. Great fiction gives us that.
We’re really only just beginning here, to approach the inner journey, the transformative arc. The experience needs to go somewhere. We need our characters to change over the story, to grapple with things.
Exercise: Bad Habits
1. What is your protagonist’s worst habit, weakness, or blind spot? Why aren’t they able to control that?
- Example: are they compassionate to a fault, or so quick to blame others? Why? Where does that habit come from?
- Maybe it’s because to see people as they really are would be unbearable, because there is so much negativity in the world? Does your sunshine character have a black hole inside? Terrible fear, terrible anger, comes from somewhere.
2. What’s the first time in the chronology of the story that the character surrenders to it, cannot control though they wants to? What’s a very inconvenient moement? What’s the first moment thtat it would be important for character *not* to indulge in this bad habit or weakness?
3. What’s the second moment they give in to or surrenders control to bad habit or weakness? Who notices? Who sees? Who winces? Who’s disappointed? How will we know that another character has seen something of the bad or weak side of the protagonist?
- Who is the worst person to notice or see this?
- Who is the last person your protagonist wants to disappoint?
4. What’s the third moment your protagonist gives into this flaw, and this time it costs him or her? Hurts them how? What can they lose? Whose good opinion is destroyed? Who is let down maybe for the last time? Is there something you can take away from your protagonist in this moment? (In crime novels this is the “You’re off the case” moment.)
5. What’s the worst mistake your protagonist can make, when this blind spot or bad habit or weakness on their part really bites them? When does your protagonist fail themself, because they have this flaw or weakness?
- Having shamed themselves, what does your character realize? Why? Where does this flaw come from?
- What’s the hidden emotion? What’s been repressed?
- Having bottomed out, having faced themself, what is the first thing they do that shows he or she has changed? What do they need to do? To whom do they need to say something? An apology, a truth, a confession, just something humble? Maybe something as simple as “I have a problem, I’m sorry.”
We often think of change as an upward rising curve, but it can also be from failing, not just from succeeding.
If we’ve anchored the protagonist properly in the beginning, if the reader’s connected to the character, we can put them through a heck of a lot and the reader will keep reading.
The part we’re not necessarily conscious of is “I’m so glad the author did that” even though we’re thinking “I wish the author hadn’t done that”. Because it means the author has done a good job.
There are lots of ways to put a character through an arc of change, of transformation. The problem Maass sees the most is that he doesn’t see enough steps, doesn’t see that inner struggle.
Exercises: Deepen the Inner Journey
Consider the following:
- What is it that your protagonist has never told anyone?
- What was his or her worst mistake (betrayal, etc)?
- What secret is your main character keeping. Or if they don’t have a secret to keep, make one up.
- What would be painful for you protagonist to be concealing?
- What would be the kind of thing that your protagonist would hope he or she would never do, or have on his or her conscience?
- What is your character or protagonist the most ashamed of?
- What is something that other people would never guess about your main character? What is he or she hiding?
- Who does your protagonist never ever want to let down?
- Whom does your protagonist find impossible to forgive?
- Whom does your protagonist hate? The kind of hatred that is pleasure? The kind of hatred that is defining, shaping, that makes it part of who you are, defines who you are?
Secrets and shame, grudges and resentments, mistakes … all are rich material, so helpful for storytelling. So let’s do some things with it.
1. What’s the greatest length that your protagonist goes to keep the secret, conceal the shame, nurture the hatred, avoid a truth? What’s the most extreme thing that they can or will do because they’re carrying it around inside?
2. Who in the story has a vested interest in digging out of your protagonist what they’re hiding? The secret, the shame?
3. Who would like the protagonist to change? Who needs forgiveness? Who needs the protagonist to forgive?
4. What’s the biggest way this secret or shame or resentment or whatever it is is weighing down your protagonist?
5. In what way does it hurt your protagonist the most? In what way does it cost your protag? In what is it getting in the way?
6. Why does the secret need to come out, the shame be confessed? What would change? Can I make this more critical, more vital, in at least one way?
- If there’s someone your protagonist doesn’t want to let down, then disappoint them. It costs more if it hurts more.
- E.g. build up the high regard the other character has for protagonist, so that the let down is a bigger let down. Can your protagonist be a hero to someone else, so that the let down for that person is so very much?
- What breaks open this lock, what causes the secret to come out, the shame to be exposed, the disappointment to occur, the grudge to reach its critical mass? The hatred to explode? What brings it to a head, whatever is simmering inside your protagonist? How can you make that event bigger, more ill-timed, inconvenient, more painful? How can you make the catharsis hurt more?
7. Along with this, is there something your protagonist can learn that he or she didn’t know before? Who in the story can tell your protagonist something eh or she did not know before? Who already knows your protagonist’s secret or shame? Who has made a similar or worse mistake than your protagonist? What does your protagonist know about him or herself about what happened about who is involved that they can now reveal?
Note: What we’re looking to do is take what’s secret or painful and make it deeper. Effects that this secret or shame has on other people, on the protagonist (how are they suffering), who they’ll disappoint, how they can make this more dramatic, worse?
- If the protagonist is nurturing a hatred, for example, what was the episode that created this hatred, this resentment? What was done wrong, done to your protagonist, that hurt them, that planted a seed of darkness or anger? Find one way to make what happened more unjust, more undeserved, more cruel, more unforgivable.
8. What was the worst thing about this worst thing that happened to the protagonist that makes it exquisitely more awful? The timing, the context? How can you recall or echo that event, that worst thing about the worst thing, in one or two places in the other story? How can something similar be said? Or what are two things that trigger that old hatred, that old injustice, in your protagonist?
9. Then write down one thing your protagonist doesn’t know about the person that hurt them. Explanatory, perhaps, or at least unknown or human? Something unseen in this other person. If your protagonist needs to forgive something, who sees that need in your protagonist before they do? Who can say that before they want to hear it?
10. What triggers the deepest injury towards the end of the story that will cause protagonist to bring his or her hatred/anger to a head? When is he or she the angriest, most wounded, injured, hurt? How can your character explode at that moment and what’s the worst, biggest thing that can happen? How can you create a big, messy, catharsis? How does your protagonist act out?
11. Having done all that, who can deliver to your protagonist what he or she didn’t know? This would be a good moment to release that information.
12. How does your protagonist know that he or she has changed inside, that they’re ready to change, that something been has let go? What’s the most dramatic way your protagonist can use to forgive the unforgivable?
- Change is hard but in story terms it’s only hard if we make it hard. So let’s make it hard (for the character).
- Every character is different. All of these things are good, durable, useful, transformative – you can
- At the end of this story what’s the hardest action your character will have to physically do, the most painful, truthful thing they’ll have to say?
13. Now, go back to the beginning of the story so that it’s something the protagonist has sworn he or she will never do or say. Find a way in the story to test that conviction twice, and have your character succeed. We know this is part of who they are, a defining characteristic, until they *do* do or say it at the end.
- What causes your character to change is important too.
- What provokes them? Make it bigger.
- How much will it take to provoke them? Make it even more.
14. What’s the most important thing the protagonist needs to know about themself? What is he or she trying to understand?
- Come up with reasons why they don’t care, why it’s not of interest or significance, think others can deal with it. Then you can tear those reasons, those excuses down, so that each of those excuses can be ruined. This is what other characters are for – to force on your protagonist what they’re avoiding. Who can force on your character what they’re avoiding, make hard decisions, make impossible decisions they must make? Why does it become critical, unavoidable?
15. What is a truth that your protagonist clings to that she or he believes absolutely, a truth, a principle that is rock solid for your protag? Reinforce it three times, tis truth, this understanding or conviction – show it to be true three times. Then destroy it. How will your protagonist discover, know, understand that what she or he believed was wrong (dead wrong)? How can you shatter that truth? Take away from your protagonist that which he or she beieves, has had faith in – how can you remove that? And what replaces it?
16. What’s your protagonist’s gratest hope, dream? Where do they want to get to? What do they want to create, bring about? How can you make that hope more necessary, more beautiful? Who shares that hope, dreams that dream, is persuaded by that protagonist, can enforce that hope (yes you’re right, you’ll get there, don’t give up)? Write down how it is that your protagonist’s hope is naïve, that what she or he dreams of can never be, that the place he or she wants to get to doesn’t exist – not exactly. It’s flawed, it’s wrong, or it simply can’t be. Shatter the hope, shoot that dream out of the sky. It’s naïve. Childish. And what replaces it?
Change is Good
When your protagonist learns something or has his or her eyes opened, finds a different way, a better, stronger, more mature way of looking at things, a deeper understanding – that is growth. That is change. Good change.
- Bad setbacks and disasters lead to positive change and necessary growth.
- The worst things that happen to us are the best things that happen to us. Every mistake and disappointment has made us better or stronger, something we’re glad for.
Growth is good, but growth comes at a cost. It comes from hard experience, from growing up, from disappointments. These are ways of looking at how to bring your character through change.
- Change in relationships, outlook, the way they regard themselves, understanding, all these things can change.
- Change is good, change is story. Change is emotional, change is dramatic.
Two of the most emotional moments in any story: the moments of saying goodbye, letting something go and “hello, welcome home” (forgiveness) – healing, reconciliation – these are story at its best. Get your reader to feel these things and you’ve got a good story.
Sometimes to get where you want to go quicker, you’ve got to spend more time getting there.
The Business of Writing Beautifully
There are ways in which to tell a story and work with a story that go beyond mere imagery. Terrific metaphors and sparkling moments, capturing a moment with crystal clarity, bringing something vividly alive – skillful and artful writing, but there are a lot of ways in which we can give our stories resonance, meaning, beauty.
1. Pick any one event that happens in your story that is done to your protagonist or that they witness, do, provoke (something we can visualize, not just an internal journey) and then find one other way or place in the story where the same thing can happen in a smaller or bigger way. When in the story can the same thing happen (maybe not in as dramatic a way, or more, but nevertheless)? How many other times do similar things happen? Look for parallel ways in which the same thing can happen. Make a list of things that are analogous to, similar to, what you wrote down – come up with two or three, maybe more. How can you echo these images?
- Building up parallels to something that happens enrichens the story.
2. Think about the climax of your story, the high point in your novel – think about where it happens, the environment of climactic events. Take a look around at where this action is actually happening. Pick out one object. What’s there? Find at least three other places where we can see that object or something like it tree or four other times in the story.
3. What is the meaning of this image? Then plant it in other places, build up the symbolic value of that image. That symbol has resonance, carries meaning. It creates connections. Parallels, associativeness – called resonance. Echoes, ripples, mirrors … we can make those things. Not necessarily an accident. Something we can engineer into our story.
- What matters is that the association is made.
Exercise: Flash Symbols
Pick any scene in your book. What’s the most essential change that happens in that scene? What’s different? Pick something visual in that scene that reflects the change. Something small that represents that.
- E.g. Summer Sottage by Susan Wiggs – the half-finished house, the car fishtails (loses its way), the mailbox knocked over as she leaves (also the fluid doesn’t squirt, the windshield – can’t see, etc). The scene is so effective. She uses symbols like that through the novel. More symbolism throughout.
You cannot overdo these symbols and parallels. They feel contrived, and most readers don’t pick up on them, but they work. These connections enrich, resonate, even if the reader isn’t writing a term paper, it’s there, working on the reader.
In your story is there someone whose fortunes fall? Romance becomes impossible, healing becomes out of reach, seems to be increasing difficulty or failure? Is there a journey toward failure that someone has? Well, whose fortunes can rise? They succeed at something they’ve never been good at, meet the man of their dreams, get somewhere or get something that the’ve been struggling with? Can someone find an elusive faith?
- Sometimes parallels are the same thing happening in a different way, sometimes it’s a reversal.
- E.g. If something is lost, can something else be found? If someone dies, can someone be born?
Parallels and symbols – all part of beautiful writing, don’t require a gift with words. If you dthat, the Novel can become more resonant, more shapely, more brautifully crafted, more meaningful, more powerful.
Beautiful writing can also be …
Think about the milleu of your story. What kind of world does your story take place in? A small town, a fantasy realm, a time and place in history, the world of particle physics? Write down two or three things that protagonist sees about this world, place, time that no one else does.
What is one thing that the protagonist finds ironic about this world?
What is the one thing supremely beautiful, delicious about this world, that your character finds? Craft beer? Bread? What’s not to like about this world?
What’s one thing that is unbearable about this world? How can we possibly stand to live in a world in which ___ is present?
Think about the landscape, the environment, the surroundings? What is one unchanging feature that is always there, has been there, for aeons, or at least a long time? What meaning does your protagonist see in this thing that other people do not?
What is the place of fear, the dark place, the place you don’t go, the place you get warned about, the place where terrible things happen, the place of death? What is the cellar, the cave, the place of deepest fears? And when is your protagonist going to go there? And what happens, or doesn’t? What does she discover, or not? What secret is hiding there, is deepened?
- e.g. The Virgin of Small Plains – Nancy Picard – past mystery that comes to the forefront, secrets will come out, etc – gravesite becomes a place of events happening there, and a tornado sweeps through town – so many interconnections. (this book is the source of his class, “The Tornado Effect”) – A catharctic scene that seems like it’ll be the climax of the story, but then tops it with an even stronger climax
The world of the story – more importantly, the protagonist’s experience of the world she sees and feels and inhabits.
Throw “Description” out of the writer’s toolbox. Often it’s flat, something that readers skim. Nothing dynamic about it. The tool you need is Point of View Description – the unique way in which your point of view characters appropriate, experience, notice, infer about the world around them. The solid world we can see, the sounds, the temperature – the tangible world around us – but *also* the intangible things that we can see, taste, smell, touch, feel – the cruelty of the ATM machine that eats your plastic card because it’s expired and you needed $60. The irrational exhuberance and the horrible beastiality of Canucks Fans. Even the feeling in a crowd. If the character experiences that tangibility, then you’re recreating the world around us. We each experience it in different ways. We need the way our characters experience things on the page. Feelings, ironies, etc. We’re not just describing a place, we’re capturing a world. That’s beautiful writing.
Writing 21st Century Fiction is packed with prompts, tools, to help you develop and get more out of the story to try to draw something out, make it more powerful, give it greater impact.