Friday, March 8, 2013

New Rule: Beautiful is NOT Boring


There's nothing quite so boring as a book where nothing happens. I'd recently started a beautifully written (lovely phrasing and language) book, but I finally skimmed to the end to see what I already knew would happen--no twists or surprises and hardly any outer journey, slim action.

If this particular author (and I never read and snark) had read the chapter, "The Outer Journey" of Writing 21st Century Fiction by Donals Maass, I would still be reading the story. The story contained all the elements that should have added up to a great story, but it flat-lined.

Maass spends a good amount of time outlining the differences between plot-driven and literary writers, but the message that stuck with me was the externalization of emotion into action:
A plot development is a nice accomplishment, but without emotional impact it’s just something that happens. Emotional experiences are fine, too, but unless they’re externalized in actions, they won’t touch readers. They lack the kinetic force of the real.
We all know what it means to call yourself a plot-driven writer or a character-driven writer.  The trick is to take the best of both and make give your stories higher impact. The two groups have much to learn from one another.

As a character-driven writer, I tend to envy the genre writers a bit. The threat of death that all stories need (yes, even literary stories) can be the real kind of death by stabbing, shooting, poisoning, or a long, long fall over a cliff, none of this internal or psychological death stuff. Running away from real death, facing real death, and fighting to the death are by need real action.

In character-driven or literary fiction, that external threat is harder to come by. Our art is painted with line and shadow of internal struggles—things like regret, forgiveness, and lots of psychological scars.

I agree with Maass that external struggle is crucial for strong impact, no matter what the genre.
…your artistic sensibility pulls you away from strong feelings. It pushes you toward what is subtle, nuanced, and delicate, which can be another way of saying what is small, nebulous, and weak. P 49
Ouch.

Friendly reminder: Maass is a New York literary agent. He appreciates art, but his passion is art that sells. That’s how he makes his living. He’s a keen observer of what elevates good fiction to powerful fiction, again, the kind that sells. So, art for the sake of art is not the point of this book. The melding of the best of commercial fiction with literary fiction is the point so that the story engages the reader and sells.

Let me share a bit of how this is working in my present novel. About five years ago—and I don’t remember what was going on in my life—Psalm 23 came to mind, especially the line: "Surely goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life."

Oh yeah?

Either I didn’t understand what goodness and mercy were, or God had some 'splaining to do.

[Disclaimer: I am not a theologian, but I write about Jesus anyway.] It turned out that I wasn't 100% clear on what goodness and mercy looked like in everyday life. Basically, I discovered a great chasm between what is and what ought to be in my life—and your life, too, I suspect—because while we live in the kingdom of God, we also live with the remnants of the curse, most notably death and decay.  This not-so-little truth clarified a lot for me. I saw goodness is God's ultimate provision for me--Jesus!--every day, and I discovered that mercy can sometimes feel like a smack to the back of the head, at least until the larger picture is at hand.

And I wanted to write about what I was learning, of course!

As a story, not an article for Christianity Today. (They prefer their writers to actually be theologians.)

As per Maass’s direction, I needed to externalize spiritual concepts into actions, surprises, and twists—and characters with strong goals! Enter my hero, Lucy, in dire need of goodness and mercy, even though she has twin siblings named Goody and Mercy who follow her all the days of her life already. In the story, the twins manifest the qualities of their names, but not in The Shack kind of way or a Hind’s Feet in High Places way. The story is not an allegory. It’s about a girl who feels like a second-class member of God’s family due to deep regret and the accompanying shame, but her sister, Mercy, is God’s right-hand girl, and her brother, less obviously, is the source of goodness in her life. Lucy finds her sister’s ministrations perplexing and inconvenient, just as anyone would who can’t forgive themselves.
Anything important that’s internal can be externalized. p.50


And so, a promise made to a beloved parent becomes the impetuous for a felonious act. A contrary aunt spurs a race with uncertain winners. A hunger to connect with a daughter produces all kinds of self-sabotaging behavior. The outer journey is the inner journey put to dance steps.

Our job as storytellers—according to Maass—is to take these concepts like sorrow, anger, shame, regret, embarrassment, betrayal, and so on and so on and externalize them into action. He gives Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as an example of this done exceptionally well. I couldn't agree more. I mean, a little boy who goes on a quest to express his grief? That's action. Also, my oft-referred to The Language of Flowers does this beautifully. Victoria Jones, the main character, burns a house down, gives up her infant, walks away from a lover. Action! And she will break your heart and make you angry. That's high-impact fiction.

Even if selling doesn't motivate you, strongly impacting your reader should. Why else would you sit for years and years in front of a computer screen than to connect in the most explosive way possible with our readers?

If you are the writer of upmarket, literary, high-impact fiction (whatever!), what challenges do you face when wanting to "go big" with action that represents what's going on inside your characters? Can you give an example from your work? How about a book you've read recently that demonstrates what Maass is trying to teach us? Are you even "buying" Maass's take on externalizing emotions to up the emotional stakes for the reader? Why or why not? Have you set down a book (don't give the title or author) lately because nothing really happened, but it was written beautifully? What would you tell the author? 

20 comments:

Megan Sayerw said...

Oh man, Patti this is good, and so timely. I have Maass's book on my bedside table, I should read this chapter tonight.
I was pleased with my completed MS (my first!) until a dear friend (waves...Hello Karen Schrav!) pointed out that the ending had plenty of emotional stuff, but was lacking in external conflict and action. I'm SO glad she pointed it out. I rewrote the synopsis to accommodate the changes for this, and tomorrow morning (did I say this was timely?) I'm planning to open that baby back up again and start the rewrites for the ending.
Think I'll go read Maass's chapter first. Still feels like I'm feeling my way in the dark on that one in some ways. We'll see how it goes.

Megan Sayer said...

Although the flipside is this: I'v read books in the past and got to certain points (usually at the end) and thought "oh yeah, the author wanted to add a death-and-rebirth moment of some variety, or thought it needed a bit of action", and it's felt really fake - inorganic - and annoyed me, because it took away from what was really happening, which was the emotional journey. Perhaps in those cases the author was being a bit too heavy-handed, or didn't trust their instincts enough, and perhaps I'm being a fussy reader (which I am), but it still annoys me when the external action is bigger than it needs to be. It's a fine line.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

In PAINT CHIPS, I needed my character to have a moment of clarity. I wrote and rewrote the scene until I thought it had the emotional impact I wanted. My publisher, however, wanted it to be written again. See, in my attempt to really "go big", I'd become "heavy handed". I'm SO glad that my publisher asked for me to fix that scene. It's one of my very favorites in the book now. I guess that "heavy handedness" is my challenge.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

As I'm reading the comments above, I'd have to agree it's a tricky balance. I have to check my work often to make sure I've done my job to emotionally engage the reader and by implementing rising emotional stakes.

I'm not a major plotter, but before I begin a story I make sure there's enough that's going to move the story along. It helps going in and when I'm in that scary middle place.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I have a character that begins the story telling himself he is happy in his cage...role as servant. Then his master sends him on a mission. Many harrowing experiences later he is back in the cage, chaffing. He plays yo-yo, in and out of the servant role, polishing boots and laying tables one day and desecrating his body and murdering others the next. His master sees this and begins needling him, creating events that test with the purpose of sending him over the edge.
That part is easy to write.
Another character is even more emotionally disturbed but she is an invalid, mute and lives in one room for one third of the novel visited by only 3 people. For her flashback is the only action, which I fought against. I don't like flashback novels. The visits, of course, are fraught with tension. Do they count as action?

Cherry Odelberg said...

Seems the more I diligently improve as a writer, the more I find I lack or don't know. (It is part of my spit-shined boots philosophy which I have blogged about before and which can be most easily described as a darkest moment is just before dawn philosophy). If I try to write about something I don't know, that is; something I have not experienced first hand; there is danger the behavior or action will come across as stupendous, unbelievable, fairy-tale. Though I write fiction, the plot must be plausible, readers need to see themselves and find hope somewhere in the story.

I loved "The Language of Flowers," so much that I read it through twice in one setting. Still, I puzzle. Victoria experienced unconditional and enduring love from three people: Foster Mom, Lover, and Florist. Is this possible? Toward me? From me? Over half a century I have lived; mostly inside the boundaries of social and spiritual expectations and still not experienced that type of love. The more important (and non-self absorbed) question is; have I given that type of love?

Cherry Odelberg said...

And, Megan, - I so agree with your flip side comment!

Marian said...

For me there is something more boring than a book where nothing happens, it's a book in which I don't give a rip about the characters. I appreciate you post because it helps me understand what a writer has to work toward in both areas. This writing novel stuff is more complicated than it appears. Thanks so much for this blog post and for this blog.

Patti Hill said...

Wendy: Balance is everything. I was thinking about a book like Gilead, where the action is not big but it's appropriate to the story and the characters, but still manages to surprise, even in the flashbacks.

Henrietta: Yowza! You are a stare-down-the-darkness kind of writer. Finish that book.

Cherry: I so agree about the ever-growing complexity of storytelling. The better you are, the more challenging it becomes. You won't be satisfied with what you've done before. As for The Language of Flowers, fiction isn't life. It's manipulated truth. Victoria had to come against that kind of wall. That was her greatest fear, to be loved and known.

Marian: Great fiction is definitely a spinning of the plates, and we can't let one of them fall.

Marcia said...

Patti, this post resonates with me because it's exactly where I'm at: trying to illustrate each internal goal with an external action.

At present I'm going through my WIP and taking a "snapshot" of each scene--as though I were photographing it with a camera. It's been a challenge, and has helped me get "outside" my natural bent to dwell on the internal. Have to have something interesting to photograph!

The professional guy I submitted my synopsis to observed that my protagonist was too passive. When I took a second look at my story I realized he was dead on.

Have been enjoying Maas' book (which I have on my Kindle) and always look forward to your discussion, even though I don't comment often.

Patti Hill said...

Marcia: What a great way to express what you're doing. Each scene needs to be picture-worthy. I love that. And I've very glad you're enjoying the discussion.

Karen Schravemade said...

I enjoyed this post because I've been thinking about these concepts quite a lot lately. Megan, waving back! :-)

So my problem definitely veers toward the heavy-handed side, I'd say. I like drama and I enjoy books where "something happens." I'm personally drawn to high stakes and "big" action. BUT I agree with Marian that nothing is more boring than a high-action book with characters we don't care about, and if the use of language is obviously of no importance to the writer, I can't get past the first page. Action alone does less than nothing for me. Which is why I LOVE the sort of books Maass refers to.

One of my favourite books of all time is "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt. To me it was the perfect blend of high stakes (a murder, with escalating consequences) with psychological complexity, impeccable characterisation and the most gorgeous, accomplished, breathtaking writing you can possibly imagine. Downside: it's dark and in no way redemptive. (I actually love a good tragedy, but that's just me.) I aspire to write like that... But with hope. Punching well above my weight with that, but aspiration is a great motivator to improve.

Patti Hill said...

Karen: I have NO doubt that you WILL punch above your weight (a new idiom for me). Every book is impossible to write until you go through the process of writing it. Dream big. And thanks for stopping by.

Megan Sayer said...

Karen your comment - and this post in general - has really made me think. We appreciate, and probably look for or expect, different things from novels, which is why there are books that some of us love and others are disappointed in. It makes me wonder though, are my judgements of books too harsh? Could I be experiencing something akin to an adolescent's revelation that their parents don't know everything after all, that they're really just human?
I think that, as I've grown as writer, my expectation is that the books I read are still as far beyond my ability as they were ten years ago - but not all are. I guess this is a good thing, and instead of being disappointed in them I can rejoice with their creators that they are what they are.
I don't know. That's some very deep musings on a mindshift of sorts.

Patti Hill said...

Meagan: You're so wise to see this now. Thanks for musing with us.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Oh yeah, Megan! At my (ahem) advanced age I have grown out of some teachers, some doctors and some authors - thankfully some young upstart geniuses come along every so often to wow me. But the thing is, not everyone grows or needs at my pace. Some need and write books that are beyond my interest, other readers need to have it kept simple at a level that bores me.

Megan Sayer said...

Yeah Cherry that's good. I kind of miss the days when everything I read was brilliant, but it's part of growing, isn't it. I'm glad I'm not the only one :)

Jennifer Major said...

Ahhh, Megan, what an interesting phrase "I kind of miss the days when everything I read was brilliant."
I feel for you. I do.


I remember going to watch a movie with friends and it was a "brilliant" French Art House flick that made me ill. It was BORING. Oh my word, GAH!!! Dull as dirt. But people were trying to find the deep meaningful stuff, which I just saw as...not.
One guy got all pompous and DEEP "Oh, the significance of the RED beret? Ohh, I totally get that!"
Umm, no, she was wearing a red beret,people. I don't think she meant to point out her love of Stalin, somebody in wardrobe handed her a red hat. Cuz it went with her dress. Duh.

Now, you have a more critical and discerning eye, and while that can make you sad because that layer of magic has worn thin, you can still appreciate that for someone, each book has depth.

Or am I just taking up font?

Maybe it's just me, but I want my readers to ache and weep for my characters. I want them to toss my book across the room and yell "How could you?" when I set the house on fire and kill the darlings. A few weeks ago, I was mad at a writer for bringing suffering to a character and left the book for a day, then I smacked myself upside the Word doc, holy cow, Jennifer, Queen of the Doorknobs, THAT?? Is what I'm aiming for!

No one wants to read about the perfect getting more perfect, but about the flawed finding a way to polish up and shine, even if the cost is high and the way is long.

Patti Hill said...

Jennifer: I wonder what it's like for a magician to go see another magician perform? Does the magic wear thin for them, too?

I believe that there is a story for everyone, that the books we toss aside as boring and shallow ARE brilliant to someone. And that makes me glad.

As for your French film, oiy!

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I am greatly encouraged and inspired by the comments here! And my vocabulary is enriched. "Punching beyond my weight" and "smacked myself upside the Word doc"
Praise God for variety and abundance!