Monday, July 7, 2014
The Alchemy of Fiction
Alchemy can be described as the process of sublimating base materials into precious metals; of turning lead to gold. The process is both mystical and scientific, involving specific materials and properly observed rituals that will only work if the alchemist is a master of his art.
There’s a certain alchemy to writing good fiction. First and foremost, you need your base material--your creative vision. Turning that into a book requires a host of skills, both enigmatic and exact, that must be refined through thousands of hours of trial and error.
Here, then, are ten tips to being a fiction alchemist.
1. State your alchemical intentions
Whether you call it a thesis statement, a lead, an executive summary or a pitch, you should be able to come up with one to three sentences that capture the soul of your story. What is the central concept of its action, mood, message, and characters? Even if you have a complex plot, you can still clearly, succinctly define its core. As the story starts to wind in strange directions that you find hard to follow, you can reign it in by coming back to your story’s soul. In doing so, you’ll better nurture your story to its greatest potential. It’s kind of like raising a child. While she has her own personality and might grow in a number of directions you hadn’t anticipated, you can nurture her towards the best path by understanding what fundamentally makes her tick. The end result might surprise you, but you’ll love her all the more for it. Your book, likewise, will grow in directions you hadn’t anticipated but you can keep it from getting out of hand by coming back to remembering what its core goals are as a story.
2. Remove adverbs from the mixture
On the sixth page of my book, a potentially homicidal hunter tells my protagonist, a journalist: “You use too many (effing) adverbs. Stop writing all flowery and passive. Read some Bukowski.” It’s true. In journalism and technical writing, adverbs and cliché’s are helpful. In fiction, they are the plague.
When you look at amateurish writing, you’ll find that it tends to be studded with adverbs. Knights ride beautifully and fight courageously; girls weep sadly and boys laugh merrily; vampires smile evilly as they drink thirstily. Adverb addiction creates redundancies. It also precludes imagery and a unique voice, two things vital for a story to come alive. Adverb addiction promotes laziness in writing. Removing adverbs forces you to make interesting language choices full of vivid image and action.
3. Let the gold shine—hyperbole dulls it
Avoid saying things like, “He was the strongest knight she’d ever seen with the fastest sword and the most amazingest armor” or “Brutus was indescribably powerful, and his horse was so unbelievably fast no one could believe it.” Constantly saying this or that was the most big or amazing or terrible thing makes your writing sound like a red-faced child bragging about his superhero Daddy. Try instead to convey the gravity of this thing or event through its effect on the surroundings, or by people’s reactions. That will show us what’s happening and establish scene and character depth. Let your scene sparkle by making us see, feel, taste why this place, thing, or action is so amazing.
4. Touch, smell, taste, hear, feel your elixir
Engage the senses, particularly when introducing a new scene. What music is playing in the restaurant? What conversations are happening? How does the wind and sun feel in the prison yard? What does the murder scene smell like? What does fresh squeezed pineapple juice taste like? How does the rope feel in the sailor’s hands? You’d be amazed at how many sensory observations you can get across in a single sentence within the first couple lines of a chapter. And you’d be further amazed at how much those observations inform us about your characters while bringing us into the scene.
5. Speak simply as you chant
Bad adverb use in attribution actually has its own term; it’s called pulling a Swifty, after the Tom Swift books: “Tom said swiftly,” “She said hesitantly,” “He cried indignantly,” “He hollered loudly.” Such attribution gets old quickly. Also, in attribution, avoid consistently doing this stuff: “He intoned.” “She exclaimed.” “They cried.” “He wept.” Constantly using your thesaurus for a variation of “said” is distracting (although in children’s literature it can work). Just use “said.” Your dialogue should indicate whether characters are crying or shouting or interjecting by context and punctuation alone. If you must convey tone, introduce a descriptive sentence before the character speaks. Just an example off the cuff:
Boris stared at his stained hands until the sun pierced the low, mosquito-infested clouds; bathed in pale Siberian light, his eyes grew wet as he opened his broken mouth and drew a thin breath, seeking words he’d never before thought to use. “It was wrong what I did.”
Compare that to, “It was wrong what I did,” Boris intoned quietly while he stared sadly into his drink as the polar Siberian sun shined harshly in his squinty eyes.
See how much you get across in the first example? A scene could jump off from there. A sense of tension and suspense is conveyed. Which brings us to…
6. Stir your suspension
Tension is the lifeblood of your narrative. It keeps things interesting and flowing as information and characters are introduced and dispatched. That doesn’t mean you need to write a 300-page chase scene. Tension can be whether a boy smiles back at a girl; the pause between a man’s presentation and his superiors’ reaction; a mother’s low fuel-light lighting up while her baby screams on their way to the doctor. Tension is pacing, it is the twisting and unraveling of conflict, it is the pauses in conversations and actions. It is the uncertainty clouding events’ outcomes that the reader keeps turning pages see resolved.
7. Know the alpha and the omega
Know your ending. The last page is the most important part for finishing your book. Don’t stress the beginning when you’re in the drafting process. The beginning will be better if you write it to fit with the ending. Try to imagine an ending to your story, something you’re working towards. Write it down. It’s likely that your story will go off in a different direction, but the ending provides a guiding light for your outlining and writing.
8. Organize your laboratory
Outlines are wonderful. Even for me. I’m a natural pantser who’s seen the light of outlining. They’re so, so helpful, even if you know you’ll stray from it. You can write chapter titles on notecards and pin them to a board. You can make chapter-symbolic pictures and sprinkle them on the floor. You can write a straightforward plot synopsis, a rough outline of chapters, and cast of main characters in a computer file-- that’s basically what I do. Or maybe your outline involves graphics, or speaking into a recording device. Whatever your method, organize your basic plot structure.
9. Isolate your substance
Isolation goes beyond the typical “blow up your TV and go to a cabin in the woods” stuff. Consider your book a classified operation. The wrong influences could compromise it. Until your book is done, be very careful about two things: what you read, and who reads you. I pleasure-read within my novel’s genre only before and after my novel’s written, but never during. Otherwise I risk getting derailed; I sometimes find myself subconsciously affected by a story I like, or admiring too much another writer’s style. You’re not writing someone else’s book. You’re writing your book.
Regarding readers: as much as they ask to read it, there’s a chance the wrong reader will provide damaging and unhelpful feedback. Just because you love someone doesn’t mean they’ll be your perfect reader. Choose your first readers wisely. Try to probe for their tastes, strengths, and limitations as readers, and then decide whether they’ll give you useful feedback.
10. Listen to the voices
If you were to look at your dialogue, would you know who was speaking without attribution? No? Then consider altering that character’s voice. Especially the main character’s. Consider giving them a social tick, or an accent, or a go-to couple phrases, or an attitude; think about making them speak in longer or shorter sentences than others around them. John Irving’s Owen Meany speaks in all caps and declarative sentences. Your characters need individuated voices that reflect and amplify their personality. Think about a Cohen brothers movie like Fargo or Big Lebowski or--well, pretty much all of them—voice practically makes the movies. It's easier to lose yourself in a story when the characters' voices are so individuated that you know who's talking right off. I happen to think George RR Martin is a master of voice as well, which is especially impressive considering his gigantic cast of characters.