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Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Master Class: The Emotional Craft of Fiction (SIWC 2014 Notes)

So, just under the wire, here's one of the biggest sets of notes I've taken (though taking a class from Donald Maass is always rich and educational and so, so worth it). SIWC 2015 begins tomorrow (with new Master Classes before the conference proper on Friday). The excitement has been building for weeks. So without further adieu, here is a set of notes that takes what we learned last week from Robert Wiersma about eliciting emotion from the reader, and seriously putting that to work. Enjoy!

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Master Class: The Emotional Craft of Fiction
Donald Maass

Have you ever read a novel that hooked you really hard on the first page, or first chapter, and kept you reading, but still didn’t leave you feeling engaged?

It was beautifully written, but left you feeling kinda cold.

What about a mile-a-minute potboiler that you found completely forgettable?

All kinds of fiction can leave us feeling cold and empty inside.
-          Can excite our imaginations but fail to engage our hearts
-          Authors often trying to motivate protagonists via external plot rather than via circumstances of something that’s locked inside of them
-          Emotional landscape that’s obvious and hackneyed. Emotions that are easy to write cause us to feel very little
-          Great hooks, premises, well-constructed characters yet still feel unengaged, uninvolved, unemotionally connected. It’s not the story, it’s the way the writers are writing.
-          Very readable, but not feeling enough.
-          Superbowl: Best commercials by best ad agencies. Terrific masterpieces of advertising. Can have you weeping in 30 secs. Wrings your heart. How can that make us feel more than we feel in 300 pages of manuscript?
-          Stories that really moved him – the emotional impact, the way stories affect readers, is a craft. Something we can study, do consciously as we write.
-          When you talk to readers about what they really love, the answer that comes back the most is “I love the characters”. This is misleading. What they really mean is not the characters per se, but what they felt as they read those characters. It’s the feelings we have as we encounter those characters that keep us coming back in series. It’s what we feel that makes them memorable. (And there’s research to back this up, too.)

There are four different ways to have stronger emotional effect
1.      What it is we report how our characters feel.
2.      What a character feels that we do not report to the reader. Feelings that we intuit the car has because of what they do, so we provoke the reader to feel what the character feels
3.      The things the reader feels that the characters don’t. Simply story circumstances that cause us to feel
4.      Our own emotional journey as authors. You cannot write a story without feeling something about it. As you write, you feel. We’re very wrapped up in our characters experience. But how do we translate what’s going on inside us so we can translate it from our minds to the page to the reader?

There are techniques to create stronger emotional effects so the readers feel engaged (a fancy word for feeling emotional): We want them to feel. That’s the effect that we want to have.

The Beginning

Let’s start at the beginning of your story. Identify where the story really starts. Not necessarily page 1 of your manuscript. What is the inciting incident? What is the agent of change? What first happens in the story to send your protagonist on a new path to discover/avoid/etc something? When is the moment that signifies “Things are going to change. Right now.” This is where change really begins. Inevitable, unstoppable, and things will change until they’re very different and won’t stop ’til then. What is it that begins change? Someone? Something that happens? Something that happens inside? This is the beginning of change.

This apprehension that things are moving in another direction, and protagonist is feeling that things are moving in another direction, summed up. What is the event? What is it that arrives to occasion change?

This thing that arrives/occurs, why does your protagonist care about it? Your protagonist cares. Why?

If you write that “I have to engage because it matters to other people, someone else will be affected” – that’s fine. We care about other things because they matter not only to us but other people. But that’s only the first level of why people care. That’s the external reason that causes your protagonist to care. But why do they care just for their own reasons? That matters to your character so they don’t let themselves down? Why does it matter to them? Or, if nobody else cared, why would your protagonist care despite that?

Poker – people who go all in before the flop turn it to roulette, not strategy – who cares? It’s a small game only for points, a mindless waste of time like solitaire – but he really gets worked up about it. Why does it matter to him? Because it takes the fun out of the game for him. Robs it of the drama, the emotion, the fun of guessing, of paying attention to the betting of the other players, of using your mind. It takes the emotion out of it, makes him not care.

So why does the inciting incident matter to your character? Why does it matter to your protagonist that this agent of change has arrived? What’s the best thing about it? What will it bring your protagonist that they’re lacking? What does your protagonist need that this change brings? What is the thing most fearful about it? What is your protagonist afraid that he or she may have to face? Change is good, but we all resist it. We don’t like new things. But we love new things. But we don’t like new things. Presents, good.

Why is this change good? Why is it bad?

Keep working on this moment in the story. Your protagonist cares and we’re starting to define why. But caring itself is a feeling. What is the best thing about it? Does it feel good to care, to be engaged? Is it exhilarating? Is it fresh, different? Create an analogy for this caring. What would it be analogous to? Like unwrapping a present? Talking to the doctor? Or something else?

Your protagonist cares, but what does the fact of caring about this say to the character about him or her self because they care at all?

How does it make the reader care that the protagonist cares?

Or, how is your character alone because he or she cares? Why is this going to isolate, make them a pariah because they care?

Your protagonist cares today about what has arrived, is bringing about change. Why does your protagonist care today more than yesterday? Or more than 10 years from now? What is it about now that makes it so important to your protagonist?

Finally, there’s a reason your protagonist shouldn’t care at all. Other things to worry about, things that matter more.

Now, in a paragraph, take your notes and answers from the above questions and craft it into a passage.

There are inhibitors as we write, about telling too much and having nothing left for the rest of the manuscript? Those are valid fears. Remember, one of the biggest challenges we face is that the readers are not feeling enough. We need them hooked, not engaged, immediately. If you’ve taken the reader inside your character and shown more than you want, then that’s okay. You’re not done wringing out your character.

Scenes (the change)

Scene by scene, step by step. Mostly we write scenes, sequences of collapsed times.

Exercise: Pick a scene that’s not especially dramatic, with emotional explosions, a scene that needs to be there even if not much happens. A “blah” scene.

Focus on that scene. In this scene, at the end, no matter how little happens, something is different. What is different that is true? Something affirmed? Something more puzzling? A shift in pereception? A new worry? Something more to do? What is different at the end of the scene than was true at the beginning?

Whatever it is, is the change. Think about this change and what it means for your pov character. Take a look at this character and the change that is underway in this scene. May be apparent right away, or the character is aware that the change has taken place.

What’s the best thing about it? Why is this good? Why does your protagonist like it? Why is it invigorating, challenging, exciting? Affirming?

You can work on “what is bad” about this change, but that’s what most people think. Nothing wrong with that, it’s what we expect.

What is different? Who will be different? How will the protagonist’s course of action be different than expected? What’s an implication of this change that your character can see? Who else will be affected that nobody will think about? What does your protagonist see before anyone else? How has the big picture shifted just a little because of this change? How has it been reframed, understood in a new way? This change has implications. How does your protagonist feel about those implications? How is it needed? Why?

If it’s a bad change, why is it good? If it’s a good change, why should we be worried?

How will this change affect one other person who is also in this scene? What do they feel? How do they feel it differently? How do they see what just happened? Now, take that perception and give that understanding to your protagonist, so they can see how this has affected that other person. Give your protagonist that perception. Then answer, how does it change your protagonist’s impression of that other character, too? What it is that your protagonist feels about this other person because they have a different reaction?

Something small has shifted here. How has your protagonist feel about himself or herself because of that? What does she or he know about herself or himself that they didn’t know before? How is it good? How is it disturbing? What does it feel like to be newly self-aware in this way, because something has changed and it cascades through your mind and you see yourself differently because of it? How? Is that good or bad?

This scene that we’ve been focusing on here. Is your protagonist or POV character feeling a little more alive in this scene? Are we digging inside this character a bit more? Are we changing this character in a way that feels like more? That’s good. Change affects people. When we see people change, we are moved. Change provokes us, no matter what that change is. Change stirs us up. So when you change your characters, your readers will be stirred. Provoked. They can’t help it.

This is something we can do in every scene. What if you did another draft and did nothing but focus on the change in scenes and how it makes the character different, and also looked at how other characters changed and gave insight to your character about this? What if a small change in circumstance in this plot affects the character deeply? Maybe the 300 pages are getting even deeper.

Something else: Let’s take a different scene. Pick a different scene from somewhere else in the middle of your novel. Write down what it is your pov character feels the most strongly about in this scene? What is the predominant emotion? Are they angry, horrified, overwhelmed, determined?

In so many manuscripts, the predominant emotion is some degree of fear. Worry, concern, apprehension, uncertainty, anxiousness, etc. That’s okay, it’s true, and we want our readers to worry, too. However.

Now write down something else that this POV character also feels while the events are unfolding. Something which they’re not immediately conscious or aware of. If we talked to them later, what else comes up besides the predominant emotion? A feeling of irony, hysteria, amusement (even while bad things are happening)? It’s another level of feeling.

Now, what is yet something else that this character feels as something happens that we could elicit from them later if we had a chance to talk to them about it? What else could they feel? Glad? Relieved? Did they think on their feet and rise to the occasion and that makes them feel better, stronger, more capable? Maybe they don’t feel it right away, but it’s in there. Do they see setbacks as a challenge, a test of resolve they’re determined to pass? What do they prove to others, themselves?

What does your character feel in this scene that’s unique to this character? What do they feel that’s different from what anybody else might feel?

Take this third feeling, and magnify it. Make this small feeling really big. The first thing your character feels. If it’s the first they feel, how do they express it to others? Or how do they show it? What do they do or say that makes it inescapable, unavoidable for us to know that they feel this way? What’s the biggest way to express this?

Create a gigantic metaphor for this feeling. How big is it? How would this be an elephant of a feeling?

Characters’ feelings are underreported. But what would happen if you substituted this feeling and showed no other feelings than this last one? (Aud: Because if it’s a self-centered, selfish, unflattering feeling, then the character would seem unlikeable.)

The characters of Gone Girl are unflattering. Crappy characters. The wife is a self-absorbed New Yorker, and the husband is the worst kind of guy, completely selfish, and their self-absorptions take over and their marriage dissolves. And we can’t take our eyes off them. We get to know them. The characters are not flattering and it didn’t seem to matter. Because everything the author reported was true. These unflattering feelings are ones we recognize and identify with. We’ve all done and felt those things. Their self-awareness is a strength and gives us compassion.

Don’t be afraid to show the reader something negative about the character. Because they care about something else. Once the reader is emotionally hooked, they’ll keep reading.

The more honest, true, and accurate you are, the more you catch the reader by surprised by the true but unexpected emotions you portray, the more you catch the reader by surprise and make them feel what the character feels, because then you’ve made space for the reader to feel the top/primary emotion.

Secondary emotions surprise us, which is why they work. Obvious emotions don’t surprise us, which is why they don’t work.

Of course his guts twisted in fear. It’s a cliché, an emotional cliché, and the reader doesn’t resonate.

e.g. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – the part with the woman with the match, backing out of the house. Yes he feels apprehension, disturbed, but he’s excited about burning books. Even when he’s disturbed by it, he’s still excited by the fire at night. Nobody feels tense here, but we do. Not just the fact that a fire is about to start. What makes it work is that Montag is excited. And we’re caught by surprise in this moment, which allows us to feel the terror, revulsion, tension that Bradbury really wanted us to feel. And he notices how someone else is feeling too, with Captain Beatty keeping his dignity by backing out slowly. He doesn’t mind the woman’s about to immolate herself, he can keep his dignity. That’s a lot better than writing that Montag’s guts twisted in fear. It made *our* guts twist in fear instead.

The Principle of Emotional Surprise – it’s an important one. When we write in this way, explore emotions like this, we can start to experience emotions on the page. And we can make mundane things poetic.

Genre writers may feel that evoking feelings cheapens the work. Likewise with very literary writers. Thrillers in particular don’t put a premium on feelings. Action, hook the reader, keep moving, never stop. (Same with romance.) The great series characters are characters we feel a lot more about. Maybe you’re feeling like Hemingway. “Recreate faithfully and accurately the experience you had so that when you do the reader will feel what you felt”. All for showing, not for telling. He didn’t hate emotion, he hated writing emotion. And it worked.

But dry, undernourished manuscripts that don’t talk about feelings can cause us not to feel anything. And editors/agents can say, “Take out that emotional experience, it’s antithetical to plot”. So why did it work for Hemingway but not for others? Because Hemingway was able to make us feel things that other writers can’t because he was playing a trick on us. The difference is that the scene has strong feeling inherent in it anyway. “Hills Like White Elephants” is about two people sitting in a café talking and nothing happens at all. Except that these two characters talk around what they’re talking about. They avoid talking about what they’re talking about. “It’s a very simple procedure, really” and she dodges it. He doesn’t have to report the feelings much because everyone is going to have an opinion about abortion. They weren’t talking about something banal. And in “Now I Lay Me” he starts a story with a character sleeping, dreaming, thinking about the silkworms eating, thinking and remembering how a war explosion has affected him and that makes us feel something. Because he’s writing about near-death experiences and being afraid to die. Death evokes emotions. When you write about big stuff the emotions are present already. And with “I listened to the silkworms eating” we’re already creeped out.

Try this: Choose a moment in your story when your protagonist faces a difficult choice or needs something very badly or has a shock, an unwelcome realization of sometime, suffers a grievous setback or affects someone else grievously. A dramatic turning event in the story. Let’s go there. Now put this moment in the story into mind. Think about the ways when this moment your protagonist is conflicted. E.g. Hemingway: he needs to sleep, can’t go to sleep. As we find ourselves in this moment, where are we? One or two details unique to this setting. Something different about it. (e.g. silkworms). What’s different in your story? What’s happening that we can see? What do other characters say? Make what is done a little bigger, make what is said a little stronger. How can what is spoken at this moment be shouted? How can a gesture turn into an action? What can your character physically do that we can see that would be symbolic? What might your character do that would deny what he or she feels? Does the character force him or her self to do this? Instead of what they should do, what does this character do differently? How do they substitute one emotion for another (i.e. run away) in this moment? Even if it’s just counting the exits, showing that they want to run away, but they don’t.

Now what is it that your character actually feels? (e.g. “I was afraid of going to sleep.”) Write it down. And then cross it out. You are forbidden from writing that in this scene. You must make me feel that with everything else in this scene. Can you do that?

Work on the circumstances of the scene, the gestures, the denial, etc, until it’s perfectly obvious what they feel until it’s perfectly obvious what they’re feeling even if we don’t state it outright.

e.g. Counting the exits shows the desire to escape, without saying it.

How do we make it stronger still?

Suppose you had to show in one gesture what it is the character feels but you can’t tell the reader directly, exactly what it is. How will we know that they feel this way? The obvious would be blatant statements.

This works because this is a pivotal moment. Dramatic situations with emotions inherently attached to them. Ordinary stuff does not necessarily provoke emotion in the reader. Dramatic does. By using emotions that are ripe in the situation, without stating it, and focusing on that, you can have more emotional effect. Not just, “they’re running running running” and we should feel “fear, fear, fear”.

Keep digging. Find something that works. By exploring what else they feel, and how it’s different. The reason emotions feel cheap is because they’re cheap emotions. When we surprise readers, even the most common, run away thriller scenario can be enhanced by attaching unexpected feelings.

Communicating Dry Information

Dry information (e.g. in science, historical, important details in science fiction and fantasy) that you have to explain to the reader in the context of the story for the story to make sense – dull stuff. Dry stuff. How do you get it across without slowing things down?

Well, what info do you need to get across? Pick one thing. Whose POV are we going to be in when this info ahs to be delivered? Who is the vehicle when the info is given to the reader? Now, your character has knowledge the reader doesn’t. But let’s take a look at your character. Who knows something the reader needs to know. What matters is this:
-          This information that they have, that we need to understand. How does your character feel about it?
-          What is good and satisfying about it? What does your character say to himself or herself thinking about it? How does your character feel when they are doing this action? How can the reader relate to those feelings? (e.g a doctor that wants to help a patient with various symptoms who won’t tell her what’s going on because it’s clear that the patient was trying to decide whether or not to trust her – we see the doctor’s concern that something else is going on. So we can relate to the doctor.) SO. What is it in this information that concerns or worries your character? What is ambiguous, potentially dangerous? What suggests we should be afraid of it? What new possibilities have arisen now that we have this new information? What will it mean in the future? What does this information mean? What implications of this information are exciting, concerning? What will the character have to do differently because of this information? In what way is this information a metaphor for something else? What does it cause your character to think differently about something else?
-          What makes information (data), historical, worldbuilding, technical, scientific, anything that is dry or factual, just pure data, and will lie flat and dull on the page until it means something to the character. Until the character has something to feel about it. How the character questions or worries or becomes excited about it.
-          Dan Brown’s The DaVinci code – fully a third of the book was dry information, so how did Dan Brown get all of this info across to the reader without boring the reader? Because he gives each of the three main characters an area of expertise, and the others think they know more than the other two. And they debate it. There’s a power struggle going on between the three characters, all trying to top each other, doubting what the others say, calling it into question and raising additional issues and they all have different opinions. And they’re constantly debating it. \
-          Attach feelings to information, and that information becomes engaging to read. Because they we feel things about the characters, especially how they react to information. If info or learning info stirs the character up, that gets us interested.
-          Remember: outer journey (events of story, plot, things we can see) vs. inner journey (how the characters undergo change or transformation, grow or fall apart) – the long inner change unfolding. Get them working together. Fasten them together so they form a strong hold like structure in a building. Feelings, emotion, meaning are the way to do that.
-          Take any event, and focus on how that event affects the character’s inner personal journey.
-          Also, you can externalize feelings to an event. You can attach that emotion (internal) to something else. Attach that feeling to an event. (In a saga, carrying a struggle or need forward.) Find big meaning in small events and dig out overlooked things that are highly meaningful from large events. Even doing the dishes can be profound, if you work with emotions.

The Reader’s Emotional Arc

We can also provoke emotions not part of the character’s experience, that only the reader feels. What is the reader’s emotional arc? What are they experiencing as they read the story?

Mostly, authors want the reader to feel what the protagonist feels. But that’s not the only journey the reader can go on. You can actually manipulate the reader to feeling things they might not want to feel otherwise.

Pick another important character in your story. Or your novel’s general setting. Take a look at this character or setting. At four points in the story (beginning, major middle turning point, climax, end) and at each four points don’t look at what’s happening in the story but what our reader feels about this character or setting. What is it that you want the reader to feel?

What is our first impression? What would you like the reader’s impression to be? When they first see this, what would you like the reader to feel?

Now, your target is what the reader is going to feel. You can either create one detail to feel what you want them to feel, or you can give this feeling to your protagonist.

Middle turning point: How does this change? How do you want your reader to feel? How is this more complicated, dangerous, intriguing, beautiful than we thought at first? What hidden side will we have seen by this time?

1.      Give this new, nuanced, different perception by showing what the reader says or does, or by noticing something different, or give this to your protagonist to convey
2.      This new perception – in what way is this new perception completely wrong? What have we missed? What don’t we know yet? What is even more deeply hidden? What is an even bigger surpise about this person or place? What will we reveal, for good or ill? What is a secret about this person or place that we don’t know yet? What are you hiding from the reader? What would this person or place like to hide? What would be too embarrassing to reveal?
3.      You can change your reader’s opinion one more time – by the time the climax comes around, tell the reader what to really think about this character or place. Until.
4.      What do you want your reader to feel about this person or place at the end of the story? What new way can we understand this story? Can your protagonist see that this place is neither good or bad is just the same? What’s one unchanging feature that your character can come to appreciate by the end of the story? Can a good place become ordinary? A bad place become just a place? Same with character. How can we appreciate them in a nuanced, balanced manner by the end of the story?

Have you been able to change your reader’s opinion four times? If so, you’re manipulating the reader. But you’re causing them to feel differently. Most importantly, you’re causing them to feel. And that’s what matters.

Oh, and

One more thing – and this radical proposition – It doesn’t matter what your story is about. It doesn’t matter what happens. It doesn’t matter what kind of characters you’ve chosen. It doesn’t matter what style you write in, a quiet writer, a dramatic writer, objectively or with a lot of voice. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a lot to say or hardly anything at all. What matters is how much your reader feels, regardless of what you’re writing or the style. What matters is they go through a strong experience, have a lot of feelings. Readers will be stirred and will remember. A television commercial can do this. So can your story.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Making Readers Cry (SIWC 2014 Notes)

Three types of editing rule my life. The first involves my day job. The second, my freelance work. More on that later (at this rate, probably after this year's SIWC, which happens next week; watch me play catch up again!) In the meantime, have some notes from last October that slipped through the cracks, most likely due to the third type of editing (and one of the main reasons I've been busy lately): my own revisions.

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Making Readers Cry
(or, How to Elicit Emotions in Fiction)
Robert J. Wiersma

Making readers cry is a specific example of what we’re all looking for: a chance to connect. If you’re writing a funny book, you want the reader to laugh. Polemical, to think/come around to your pov. Sad, you want them to cry. You want the reader to react.

Buzzword: Elicit
-          As writers, we have to depict events, emotions, situations. Paint the characters. But it’s possible to go too far, to forget that we want to connect. And in order to connect, we have to elicit emotions.
-          Showing a character laugh isn’t that funny. You need the reader to laugh.
-          It's not enough to depict the character having a sad moment. You need the reader to feel that gut punch.
-          In life it’s awful to be called a manipulative person. Everybody does it slightly, it’s a part of life. But if you get a reputation as a manipulative person, then no one wants you around.
-          But as writers it’s our job to manipulate.
-          Fiction is a byproduct of the imagination. But through  fiction it’s our job to reveal deeper truths by manipulating the reader. If you are bad at it, then you’re as shamelessly manipulative as a long distance commercial. But if you’re good at it, then it will elicit exactly what you need without seeming manipulative.
-          When someone picks up your story, they expect to be manipulated, so they want this.
-          Writing is a curatorial process. It’s important not to put everything on the page. Important to hold back. But if you don’t hold back, how does the reader know what’s important?
-          Decide what’s important, what you include, to guide the reader though the experience of the story or book in order to reach the effect you want.
-          Only include detail if it contributes to your manipulation of the reader. If you don’t, you institute a degree of cognitive dissonance in the reader’s mind. If the appearance is important, include it. If it’s not important enough to include, don’t. It may even be damaging.
-          Curate and manipulate.

When have you as a reader or television viewer been manipulated to tears? (Examples from audience)
-          The Notebook
-          Paul Potts
-          Funeral, when small children are saluted
-          Little Women
-          The opening sequence to Up

Now think about real life.
-          Example: A gunned down RCMP officer – where officers from across the country converged to honour that – all of these strong men and women were not in tears, being silently respectful
-          Our collective subconscious gets affected very deeply by events such as this.
-          We’re prewired to feel these feelings.
-          News stories are as curated as fiction if not more so. Details are left out, events are shaped into a narrative to create the effect they want it to have. Part of that which works (in real life and fiction) is mirroring. We see emotions, and as naturally empathic people, we react to them. When someone cries, we get sniffly. The trouble with that is that we end up with the possibility of sentimentality. And when you’re trying to elicit genuine emotion, it’s easy to do it wrong.
-          Sentimentality is cheap, crass, lowbrow, and effective. It taps into our pre-existing collective emotional touchpoints. Marketers know these very well, and it works.
-          In a book, it’s cheap. We can do better.
-          Sentimentality is unplanned. Like Robin Williams’ Dead Poets Society’ speech in the  iPad commercial. Very effective. And then he died, and Apple didn’t pull the commercial. Because the message was Carpe Diem.
-          But the crassness of them not removing the commercial is a hazard of sentimentality.
-          You don’t want sentimentality. But you should not be afraid of sentiment. It’s genuine, it grows out of character.
-          Everything in writing comes out of two things: story and character.
-          Story is in opposition to plot.
-          Plot is an arbitrary construct imposed from the outside by an author in the position of god.
-          Plot-driven fiction and narrative. Harlequin is plot structure. Same structure every time. And people gravitate towards them because there’s a safety to them, like cozy mysteries. Or Law & Order (the original series). Written like clockwork. The crimes were horrendous, but the narrative was structured to the point of safety. Plot is not story.
-          Story is organic and based on the actions and reactions of characters.
-          You can’t have a story without characters.
-          Story moves organically through actions and reactions of characters.
-          Characters are revealed and developed through the movement of the story.
-          Story is character. Character is story.

Relatability of character
-          The concept that characters don’t need to be relatable – but having an unrelatable, prickly, unlikable female character is somehow seen as bizarre and undesirable
-          Some writers have gone public with the concept that likability is not essential
-          Likability is not essential for a main character, but relatability is different.
-          We don’t need to relate to characters, but it helps when you’re forging a connection.
-          We can relate to Humbert Humbert in Lolita not by the actions he takes, but as a human being. As a narrator, he’s emotionally accessible. It's an uncomfortable reading experience (for men and women in utterly different ways) – and yet somehow Nabokov affects us emotionally by the end.
-          It's essential for characters to be relatable. But how do you make your characters relatable?
-          This occurs through action. Discovers them as the reader does, by showing them in action. By showing what they do, documenting what they say, and playing with the space between those things. And then, what they do alone. How they are in the dark. What haunts them. The best way to do this is to allow characters to move. To react.
-          The point where the story starts is the inciting incident.
-          It is as close to the beginning as possible.
-          In Quantum physics, the ultiple universe theory: every action creates a multiverse. We create a universe with every choice
-          How the story moves will reveal those characters to us.
-          These are moments of emotional truth that you reveal that make the reader uncomfortable but are emotionally true enough to carry the narrative forward.
-          Let the narrative reveal the character step by step.
-          It's not our duty to redeem the characters by the end of the story; it's only our duty to remain true to the characters. If you can redeem them in an emotionally true way, then great. But you have to keep true to them as you slowly reveal them.
-          The death scene in Little Women works because you’ve spent so much time with the characters and come to know them so well. Domestic familiarity with them.
-          One of the things you want to maintain is questions. You don’t want to reveal everything at once. And one question that threads through the narrative is, “Who are these people, really? What will they do when confronted by these situations?”
-          You want to dance along the line between sentimentality and sentiment. Like a little girl saying, “My sky blue dress, mommy, because of the sky”. Be aware of using sentimentality but not surrendering to it. Use it in the service of sentiment.

Embrace the Pain
-          Underwrite. Always underwrite. You’ll be tempted when you reach a big emotional moment to use all of the tools at your disposal. But rein it in. Give the reader something to mirror from. You want the reader to know the character is in emotional distress, but you don’t want to wallow it. The key to making the reader cry is to hold off on making the character cry.
-          Alien is terrifying because it uses the fundamental truth. What you can’t see is scarier. What you imagine is more terrifying than what you see. Yes, the alien is terrible, but once you see it, the tension stops. It's no longer horror, but a thriller. And that change comes at the moment you see the creature. Yes it’s exciting and thrilling, but the tension dissipates. The same is true with emotion. You need the reader to mirror it. The longer you can hold off the climax of that visible emotion, the better. You want the reader to cry, so don’t let the character cry. The longer you put it off, the better. Plunge the reader into the emotion to such a deep degree that you make them cry.
-          Skirt sentimentality as much as you can. Walk the line.
-          Codicil: “It’s going to hurt.” It’s going to hurt you. There is no way around that. If it doesn’t have an emotional effect on you, it won’t have an effect on the reader.
-          It is perfectly human and likely human to flinch, but you can’t flinch in telling the story. It’s a betrayal of the contract you have with the reader. If you flinch, the reader will notice. Flinching makes you pull back from the path you’re on, that you and the reader are committed to. You’re no longer following the emotional truth. You can’t flinch. So, are you strong enough to break your own heart? Over and over again?
-          That’s how you measure the effectiveness of what you’re doing. If it’s not hurting you to write scenes that are hurtful, you’re not effective enough.
-          We build stories out of emotional character actions. We want readers to say “I didn’t see that coming, but I should have.” You don’t want them to say, “That was a cheat.”
-          Mirror: The reaction that when you see someone in distress, you react in distress. It’s part of our humanity. You see someone with a deeply invested emotional reaction, and you react to that.
-          Gone Girl – the fact that they ended up together. It’s a surprising ending but it couldn’t have ended any other way because they are perfect for each other.

Audience Question: How to you get off the page without revealing too much of yourself?
-          Work from within, but write from outside, too. Blur and blend those elements. That gets you the freedom. Don’t blanch at drawing too deeply from yourself, so long as you’re avoiding writing about you.

Audience Question: How do we know that the emotion will well up in someone else?
-          Don’t describe the emotion. Describe what elicits it. So long as the reader has some kind of connection with the character, they’ll feel it, too.
-          Don’t think that showing the reaction is going to elicit the emotion.
-          It's better to have details than an emotional outburst.
-          Even if you're writing someone emotionally losing it, you can underwrite it by not emotionally blurting, though that lets the reader off the hook if they can see it on the page. Like whispering a poem in a dying child’s ear (in Before I Wake)

Audience Question: How do you know you haven’t stepped over?
-          As a writer you’re never 100% sure, but editors and critique partners will let you know. And then you can improve it
-          Sentimentality may provoke resentment.

Audience Question: How do you handle emotion depending on what part of the book it is?
-          If you begin with an event, the character’s reactions to the event will reveal them.
-          Be open to surprise. You know more about the characters than you think you do.
-          Delayed reaction, pacing and tension, sentence length can also work with this.
-          Dig into the emotional scene. Let time elapse. Let things happen. Don’t just rush ahead to where you want to go; make space to allow things to occur naturally.
-          It can be okay to label the emotion.

Monday, September 28, 2015

What Makes Fantasy Epic? (Emerald City Comic-Con 2015 Writing Panel Notes)

What Makes Fantasy Epic?
Peter Orullian, Robin Hobb, Patrick Rothfuss, Peter V. Brett, Steven Erikson
Moderator: Ellen Guon Beeman

The definition of epic fantasy, how it’s evolved, and how they create their worlds.

Would you say there are specific styles, plots, or characters that make it epic?
RH: It’s a story that is world-changing. But the author decides the size of that world.
PR: Everybody does it for a different reason. Ultimately, it’s about bigness. Bigness of book, bigness of story, bigness of world. He doesn’t think he belongs in epic fantasy – more heroic fantasy. His works are big in scope of character.
PB: These genres we cram works into to place in a bookstore are useful tools, but he knows no authors bound by the rules of specific subgenres. These labels are tacked onto the work after it’s done to sell it. Broad in scope, characters go on journeys.
PR: Likes the term BFFBig Fat Fantasy is a clear, defining label.
PO: Different labels are attached by different readers, which frustrates the marketers too. It’s interesting to think about reader response defining category as well.
SE: Epic fantasy is the origins of literature. The trunk of the tree. Everything else has branched out from that. Yet it doesn’t get the critical acknowledgement that other epics do.
PR: It’s a weird inverted hierarchy – stories are classed by their props rather than their substance. If you think about it, Stranger in a Strange Land is sci-fi because there’s a Martian, when really if you think about it now, it’s more urban fantasy. Cowboys equal westerns. It’s not about substance but about scenery. Props of epic fantasy: Horses, nobleman, prophecy, etc.
PB: Magic is the defining part of fantasy, which is why there’s such a big argument over whether Star Wars is fantasy.
PR: Can’t agree that magic is a defining characteristic. It’s a sense of the wondrous, and magic’s an easy way to achieve that.
PO: Believes that magic is a vital part.
PB: Even if there’s no palpable evidence about it. Magic can be subtle.
PR: This may be a semantic discussion. Fantasy engages with the wondrous.
SE: It’s an extension of imagination.
PR: And science fiction is a subset of fantasy.

Specific characteristics that the hero has to display?
PR: You need a protagonist. Defining characteristics – we have tropes, but those are getting hammered into gravel to the better of the genre.
PB: The hero is *stubborn*.
EGB: Persistent.
PB: Sure, if you want to be nice about it. Bossy.
PR: We have done a better job of remembering what a hero is all about. A big person. Ancient Greek definition: A great man who falls from a height with a tragic flaw who screws up everything. A lot of genres have moved away from that, but fantasy has not. Superman is an adolescent power fantasy. He doesn’t have flaws.
SE: We have infantilized our heroes. Fantasy as a genre is not immune to it; but it’s more that action films reduce the notion of the hero to sociopathic vengeance. Issues with notion of hero. He tries to dismantle it.
PR: In Smallville, who was the interesting character as the show progressed? Lex Luthor. Superman’s so perfect, it’s the villain who’s more interesting. Like Herod. The one people show up to watch.

Are writers moving away from the flawed hero?
PR: We’re all about the flawed.
PB: We’ve even taken it to having the villain as the protagonist in different books. The idea of the cartoonish villain doesn’t exist so much – people have legitimate arguments about what they want and demonize the other side to justify their path of violence.
SE: Villains don’t think of themselves as villains.
PB: One trait that connects them is they solve their problems with violence. That’s what infantilizes them.
PR: There’s an SMBC cartoon – about Superman getting confronted by various “I’m not the villain,” and Superman doesn’t know who to punch. Terry Pratchett’s stories had characters on the edge of the stories that you get to know. Characters who initially are viewed culturally as the bad guys, you realize are just guys. And not a boring story because he showed a dozen times that the people you thought were bad are actually just people. It’s a lesson the world needs to hear a dozen times before it starts to soak in.
PO: It’s a powerful thing when you see the villains do something compassionate, when you get a chance to see that side. And when you see them do this, it throws the reader for a loop, deepens the story when you show the other sides. And when good characters make bad decisions in the interest of good – character building techniques. Done more often these days and it’s good.

In terms of techniques of where to start, do you have any advice? Where do you begin?
All: Draw a map!
RH: Never started out to write all the books she did in the same setting. Never sat down and said, “I’m going to do that.” It unfolds and unfolds and unfolds. You start to see connections. A lot of our writing happens in the subconscious. It’s a game you’re playing with your own mind.
PR: In terms of where you start, we’ve dug a deep groove in the genre because Tolkien had such a deep shadow. LOTR hit and suddenly there was a huge market demand for more like that. And that led to less-than-artistic books being wrote. And that begat a third gen of Tolkien-esque, and people decided to ask, “What is epic fantasy” and they defined it upon that. Tolkien didn’t define that. He was just a geek about languages and mythology. His passions informed his world and that’s what made it so cool and appealing. PR cares about history, sociology, dead religions and writes about that. You should write about what you dig. Do *that*.
PO: It’s interesting that there’s fantasy being written these days where something doesn’t need to be punched. It’s not necessarily all large scale wars.
PB: Violence can solve some of the problems.
PO: So much in PR's books that is written is cerebral. The hero doesn’t need to be scaling toward an epic grand scheme.
PR: Different characters approach things differently.
PB: Characters can find other ways to solve the problems.
PR: Classic quote: Fairy tales exist not to tell us there are dragons, but that dragons can be beat. That’s an oversimplification – we live in a scary world and it’s easy to feel powerless. In the folk tales someone disadvantaged used their cleverness to overcome a big problem. That metaphor is so appealing and gets repeated so often that it becomes the problem.
SE: It’s almost an oversimplification to simply just look at Tolkien as the progenitor. Stuff came out of pulp fiction and noir, too. Bear in mind that he’s not the only launching point. His legacy might be that he’s holding back Fantasy in terms of criticism. And when writing a series, you can screw up your editors by saying, “No, you can’t cut that because that comes back in Book #X.”

Audience Question: When you learn the rules of thumb and agreement that they can be broken, how much can you break them once you know them?
PB: That’s a big part of being a writer. We learn the rules and then we break them. Knowing where those rules are makes the work much stronger. Easier when you understand them before breaking.
PR: Successful criminals know what the law is. (Called lawyers usually)
SE: We all know the tropes. We’re taking on the subversion of those tropes now.
PR: Do whatever you want so long as it works. Best rule, but the most useless guidance.
RH: IF you’re breaking a rule solely for breaking, that’s not okay. “This is my story. My story breaks the rule, and that’s okay”.
PO: Rule avoidance is a problem, too.

Audience Question: How much can you make an epic fantasy mundane?
RH: Depends on how much you stretch it. If you’re writing anything mundane in your world you must be as accurate as possible in those mundane things in order for the reader to believe those fantastical things.
PO: Except for traveling.
PR: Shadowfax the horse is a big part of what made Gandalf cool.

Audience Question: When do you put themes of making fantasy more grounded in reality with themes you can relate to in the real world?
RH: When he has more questions than answers, he looks at something from several different angles, not to give the reader answers but to explain the world to herself.
PB: There are two parts of the story – what happens, and how the characters feel about something that happens. And the latter is more important. And what happens takes a back seat to the adventure. Emotions should resonate with the reader.

Audience Question: How do you name things?
PB: Big book of baby names. Changes the spelling.
PO: Finds consonants and vowels that sound good together.
RH: The obit page will take back to names that have become uncommon. Also play around with language. Take a Latin-based noun and turn it into somebody’s name. Eg. Verity sounds pretty but also means truth.
PR: Not enough time to talk about it right now – this needs its own panel.

Audience Question: When using legends and myths – are things to avoid? What do you do to avoid tropes?
Legends have been told and retold.
PR: Avoids prophecy. Such BS.
SE: You can have the prophecy so confused that no one can figure it out.
PR: Cheap tension, not developing story enough.
PB: One thing is consistent: There was a time gone by previous to another time for our heroes in almost every major story he can think of. A moral guide that seems inherent in most fantasies.
PR: Legend – something happened in the past; prophecy – something happened in the future. Legend is better because it’s a mystery you’re trying to uncover. He’s morally offended by prophecy.
PO: In world development, past events can influence your world as it is today. He’s not a fan of prophecy, either, but legends can be peppered into work.

SE: You can also use prophecy to mess with readers’ heads.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


This is just a quick note to reassure folks that I'm still around, but that I've been far busier than I ever imagined. Good things, in the long run, but definitely things that take away from this.

More to follow soon, and I hope to get some notes up shortly. I, um, kinda have a backlog.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Beyond the Children’s Section: Writing YA (Emerald City Comic-Con 2015 Writing Panel Notes)

Another YA panel? Yes, but just as we've learned with the sex panels, each time a writer or group of writers tackles this subject, the information rendered is unique. Enjoy!

* * *

Beyond the Children’s Section: Writing YA
Aaron Michael Ritchey, Holly Black, Lisa Mantchev, Rachel Hartman, Arwen Elys Dayton
Moderator: John Lovett

What are the characteristics that you’ve found that make for a YA market?
AD: Wrote a book and paid no attention to genre; it happens the four main characters at the centre of the story are teens. It’s a minefield that we go through in life and a very interesting part of life to examine.
RH: YA for her has to do with the themes. The time in your life when you’re stepping out, emerging, coming out and trying to figure out who you are, all the possibilities ahead of you. As opposed to adult lit where you’ve made your mess and must lie in it.
LM: Similar experience: wrote the story she wanted to write. It just happened to be YA. Now she knowingly writes YA as a theme, the coming of age story, foundation issues for a YA novel.
HB: What defines a YA novel is a teen protagonist. Certain themes and characteristics throughout, but there are outliers that don’t have those things. It really does come down to a teenage protagonist.
AR: Wanted to write YA. Yes, it’s a teen protagonist going through teenager things, but also dealing with other things.
HB: YA didn’t used to exist the way it did now. Most people just transitioned to writing adult novels. Remember that you’re competing with adult books. You’re writing the experiences of a teenager. Otherwise, they’ll go read adult books.
AR: It’s the emotional vibrancy.

We’ve talked about the characteristics of this market. Are the characters supposed to be two years older? Are the sentences longer (as per Stackpole)?
RH: It’s not our job to plan that.
LM: It may be a 10-year-old advanced reader or their grandmother who bought it for them. Lots of people read YA. Not just kids or the target audience. Syntax, etc, are editorial decisions.
AD: People are more willing these days to talk about what happened when they were teens. But don’t write down or talk down to a teenager. You don’t dumb it down.
RH: When you were young, you were used to learning new words through context.
HB: Idea of aging up the character: most of the time, readers like reading characters a little bit older than them, to tell whether they like it or not to figure out whether a character is right for them. If you get asked to age up or down a character by the publisher, you don’t have to. And making sentences shorter. YA allows for more complex sentences. MG wants more simple sentences. And when people are talking about YA, they are often thinking about MG. HP and Percy Jackson behave like seventeen year olds in a middle grade.
AD: Problem with Harry Potter – Rowling made no distinction between MG and YA. She had the luxury of working between both.
LM: She deliberately did not choose to focus on teen issues. Partly because the aspects of being teens were not important when dealing with the world-at-stake issues.
AR: What it really comes down to is the sex stuff. You can kill, but the moment you add the sex stuff. There are no rules; what works, works.

Speaking of the Harry Potter series – YA used to be Burroughs and Tarzan. How has the YA market fundamentally changed, and how do you think the Harry Potter series has influenced the YA market, and where is it going?
HB: HP is not YA. Has changed the MG market, adding younger middle grade and older middle grade. Big series that affected things: Gossip Girl, Twilight, the Hunger Games. What we see as YA has shifted. And it’s still in flux. It’s way different than it was a few decades ago. And some YA back then would be considered MG.
LM: Write what you really want to write; don’t chase a trend. The digital revolution has now found new homes for books. As YA authors it’s now limitless possibilities as for what you want to write and how you want to get it out there.
RH: Agrees that HP is MG. But it is directly responsible for YA authors being able to publish600 page books. Twilight, too. Opened doors for longer manuscripts being accepted.
AD: YA used to be less about how old you were than what you were interested in reading. Now kids have very big books. Write what you want to write; it finds the audience.
LM: Also, YA saved the industry. Parents would still buy their kids books even when the economy tanked. YA was the one category that outperformed every age group every year.
AR: One of the reasons why is that you have this emotional vibrancy in teen fiction. You get that in YA books because it is such a vibrant part of our life. And an emotional vibrancy in the fan base. Also, the coming of age story is so great because it’s such a hopeful arc. Madeline L’Engle: If you really want to write complex stories, don’t write for adults, write for younger stories.
HB: Not just page length or series length. Release dates, midnight releases, now have become a thing.
LM: This is how big it’s become.
AD: Entirely new territory.

In the context of writing a YA novel, are there stereotypes of characters and tropes you’d suggest that authors avoid? What would be the least and most successful?
RH: Use any trope you want, but you have to earn it, own it, make it yours. They’re not bad in and of themselves. You use them and think about them and be aware of when you’re doing them. Stereotypes arise from a lack of understanding. Notice how you use these building blocks, try not to fall into the traps   before.
AD: You can’t come up with something wholly original; it’s about the story, lets it grow in its own space as its own story.
LM: Just because something has been done already doesn’t mean you can’t do it better. You get your craft to the point that you know what you can do with a story. Make it worth reading. Uses TV tropes.
HB: Write a book that you the reader would truly love. Then hope other people will love that too. Try not to write nostalgically about childhood/youth. Remember what it was truly like to be there. Write for yourself then and yourself now.
AR: It takes courage and bravery to do that. Being a writer is an act of absolute courage and daring. And what you write can have an impact on a writer. Write the books that will save someone else’s life.

Audience question: What is your research process when writing a marginalized character?
HB: It’s the iceberg. You’ll have to do a lot of research that won’t show up in your work. Make sure that you do this respectfully and well. Have folks of that marginalized group read it for authenticity. You’re creating a character with the weight of representing that. One of the ways to do that well is to hopefully not have that character be the token, only person of that marginalized group.
LM: Have your ducks in a row, use beta readers to get feedback. Some will not be offended, some will be very offended. And you will still screw up. No way to write a perfect character. And you’ll still get feedback about how folks feel you represented that character. And it’s important that you do it well because kids will see themselves in that character.
RH: Whatever their backgrounds are, it’s about extreme empathy, finding the part of that character somewhere inside yourself to be able to write them. And then, when you do receive criticism, find a way to deal with it and empathize again.
AR: And be courageous. It will happen. If you start doing stuff out of the norm, you will get attacked. We have to have diversity. It’s our job as authors to show it.
AD: If there’s someone in your life that you get to know and research it that way, great. Research with love. Once you capture that you have a fairly good chance of the words coming out right, the story heading in the right direction.

When you start outlining a story, do you focus on certain parts specifically?
AR: Goes through the 14 points in Save the Cat. Has to have the beginning hook and the climax, then follows the 14 beats.
HB: All over the place. We talk a lot about plotters and pantsers and it’s very clear but experience is that most people exist on a spectrum. Even plotters don’t stick to their outlines. Everyone has the process that they’ve come to.
LM: Everyone does it differently. No one can turn in a perfect draft. Everything good in a draft happens in revisions. All of us have files of versions of the books that will never see the light of day. Also, keep your ducks in a row for book 1 so that the details for book 3 are consistent and don't contradict book 1.
RH: Process for each book is different in each book.
NG: You never learn how to write a book. You learn how to write *this* book.
AD: A method you learn is likely only applicable to the book you are working on. Updates outline to match what she’s written. If an outline helps, go with it, otherwise throw it out. Whatever gets the book written is the process that works.

When do you share excerpts with others, who do you share with?
AD: Shares it with only a few close first readers, and watches their body language.
RH: Has two beta-reader friends.
LM: Shouts ideas through the shower to husband and daughter. If their reactons are good, that works for her. Also has done collaborations with others and working together, having someone immediately looking over your shoulder that’s as invested has been very interesting, both invigorating and challenging.
HB: Mostly shares with author friends, and formal critique group when done.