Make the Magic Look Easy

magic

Make the Magic Look Easy

I’m sure we’ve all had the experience. The speaker is not very experienced. She stumbles over the words. And mumbles. She loses her place and looks distressed. Are we taking in her message? No, we’re focused on the speaker. Worrying about and for her, identifying with her unhappy situation.

A comparable situation occurs when writing and that’s what I want to talk about.

Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

In How Fiction Works, its author James Wood discusses Gustave Flaubert’s mastery of fiction, notably in his 1857 novel, Madame Bovary. Wood points out that such was Flaubert’s dexterity that the reader only notices what Flaubert wants her to register without necessarily realizing it. This is part of the magic—the trick only works if nobody sees how it is done.

And it has to look easy. The work put into it isn’t noticed. Rather like a gymnastics star. We thrill at the ease and confidence she displays on the uneven bars. We only imagine the hard work when she fails to complete her routine successfully.

Magic sometimes isn’t that magic

As I have mentioned in other posts, I don’t know how to create writing magic on demand. But I think I know some things that are likely to increase the probability that magic will visit. And they’re not magic at all.

Master your craft. Firstly, don’t emulate the unpracticed speaker. It is essential that you do the background hard work of mastering your craft. Handling complex techniques such as unreliable narrators and weaving subplots which enhance and do not distract from your main story, need to flow effortlessly for your reader no matter how difficult you found it to pull it off.

Sweat the details.  Readers are annoyed at spelling mistakes, grammar errors, incorrectly used words, and a general lack of professionalism when it comes to the very basics of communicating, never mind trying to make magic. You can’t transport your reader to exciting realms if she’s thinking, shouldn’t that be ‘affect’ not ‘effect?’

Don’t show off. Like using complex and multi-syllabic words when plain ones will do. Remember what Winston Churchill said about that:

Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words when short are best of all.

Same thing goes for sentences. If you make your reader toil to unravel intricate and convoluted sentences, that’s where the attention will be rather than on the marvelous story you’ve created.

Naturally, and as always with writing, there are certainly exceptions to this dictum. If the intent of your writing is primarily to showcase the beauty of the language and your mastery of it, you may be okay.

Sometimes it’s worth it but otherwise it’s just showing off of the I’m-smarter-than-you variety.

Is that all there is?

I know, I know, fairly pedestrian answer. I imagine that you were hoping I had some guaranteed way to ensure magic. And easy magic to boot.

Nope. The only way I know is to work at getting good at writing. As I wrote in the Muse and the Piano Tuner, what you have to do is show up and play. And every once in a while, magic strikes.

Do Your Readers Have to Like Your Heroine?

heroineDo Your Readers Have to Like Your Heroine?

In the last post, I maintained that you have to like or at least understand your heroine. So, it seems redundant to ask if your readers need to like her, too.

But the surprising answer is NO. Not if your heroine is compelling.

What is compelling?

In The 9.17% Solution, one of my protagonists was Jamie, a manipulative, scheming, damaged young man who plots his way up the corporate ladder.

One reader of an early draft announced, “I hate Jamie.”

Enough to sink the heart of any writer. “Did it make you want to stop reading?” I asked tentatively.

To which he replied, “No, I had to keep going to make sure the bastard got what he deserved.”

Writer heart started repumping.

That was when I realized that while it’s probably preferable your readers find your heroine sympathetic, it isn’t always necessary. You can do away with this requirement completely if she is compelling. That is, your reader wants to keep reading about her.

How do I make my heroine compelling?

Obvious next question: how? You’re gonna throw up your hands when I say I don’t know. I don’t know how I made Jamie compelling or whether he would be so for every reader. Perhaps the sense that Jamie was racing to an inevitable and unavoidable doom? Perhaps his flashes of humanity?

I bored everyone in my life for weeks, asking them to think of compelling literary characters. (Movies don’t count because the viewer has access to many more than the written word on which to base their judgement.)

It was tough. Anne of Green Gables? Scarlett O’Hara?

What it came down to is no paint-by-numbers list of characteristics or techniques. There didn’t seem to be a commonality among the suggestions; nor did everyone agree with every candidate.

But they all agreed that compelling characters made them want to find out what happened to the heroine even if she was despicable.

Again, it comes down to magic

I was forced to conclude that this is the magic that is writing.

You put the work into learning your craft. Showing when needed and telling when not.  Supporting the plot with description rather than distracting. Growing your characters. All to create a continuous dream in which your reader can reside.

Beyond that, you get at the core of the story by telling the emotional rather than literal truth. And every day, you are naked on the page. Bringing your unflinching self to writing, no matter how shameful, wicked, or shocking it might seem to you.

And then, you hope for the best. Hope that the work, the honesty, and the caring will be rewarded with writing that nobody can put down. That magic will strike.

Process not Product

process

Process not Product

Process not product was my mantra for a long time. It was my way of reminding myself that the goal of writing is not just a finished product but is mostly about the process of creation.

I find it particularly useful when starting a new project. I’m often so eager to get out of the limbo of endless possibilities that I jump on the first idea that comes up and run with it. Nothing wrong with experimenting with that idea but I need to keep open to the magic of writing. And allow other potentials be entertained and played with.

The mantra is also helpful when my focus is I need to get this done. I want a finished product/story. Feeling this way, I am generally unwilling to consider any path than the one I am fixated on. When a better ending or a more interesting by-way might be just beyond my tunnel vision.

I know that this sounds as if I’m advocating an infinite wandering in the woods, never settling, never deciding. But I’m not. I am urging remaining open to the creative process which lies within all of us.

What process are we talking about?

So, this is going to be hard to describe. But I know I am in the process when I stop trying to force myself down a certain writing path or story; when I let go and sink into that deep place from which all flows. The calm home that may grant entrance to supplicants but not invaders. Patience and waiting and silence. Just letting it happen, just letting it happen as it is going to. I can’t always drop into that place but when I do, I emerge with something silver. Whether fish or chalice, to be determined.

I’m not sure I can do any better than that to describe the mental state but I hope you have a sense of what I’m talking about.

How do I get there?

Another hard bit. I suspect that everyone’s ability to trust the process manifests itself in different ways. The best I can do is recall a time when I felt it to see if it resonates with you.

I was writing a long short story of a chef and kept adding characters and events with no real end point in mind. I was trying to follow what I was feeling and keep at bay the ‘this isn’t working,’ ‘it’s isn’t going anywhere’ stuff. Without any assurance of anything else to replace those thoughts, of course. Just rolling with what came up.

And then, suddenly, all the disparate elements came together.  The chef’s partner becomes the impetus for change; a rival chef shows the way; the downtrodden sous-chef creates the moment when the chef changes. It was unimaginably exciting to feel the pieces, which had previously been floating off on their own, coalesce into a satisfying and seemingly inevitable whole.

Why does it matter?

Remaining open to the magic of the writing process can have wonderful moments such as I just described. But more importantly, it matters because when I am in the process, whatever it is, I know I am writing from my true self. For one brief moment, I am putting into words who I really am. That may come out in how a character reacts or a scene evolves, but whatever it is, it is me.

Does this sound all over the place and even a little woo-woo? I know. That’s the magic of writing.

The Muse and the Piano Tuner

Muse

The Muse and the Piano Tuner

I learned a lot about the writing muse from a piano tuner.

After half an hour of plucking strings, the piano tuner called to me. “Okay, I’m done.” He rippled through some swing tune, no sheet music of course.

“Wow, you’re good! Do you play professionally?”

He shrugged. “I’m in a band.” As he stuck his tools into his satchel, “You a writer?”

I raised my eyebrows. “How did you know?”

He pointed to the book face down on the piano. “This is you, right?”

“Oh, yeah. Crummy picture.”

“So, you write full time?”

“Not full-time. As much as I can.”

He asked, almost shyly, as if it might be too personal. “Do you have to wait until you’re in the mood to write?”

I shrugged. “Well, no. If I waited, I don’t think I’d ever do it.”

Suddenly, his face cleared. “Oh, yeah, I get it. It’s like when you have a gig. Doesn’t matter whether you want to play or not. You just show up and play.”

Show up and play and the Muse might too

Show up and play. I know there’s a lot of stuff writers believe about waiting for the Muse to strike. Or I suppose ‘visit’ would be a better word for such a sought-after commodity.

With hand to head, they vow they can’t write a word unless inspired by some external force. And thus have a perfect reason not to, because that Muse, she’s not much into house calls.

However, many famous authors didn’t seem to wait. Tolstoy said, “I must write each day without fail, not so much for the success of the work, as in order not to get out of my routine.” Victor Hugo wrote from dawn to 11:00 every day. Agatha Christie saw writing as a job.

They discovered what all writers, I believe, need to understand. The Muse isn’t going to show up until you do. It’s like Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. As a friend much more learned than me pointed out, the real learning from that story is that Moses and the Israelites had to start wading into the Red Sea before God parted it. That is, they had to show their commitment and faith before God would step in.

As the piano tuner said, you need to show up and play. It is when you are actively engaged in writing that the Muse or whatever the magic consists of, can show up. So, don’t wait for It to strike. Invite It in.