Role of Talent

talent

Role of Talent

I vacationed with a group of friends, one of whom took tennis lessons from the resort pro. Although a complete novice, she stepped into the moves as if she had been doing them her whole life. This was athletic talent on show.

I think it is sometimes assumed that writers have or need to have the same level of talent to write.

I would be the last to deny that talent at anything allows you to learn faster and sometimes better than others. It might even give you an edge on how easily your imagination transforms into something magic on the page.

But talent is not enough over the longer term.

The role of skill

If my tennis friend had turned pro, she’d need to learn the moves and strategies more likely to promote winning; she would have to practice obsessively. What she ate and how much she slept would no longer be only her business.  In short, she’d have to acquire the skills of a professional tennis player.

Similarly, with writing, there is a huge body of craft that needs mastering. It is essential to learn how to move easily around the page, employing the techniques that help create the continuous dream for your readers. Without control of your craft, you won’t be able to produce the kinds of effects which best serve your story.

Even more is needed

Unfortunately, as with all things worth doing, there’s more. Here are a few.

Perseverance

This is tough for writers because they seem to discourage so easily. Ten positive statements are outweighed by a single negative. Even if you know your friends have not a literary bone among them, it still hurts if they aren’t encouraging. It can be hard to keep the faith.

But it is important to remember a line whose author I forget but whose wisdom I constantly rely on:

Courage does not always roar. Sometimes, it is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”

Hard work

Making the time to write is a bugaboo for all writers. But serious writers, like serious tennis players, set up their lives to have the time. They forego some pleasures to leave space for the greater joy of writing. They constantly work at being in control of their craft. And write and write and write.

Profit from feedback

Not everything will spring from your imagination, whole cloth and perfect. In fact, the earlier on in the journey you are, the more the feedback is likely to be instructive rather than rhapsodic.

This is hard to bear. But you cut yourself from ever improving if you don’t listen to criticism without automatically assuming any negative comment confirms your lack of talent. Cultivating an inquiring rather than a defensive stance is more productive. I have spent several posts on working well with feedback because I think it is critical.

The farther you advance in the field, the more you will find that those whose self-belief has faltered, who never made the time, or whose defensiveness prevented improvement have fallen away. Who is left? Those who have persevered, worked hard, and were open to criticism. You need to be among them.

But what if I really don’t have any talent?

News—there is no fairy godmother who taps some of us on the head with the blessing of writing talent. Like all artistic endeavors, you’ve got to put the work in before you know whether you’re successful. Work hard, keep learning, welcome feedback, and write, write, write.

Stories in a Frame

frame

Stories in a Frame

What are stories in a frame? Typically, the novel opens with the story-teller/author, recounting events which occurred either to him or to someone else. The form is reminiscent of campfire tales. This phenomenon is also referred to as a story within a story.

The movie Titanic, starts with elderly woman, Rose, who is a survivor of the disaster. Rose tells the viewer of her ill-fated love affair with another passenger. Rose provides the frame to the movie.

Okay, so does anyone remember Rose when you think of the movie? I don’t. The ship, the special effects, the stars, yes. Rose, no.

Are frames needed?

Often, the answer is ‘no.’

Framed stories frequently start out that way because it is the writer’s sort of clearing her throat. Rather than jump right in, she may find it easier to use a proxy of herself through whom to tell the story. Don’t ask me why, but it seems an easier way into a story.

Would Titanic the movie lose steam (sorry) if we went straight into the story without Rose? Not a jot.

The disadvantage of a frame around a story is that it removes the reader one degree from the main action. You lose the power of seeing the story directly through the eyes of the protagonist. The format also makes it easier to slip into more telling than showing, which also lessens the power of the drama.

Avoiding a frame

Often, it is pretty easy to get rid of a frame. Just drop it. Start directly with the story.

Yes, you may have to do some fiddling throughout the story if you have allowed your story-teller to break into the action. Oh, if I had only known what was about to happen.

But that’s a good thing. Concentrating on the main character’s thoughts and feelings up the chances of a compelling portrayal.

When to use the story within a story technique

As usual, nothing is hard and fast in writing.

For example, Arabist Richard Francis Burton translated parts of One Thousand and One Nights which used the frame story of Scheherazade who must tell a new story every night to her husband, the king Shahryār, to keep alive. It is a way of linking basically unrelated stories into a cohesive whole.

Similarly, Hamlet hires a group of actors to perform a play. This play within the play is intended to flush out the guilt of his step-father for the killing of his father.

So, it’s not that stories in a frame can never be used. But you need to ask yourself why you need it. If the story within a story is intended to further the plot as in Hamlet, that makes perfect sense. But if it was just your way to get into the real tale, it might be worth dumping.

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.

Subplots

subplots

Subplots

In the post discussing how to address a first draft of a novel which is too short, I suggested various strategies like considering who the novel is really about, and why your main character is compelled to action at this moment in time. Another powerful way to augment your novel is to use subplots.

What are subplots?

Usually, your story has a main story line. It is what you describe when someone asks you what your novel is about.

Subplots are subordinate stories which flow from and feed back into the main plot. They usually use a secondary strand of characters, i.e. not your protagonist. They often provide depth or important information to the main plot.

An example

Your main story is about a spy during the Cold War who infiltrates a top secret facility not to steal its stash of ultra-important documents.

Pretty standard stuff.

But you can use subplots which make the novel richer and more complex.

Let’s say your spy’s nemesis is Colonel Rudger. And while we’re at it, let’s name the spy, too. How about Harold?

So Rudger suspects Harold but it’s just a gut feeling. While Harold is making his plans to infiltrate, Rudger is the star of a sub-plot on how he is going to catch Harold. Along the way, you develop Rudger’s character. Does he constantly doubt himself? Does he constantly want to test his theory à la Hamlet? Or is he blind to signals that he’s on the wrong track?

You can easily see how this sub and the main plot come together for an exciting finale.

In most novels, there are often numerous subplots. Not all of them have to figure in the climax but they can be vehicles for illustrating or deepening various aspects of the main plot. Harold’s girlfriend is tired of his neglect, not of course realizing that a day job and a spy job leave little time for romance. She is convinced Harold is seeing someone else and tries to track him which causes all kinds of problems. She doesn’t have to figure in the ending but the relationship probably needs to be resolved in some way. He breaks off with her because he needs to devote time to spying? Or he involves her in his secret? Either way, this subplot can provide twists and turns along the way.

Where are my sub-plots?

They are easier to find than you might think.

Consider any of the secondary characters. All of them have potential to be a subplot.

Ways to choose might be a character whose motivation has been told rather than shown. Show not only what he did in more detail but why. Or Harold might have a troublesome family. A sister perhaps who is the last word in nosy. A subplot could be Harold fending off his sister’s inquisitiveness.

A story with just a main plot can come off as flat or two dimensional, but subplots in add complexity and depth. This makes the story more engaging for readers.

And is a great way to up the word count. Not of course what the artist in us is focused on. But doesn’t hurt.