writing, Writing and Editing

Collage Storytelling

As those of you who have been paying attention lately know, the 20th South Coast Writers Conference is coming up in February. Yes, I’ve registered. And yes, I’m a bit excited about it. This year, in particular, features some of the most interesting workshops offered lately.

Maybe it’s because most of the workshops are more directly related to writing fiction than usual. Whatever.

One of the workshops I’m most looking forward to is called “The Ol’Collage Try,” taught by Elena Passarello. Here is the official workshop description from the conference guide:

A lyric essay uses vivid images and quick cuts to tell stories in artfully arranged fragments, rather than in one specific narrative line. Inspired by visual art and film, collage storytelling is a lynch pin form of the sub-genre known as “lyric essay,” and it serves as an inspiring way to supercharge your writing.

Collage storytelling is something I’ve been interested for many years, but haven’t had the work I needed to pursue it. The idea I’ve been toying with, hadn’t had a name before now; collage storytelling works quite well. I first began to think about it after a phase of studying art history. In particular, the school of painting called “Pointilism” caught my imagination.

“Pointilism” is a school of visual art that teaches that portraits can be rendered, not with the usual brushstroke rendering of lines and areas to depict shapes, colors, and difference in light. The Pointilists said the same effect could be achieved using an arrangement of small dots. The theory states that the human mind, viewing the arrangement of dots, would automatically find the pattern and fill in the missing details.

And it works. At least it works in the visual arts.

How would it work in writing? Well, that’s why I’m going to take the workshop. To find out. In theory though, it would involve creating a series of seemingly unrelated scenes, but with an underlying connection. It would be up to the reader to provide that connection.

At best, it would be tricky because it will depend on the reader doing more work than he or she is used to doing. How many readers have you talked to who don’t read (because they can’t follow) nonlinear narratives? What are the odds they would be willing to figure out a collage-style narrative?

However, there are three reasons I believe we write. Self-expression, to entertain the reader, and to advance the art form. Writing a work of collage storytelling would definitely fall under the “advancing the art form” heading. When I write my first collage story, it will be with the full knowledge that 90% of the readers will not like it. But the 10% who are fans of “literary” fiction will. It is to that group of readers I will submit my collage fiction.

When I get it written. I’m hoping the writing workshop will help with that.

Writing advice, Writing and Editing

Ten Tips For Revising Your Fiction

Today’s post is another inspired by a workshop at the South Coast Writers Conference I attended last weekend. I cannot express strongly enough how much a writers conference offers, not just in learning new skills and techniques, but in general inspiration. There is no better way to re-charge your creative batteries. But I digress.

Many people have asked me over the years (and I have have asked as many others) just how does one go about revising a work of fiction? What problems do you look for? Are there any tricks to make it easier? The zen answer to that is simple: imagine the finished story and delete everything that doesn’t belong. However, very few of us are zen masters. The rest could make use of some more specific ideas: things to look for, stuff to avoid.

So, with the help of a friendly professional editor: ten tips for effective revision.

1. Read poetry before editing.

It will inspire you to be lyrical, musical, poetic, and original.

2. Find the beginning of the story.

Be a detective. Identify when the action actually begins. Consider cutting everything before then.

3. Experience it, don’t explain it.

Be vivid, be aware, be able to experiment.

4. Be cautious with backstory.

Be in the present story. Find the order and organization, discard the rest.

5. Delete extra descriptors.

Be efficient. Weigh each word and phrase.

6. Remove unnecessary dialogue.

Be concise. Every word needs to advance the story.

7. Vary sentence structure.

Be different. Break patterns. Surprise us.

8. Blast away the cliché.

Be fresh. Take a risk. Be new and original.

9. Have fresh eyes read the story.

Choose a good, honest reader, not a praiseful one.

10. Hide the story from yourself for a while and then read it out loud.

It will tell you what you have actually written, versus what you intended to write.

Coming next week. The Hero’s Journey as revealed in Star Wars.

Writing advice

A Place For Fiction: Locations

Someone in one of my writers’ groups asked an interesting question the other day. “Do you use real locations in your fiction, or make them up?”

My short answer was: yes, I do.

The longer answer is more complicated because every story is different and every author is different. However, there are some general principles that apply to each variation. So let’s look at them.

Using real locations.

The primary benefit to using real locations in fiction is that it immediately increases the realism of the story. It does not matter how fantastic the story, it will seem more realistic because the locations and landmarks are real. It also makes the writer’s work a bit easier because she only needs to describe the existing places, rather than create them from scratch.

In addition, many readers (myself included) truly enjoy reading a work that takes place in familiar locations. It is a great selling point.

The primary drawback to using real locations as the setting for fiction is that you run the very real risk of offending someone associated with that location. For instance, if you have someone running a narcotics ring out of the back of the neighborhood Starbucks, the Starbucks Corporation might take objection to that. Or if you describe an existing house, or business in a less than flattering manner, the owner may not appreciate it. That also goes for entire neighborhoods, or towns.

Another drawback to using real locations is that of accuracy. If you are setting your story in a real place, you had better be familiar with how it looks and feels. Nothing breaks the illusion of reality quicker than setting your story in a real location and getting the descriptions wrong.

This method is most often used in historical fiction and political/military thrillers, where realism and particular locations are of the utmost importance. (A story about the battle of Gettysburg pretty much has to be set in and around Gettysburg and the descriptions need to be historically accurate. The same goes for the President of the U.S. in the Oval Office).

Fictional locations based on real ones

The primary advantage to this method is that it combines the added realism of using real locations with the creative freedom of totally fictional locations. The author uses key landmarks from the location as background, but creates most of the details, often changing names of existing business and streets, disguising them, or changing their locations.

Another advantage to this method is that by only loosely basing his descriptions on existing places, the author gives himself a defense should someone take offense at a depiction and seek legal redress. (yes, it can and does happen).

The main disadvantage to this method is that it takes considerably more work to create the fictional venues the author needs and blend them seamlessly into a real, existing background.

A good example of this method are the legal thrillers of Phillip Margolin. Usually set in and around the Portland, Oregon area, closer inspection reveals Portland and it’s landmarks are merely background. All his specific locations are purely fictional.

Totally fictional locations

The primary advantage of this method is that the author has total control over everything about the location: how the place looks, it’s mood, social status, and history. The author can’t get a description wrong because she’s the only person who knows it. No one will be offended by anything described (in theory, people can be offended by anything) because no one but the author has anything invested.

The biggest disadvantage to creating locations completely from scratch is the fact that it can be a lot of work. Not only do you have to create a believable set of characters the readers can empathize with and a functioning plot, but now you have to create an entire portion of the world, along with all that entails. It’s a lot of work creating it and a lot of work ensuring everything stays consistent throughout the story.

Probably the most well-known example of this method is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth. To a lesser degree of complexity, Stephen King used it in creating his Castle Rock area of Maine, with the fictional towns of Derry and Salem’s Lot, for example. As you can see, it is most often used in the fantasy and horror genres, but can be used in any.

Now to return to the original question. Which method do I use in my fiction? Again, the answer is “yes.” In my first three novels, The Ni’il Trilogy, the setting is fictional, but based on a real town. Names are changed, but residents tell me they have no trouble recognizing the descriptions. However, the novel I am currently revising/editing is set in a completely fictional town on a fictional island in Washington’s Puget Sound. Why? Because it was easier to completely make up the town, its environment, and history, than to do the research I felt I’d need to do to make it realistic. (Plus, some really bad things happen there.)

In short, I think it truly depends on the story which method is used.

What do you think?

Writing advice

Creating Suspense: Description

And now a few thoughts about a subject near and dear to every writer’s heart: description. After all, much of the reason behind our interest in writing and developing our writing skills is our love of word play and how a memorable combination of words can move us. So we try and use our descriptive and poetic skills as much and often as possible.

It’s a mistake young and beginning writers (myself included) often make.

For instance: the writer creates a beautiful and eloquent description of the architectural wonders of the Acme Company’s headquarters building. It is truly a magnificent passage. Unfortunately, the scene that follows is of a junior accountant in his cubicle having an argument with his wife over the phone. The description of the headquarters building has no bearing whatsoever on the scene. He’s in a cubicle; it could be any office building. The description does not advance the action. It does not add anything to the characterization. It serves no purpose in the story. Despite its beauty, the description should be cut from the scene.

Everything in a work of fiction, including descriptive passages, needs to be there because it serves a specific purpose in advancing the story. There is no room for fluff of any kind.

Description, in particular, serves three fictional purposes:

1. To help the reader visualize the physical location where the action occurs.
2. To help the reader visualize the characters and their actions.
3. To help create and/or reflect the emotional state of the characters.

It is the third purpose I’m most interested in here.

Unless you’re writing from the omniscient viewpoint (the all-seeing godlike narrator), everything you write in any particular scene is filtered through the consciousness of a character. This includes description. And since we are all emotional creatures and so are our characters, their emotional state will influence how they experience the world around them.

For example, a man goes to a city park on a warm Saturday afternoon for a picnic with his new girlfriend. What does he see? Big leafy shade trees? Expanses of manicured lawn? Families scattered around spread blankets. College kids playing Frisbee? Girls in swimsuits laying in the sun?

Now, have the same man go to the same park on the same Saturday afternoon. But this time he’s not there for a picnic. Now he’s there to deliver a ransom to the men who kidnapped his wife. Now what does he see? Certainly not the same thing as the first man. He probably sees the deep shadows under the trees. The massive trunks that could hide a man. The man over on the bench, who doesn’t seem to be doing anything. He would be alert, on edge, and suspicious of everything. That emotional state has to inform the descriptions.

Our job as writers is to carefully choose the descriptions that will not only advance the story and inform our characterizations, but also to help create the overall mood of our work. Since we are concentrating on suspense here, how do we do that? By carefully charging our descriptions with words that connote a sense of danger, menace, or disquiet.

Consider this description of a laundromat in Ramsey Campbell’s horror novel The Doll Who Ate His Mother:

“The launderette felt overcast; the heat was heavy with the smells of soap and hot cloth. A shirt reared up almost shapelessly at a porthole, flapping empty arms; vortices of clothes pressed against glass. A young man filled his plastic sack from a dryer, feeling a girl’s underwear furtively for damp, like a fetishist hastily fingering the contents of a chest of drawers. A child went out dragging a sack, an early Christmas gnome.”

By carefully choosing which details to use and the creative use of simile and metaphor, Mr. Campbell manages to make a description of something as mundane as a laundromat feel spooky as hell. He does this throughout the novel, taking mundane scenes and infusing them with disconcerting imagery. It is very effective.

Creating such powerful, hard-working images isn’t easy. In fact, it is very hard. It requires many long hours wracking our brains for similes and countless revisions. But, if it were easy, everyone would be producing award-winning fiction (how’s that for an oxymoron?). If, however, we are willing to go through the agony and hard work, we too can produce very good fiction.

Writing advice

Creating Suspense: Environment

Another tool in the writer’s suspense arsenal is the environment. If pace can be considered the soundtrack to your story, environment is the combination of location and lighting. Taken together, setting and lighting (the environment) help set the mood of your piece and can amp up the suspense.

Most of us are familiar with the term “setting”. It is where your story takes place. Is it set in an urban center of tenements and skyscrapers? A suburban bedroom community? Or the wilderness of the Yukon? A change of setting inevitably changes the story because the characters interact with the world around them as much as do each other. If that world changes, so will the story.

The Bourne Identity wouldn’t be the same story if it had been set in the ranch lands of Eastern Montana rather than the cities of Europe. The challenges Mr. Bourne faced would have been different, as would the resources available. It may not have been better; it may not have been worse. It certainly would have been a different story. (This is ignoring the genre convention that spy thrillers should take place largely in the “jet-set” cities of Europe and The United States).

Another familiar (and most abused) example of how the environment can create suspense is the creative use of weather: storms, wind, rain, fog, snow, and the dark of night. Literary critics call this “pathetic fallacy”. In literature and film, pathetic fallacy is the idea that the weather mirrors the state of human affairs. If everything is calm and orderly among the folks, the days are warm and sunny. Likewise, when there’s conflict between people, the weather turns stormy.

Probably the most famous example of pathetic fallacy is Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”, but it is much more pervasive and often very heavy-handed. Think of how often thunder and lightning occur during horror movies. This is pathetic fallacy at its most cliched. It is so cliched as to be almost laughable. The same could be said for ghost and other such tales always occurring at night. It’s cliché. One of my favorite aspects of Stephen King’s novel It is that virtually all the action ( and I thought some were truly creepy) takes place during broad daylight and during the sunny days of summer, at that. He broke all the cliches and I think it made the suspense even stronger.

Beyond the cliches though, inclement weather (which includes darkness) can be a useful tool in heightening suspense. Why? Because it’s another obstacle the hero has to overcome. If the hero is, say, fleeing through the wilderness from an assassin, he has to worry about his pursuer, accidental injury in the rough terrain and becoming lost. Add a blizzard and now he also has to be concerned with hypothermia, exhaustion, and an increased chance of getting lost.

Bad weather can also serve to isolate the characters. In my first novel, Ni’il: The Awakening, the hero, a small town Chief of Police, and his allies are trying to stop a mysterious string of killings when a Pacific hurricane bears down on their coastal community. Not only does a large portion of the population evacuate ahead of the storm, but those that don’t, hole up in their dwellings for the duration. Then storm damage cuts off all communication with the outside world. The hero must now stop the bad guy entirely on his own.

It ratchets up the pressure.

More than anything else though, weather heightens suspense by making characters more vulnerable. We are all, like it or not, slaves to our senses. So are our characters. Anything that impedes their ability to perceive danger increases their vulnerability and, therefore, the suspense. Darkness, fog, rain, and snowfall all hinder our ability to see approaching danger. Wind, rain, snow, and thunder do the same thing to ability to hear a threat. Also, having a character bundled up in a heavy coat, scarf, hood, or hat can interfere with peripheral vision. A character who is soaking wet, cold, or overheated can also be distracted enough to struggle with focus at the worst possible time.

You get the idea.

Using environmental factors can greatly increase the suspense in your work. However, like any tool, we must constantly strive to use them judiciously and creatively. If we simply fall back to the timeworn thunderstorm as the hero approaches the evil mansion, we will probably lose the reader.