Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Self Editing - Imperative and Perilous

Self Editing
Imperative and Perilous
By Sharyl Heber

“When reading I pretend I’m an editor, though when writing I realize I’m not.”  Fierce Dolan

I’ve done much reading, a lot of writing and fair amount of editing and I have a quote of my own.  “The experience of creating a story can be light-years away from the experience of reading it.”

In creation mode, stories flourish on the vibrant no-flaws movie screen in our minds. Our inner experience transcends the need for a myriad of mandates that must ultimately be addressed. And, while spelling, punctuation and grammar jump out first, they are the least of those concerns. 

In creation mode, and perhaps even into early drafts we are, by definition, in a state of delusion. Polish is not needed here and in fact can hinder our creative process. But at some point we need to get back to the reality of audience. I say we, because I mean me too. We can help each other by providing feedback. Because, while in creation mode, while musing:

·      There’s no mandate to provide a product that will suspend disbelief, as there’s no one else to contest our story’s viability. We are blissfully bamboozled by our own imagination.

·      We don’t require the introductory hook – there are multiple points in our story that fascinate us simultaneously.

·      We don’t need to establish a clear story problem or character goals, we’re exploring broad concepts.

·      We have no confusion between the identities of our multiple characters. We know them perfectly.

·      We can visually position objects and players accurately and precisely on our mind’s stage.  

·      We are naturally entertained by our own chimera and may not feel the need for them to be moved or changed.  

·      There is no need to mine the thesaurus for power-word-choice or for any particular word choice because we experience our story as dynamic brain-region interactions, not as ink & information on the page.

·      We perceive great importance and profundity in our own subject and theme.

·      We inherently feel every emotion, no need to find words to describe them. 

·      We soar over leaps in logic, because we know our intended destination.

·      We disregard story-world rules because, while still in our heads, there is no consequence for breaking them.

·      Our characters don’t need to be fleshed out as complex, flawed or quirky with logical motivations because they appear to us as plot devices in random, abbreviated bursts of intention.

·      We can plop in characters and objects and solve plot problems miraculously (Deus ex machina) because, while musing, there is no need for solid foundation. We can skip critical rungs in plot structure to hover over more satisfying conclusions. We can arrive in hyper-drive at our story’s climax without need of crafted obstacles, mystery or suspense. 

·      We revel in our own excessive flowery language. It’s fun to compose!

·      We tolerate our simplistic phraseology because we are sensing, not reading our story. We fail to notice choppy, clunky sentences because we have an adequate understanding of the intended meaning. 

·      There’s little need to establish and reveal setting on the page because the required imagery is vibrant in our minds.

·      Obvious, on-the-nose dialogue will suffice because it provides us the minimum information required to get in and out of the scene. 

·      Our characters can all sound the same. They’re ours. We can distinguish between them perfectly.

·      Ordinary, cardboard character names may not leave us feeling flat because they do their job as person-placeholders through story construction and we’re not depending on them to contribute to character depth, personality, intrigue or fresh perspective.

·      No need for poetic turn of phrase or to sculpt word-beauty because we’re in story development and because we’re intrinsically moved by our own notions.

·      No crafting of symbolism, metaphor or subtext is required as we’re inherently privy to any deeper meanings. Layers and depth may not be required while we’re entertaining ourselves with plot.

·      Repeated words are of no concern because they do, after all, accurately describe our intention.

·      We can tell not show the story because we already see the required imagery in our minds.

·      We allow excessive, expository passages and bland backstory because it’s accurate and informative and we’re still figuring out the who’s, what’s, why’s and where’s.

·      We abbreviate and truncate necessary prose because, in our minds and at our desks, time has no meaning— the beat and the pace have no mandate. 

·      We may not detect lags in tension because we can mentally flit from highpoint to highpoint, imagining the desired impact. 

·      We may not recognize, or we have little concern over, fresh perspective; it’s new to us right now as we’re writing, and we’re not comparing our creative experience to what’s available in print in the world market.

·      We don’t get bored with our own musings; we can drop them at will and them pick them up again weeks later when the mood suits us.   

·      Un-evocative titles suffice because we’re not standing in a bookstore, bombarded with an avalanche of gripping competitive banners, ready to make that all-common consumer decision... Should I reach for this book cover?  Should I pay money for this story?

 We’re interested because when the visions are streaming and the words are flowing, story creation is exhilarating. But, are endorphins clouding our judgment? We can’t perceive problems on the page while a blockbuster is thriving on the exclusive movie screen in our heads ...the public has not yet been granted entrance.

In creation mode, 
we feel the impact we hope our stories deliver.

But, are we confusing passion with skill? In creation mode, everything is a placeholder for something more polished. After preliminary drafts, it’s time to land the flights of fancy on solid ground. Unless we’re writing a journal kept under our mattress, there is an audience to consider.

Readers share none of the musing-mode luxuries listed above. And, here’s how they react to a piece that fails to deliver as we’d dreamed:  Hey! I’m out here, trying to make sense of this hot mess! I’m impatient, bored, confused, frustrated, incredulous, fed up, and pissed off! A tree just died for nothing and I just wasted precious time and money. 

“We are not communicators unless our missives can be absorbed by others...” Rachel Gordon.  

Rigorous self-editing is imperative, and a skill that can and must be honed. The points above can add to our training. But, relying solely on our myopic perspective can be perilous. Skilled critique groups, peer editors and beta readers can help. Publishers use professional editors for a reason.

Insisting that we alone edit our own work may be a literary conflict of interest. Of course we think it’s perfect, we wrote it! 

And a note of caution regarding our critique groups— Even if highly skilled, while invaluable, they do love us. They sense our fragility and will nurture, praise and support us. They will not risk friendship to tell difficult truths. They won't push us to go deeper if it brings discomfort. They may only address broader issues. They may not require or take the time to scrutinize a written copy. They won’t demand a publish-ready product and may well be swayed by the dramatic performance in our oral readings. My critique group loved it, may not mean it’s ready.

Don’t invite them to be honest, 
beg them to be ruthless.

Crafting Tension

Musings by Sharyl Heber

 My Critique Group:
        “Your story lacks tension.”
        “Thanks for that vague and amorphous critique.  
          How do I fix it?”

Tense about creating tension?  Me too.   MasterWriter Dictionary defines tension like this:  The interplay of conflicting elements in a piece of literature; A device for regulating tautness; Mental, emotional, or nervous strain; Barely controlled hostility or a strained relationship between people or groups.

 So many writing problems are misdiagnosed when the true culprit is sagging tension, and so many writing problems cause a lack of tension.  I ruminate on this.  Just so I don’t suffer alone, I offer these thoughts and strategies on crafting tension: 

·       Risk:  What is at risk?  A fair question to ask of every story.  If nothing important is at stake, where is the story?

·       Conflict:  And, how will it be resolved?  But, conflict itself does not inherently equal tension.  Two guys shooting at each other evokes minor concern until… one of them is protecting the local water supply from terrorists.  Now I care, now I feel tense.  So, Conflict + Risk = Tension.

·       Protagonist vs. Antagonist:  Well-matched heroes and villains with opposing goals.

·       Need, Desire, Goal:  If no one needs or desires anything, where is the story?

·       Complications and Obstacles:  If there are no impediments to a character achieving his/her goal, where is the story?  Craft solid barriers.  The more insurmountable the odds, the greater the tension. 

·       Mystery:  Who are they?  Who did it?  Why did she do it?  What’s he going to do next?   Unkowns + problem solving with clues.  Stories in genres other than mystery need this.  Discovering what is unknown but alluded to, keeps us reading.

·       Suspense:  Anticipation, curiosity aroused, uncertainty, expectation, ambiguity.  Stories in genres other than thrillers need this.  Something is going to happen.  Set it up.  Pull us through step by step and give it time on the page.  The intruder watches from the street, he hides in the bushes, he opens the window, he creeps down the hall, he turns the bedroom doorknob...   

·       Surprise:  A singular shocker event may not sustain tension but could be the perfect introduction or boosting of tension and the establishing of a story question— An explosion, a Dear-John letter, a positive pregnancy test, a bouquet of flowers, a long lost friend, an ambush.

·       A Story Question:  Most (all?) stories benefit from a story question up front, and the provision of the answer in the end.  Tension sags when we don’t know why we’re reading or have no sense of direction.

·       Stick to the Path:  String a subject-matter zipline from intro to conclusion, then keep us tethered to it.  What is the object of the story?  Even when playing with time or multiple POV’s, wandering too far from the central goal or premise can drain tension.  Forays and subplots should be carefully crafted with their own tension, and both relate and return to, the main story focus.

·       Twists and Reversals:  While the overall story direction may be relatively stable, introducing new forces or shifting advantage between rivals can ratchet up tension.

·       Sharp Fresh Dialogue:  Tension plummets with insipid banter.  Clipped dialogue or unfinished sentences can add a mini-punch.

·       Subtext:  Story buried beneath the surface.  Smoldering suppressed emotions emerge in character choice, action and dialogue.  Props and location can harbor past trauma.  What is not said but intended is powerful. 

·       Threat of Trouble:  Foreshadowing and alluding to upcoming trouble keeps us reading.   

·       Human Frailties:  Striving for and attaining (or failing to attain) forgiveness, courage, self-esteem...  Battling fear, pride, illness, addiction or prejudice... 

·       Cliff Hangers:  Paragraph or chapter endings that leave us a tantalizing indication of something to come.  We have to know, so we read on.

·       Scarcity:  Diminishing critical resources: air, water, food, money... The lack of it can cause fear, suspense and conflict.

·       Beware of Fate:  Simple adversity, fate, or bad luck with no hope of triumph, does not make for much of a story.  No conflict, no battle, no victory.  If using these, consider crafting so fate can be outwitted and conquered.  

·       Injustice:  Our compelling drive to right wrongs.  From small inconsiderate gestures to genocide, we will read for vindication and comeuppance.

·       Plagues of Conscience:  Opposing internal forces to be resolved.  Grappling with guilt, doing the right thing, good vs. evil.

·       Good vs. Good:  Equally valid, positive forces or options in irreconcilable opposition.

·       Remorse / Regret:  Especially when alluding to an event to increase the mystery.

·       Retribution / Retaliation:  Relentless, single-minded revenge or a passive pay-back.

·       Battling or Conquering the Elements:  Tsunamis, draughts, earthquakes.  Climbing Mount Everest, Hiking the Appalachians.  From a mud puddle in a picture book to The Perfect Storm, Mother Nature can be the focus of, or add complications and tension to, a story.    

·       A Crucible:  Characters stuck in a closed environment; elevator, walled city, abusive home, religious cult, spaceship.  No escape creates tension.  Every story world should be it’s own crucible.  If there is simple escape from the problems, where then is the story?

·       Unstable Character:  An unpredictable, off balance character, they’re ill or crazy, pushed to the limit, capable of anything. 

·       Loss:  Of anything important – Love, friendship, memories, skills, possessions, our minds!  Loss can = pain or fear or danger, and then, what’s to be done about it?

·       Dilemma:  Working through excruciating options or seemingly impossible choices.

·       Urgency:  A deadline, the ticking clock.

·       Irony:  Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.  

·       Hope:  Hope in itself is meek and does not deliver much tension.  Perhaps better to craft its fulfillment as if it were suspense (see suspense above.)  

·       Misunderstandings:  Characters misreading a situation then feeling or taking action based on faulty perception.

·       Tragic Accidents:  A crash, a surgical blunder, a bungled caper.  An inevitable chain of events to come based on misjudgment.  Accidents are set ups for conflict, internal fortitude, and need for restoration.

·       Deep Emotion:  Rage, grief, loneliness, devotion, passion... Show-don’t-tell is helpful here. 

·       Substance:  There must be enough substance in a topic to carry a full story.  If the subject is average or mundane, it needs a power-injection.  The journey of Grandma’s dishes may be lackluster until it is told through WWII memories of loss and trauma. 

·       I Dare You:  A double-dog dare, would add some suspense and tension to a story.

·       High Stakes Game:  Gambling or a mega game with potential for devastation.

·       Blackmail:  I know what you did.  I can expose you.

·       Breach of Ethics:  From white lies to criminal activity, patient/therapist or teacher/student boundary violations.  $$ for favors, conflicts of interest, accepting a bribe.  Any breach can set up tension with fear of discovery and reveal seedy character.

·       Cold Threats:  I know where you live.  I know where your children go to school.  Pictures of you... Someone is watching.  Someone knows all about you.

·       POV:  Changing point of view, e.g., from a distant 3rd person retelling of a tale to a more intimate and immediate 1st person POV can add a bit of power to a story (or finding the perfect POV to maximize tension.) 

·       Temporal Tense:  Try shifting from past tense recollections to a present tense inclusion of the reader in the experience as the story unfolds.

·       Show-Don’t-Tell:  Sick of this phrase?  I know, try to get over it.  There is much tension to be gained by taking something out of ‘journalistic’ descriptive narrative and ‘showing’ it via fresh example or by placing it into a scene with action and dialogue.
     More elusive but critically important:

·      A Fresh Perspective:  Quirky, offbeat, distinctive… Peculiarity alone can’t carry a story but the lack of it may diminish or sink the piece.  Have we heard this narrative, this word configuration, author voice, or point of view a hundred times before?  

Writer-Manager-Creative Consultant, Rachel Gordon, describes this pitfall in a brilliant power-phrase, Typing up common knowledge commonly.”  I love this caution.  It hangs like a warning skeleton at the drawbridge to my creative process.  It challenges me to see and feel and write fresh.  Stale sucks tension into a black hole.  

Insidious Tension Suckers:  

Most any writing problem can slow or stop a reader’s flow, which sucks tension from the reading experience.  Some frequent offenders below:

  • ·       Distracting or unprofessional formatting
  • ·       Errors in grammar, punctuation, spelling
  • ·       Repeated words  
  • ·       Unidentifiable speakers – This takes careful management.  Minimizing dialogue tags, recognizing when they are needed, and maximizing distinctive speech.  In any case, we have to know who’s speaking or the moment is lost.
  • ·       Unclear or confusing narrative descriptions  
  • ·       Long bulky sentences
  • ·       Excessive or confusing use of pronouns – She, she, she repeated or, which she in the scene -    Gladys, Mona or Trudy? 
  • ·       Adverbs – ‘ly’ words.  “One per chapter allowed,” she said begrudgingly.  (One might be too     many.)
  • ·       Inactive verbs – Is, was, were, has, had, have been etc.  Which is more powerful?  Willy was    on the corner or, Willy vomited on the corner (or danced, raged, sulked, paced...)  Active verbs   show-don’t-tell.      
  • ·       Overwriting – Excessive or flowery prose
  • ·       Awkward phrasing  
  • ·       Mixing past and present tense erroneously.
  • ·       Shifting point of view (POV) erroneously.
  • ·       Tentative, equivocating phrasing – Maybe, almost, kind of, its like, I think, might be, could have, sort of, sometimes, can possibly...  These drain power.
  • ·       Dependent clauses – Because her bed lay next to the open window, he was able to climb in and murder her.  That formal structure is distancing and better suited to non-fiction.
  • ·       Credibility – Readers must be able to suspend disbelief.  If the story world is not adequately established, credibly set up, then we won’t believe it and tension plummets.
  • ·       Wimpy, cardboard characters. 

           Does my memoir need tension?  I say, YES!  I would make a distinction between journal and memoir.  In my journal, I recount events, feelings, conversations etc. for my eyes and my heart only.  I have lived the material so there is no mandate to flesh it out in any particular way.  I keep it under my bed.  When I call it memoir and pull it out for others to see, I’m now compelled to draw the reader in and keep them reading.  I’m now telling a story.  Story is drama, which requires crafting tension.  Considering the bullet points above may help. 

Grammatically Correct ~ Dramatically Inept.  I made this ditty up and staple-gunned it to my forehead when I discovered my pages riddled with the inactive verb, ‘was.’  It’s a concept that applies to other tension-sucking pitfalls too.  Is the story grammatically correct?  Sure, but where’s the drama?  

Drama and tension are soul mates.  MasterWriter Thesaurus offers these alternatives to the word dramatic:  Vivid, potent, meaningful, moving, forceful, effective, startling, thrilling, expressive... 
Picture books are not exempt.  Each of the musings above can be adjusted for genre.  

When the piece is bland or flat, we can rework it.  
We’re writers.  We rewrite.  We craft oomph!

Crafting Irony - And the irony of that is...

Crafting Irony

The Musings of Sharyl Heber on the Gift of Literary Irony 

I’m a big fan of irony in the written word.  My MasterWriter software defines it in this way:
  • ·       Incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.
  • ·       The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning.
  • ·       A literary style employing such contrasts for humorous or rhetorical effect.

In my own writing, I’m trying to train myself to drill down and ask at every turn, And the irony of that is?  Below are some ideas I have on its crafting:

Plot Structure (sometimes deliciously linked to, or played out in, poetic justice):
  • ·       A classic example— O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, (spoiler alert) she sells her hair to buy him a watch chain, he sells his watch to buy her hair clips.
  • ·       A confederate-flag-waving white supremacist is trapped in his burning house and the one willing to risk his life to save him is, of course and perfectly, a black man.
  • ·       A wealthy, big shot, college fraternity (un-convicted) serial rapist finds his future doomed by his victims who post his picture throughout the rest of his life, “This Man is a Rapist.”  (A short story I’ve yet to write.)
  • ·       The children of elitist ‘protected’ war-mongering politicians, mercenaries and arms dealers are kidnapped, brutally boot-camped and dumped onto the front lines of a raging war. (A short story I’ve yet to write.)
  • ·       A search party to another planet to save earth’s population returns with a galactic pandemic microbe.

Sentence Configuration:
  • ·       Every once in a while my aunt can dig deep into that shallow character of hers and pull out some resolve.
  • ·       His surface appearance with that Hitler mustache, spoke volumes about his inner core.
  • ·       The more I learn about writing the more I know I do not know.
  • ·       “There’s so much humanity in a love of trees.” Muriel Barbery
  • ·       “When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things.” Muriel Barbery
  • ·       His haute couture had just sunk to a new low.

Dialogue: (can be a nice way to inject some humor)
  • ·       “He was a caustic old bastard and I loved him dearly.”
  • ·       “Of course it’s till death do us part, darling.  Don’t push your luck.”
  • ·       “If you take that last cupcake I’ll cut your liver out with my Martha-Stuart-scallop-edged craft scissors.”
  • ·       “Smart, prolific and talented, capable of so many things, why not anaphylaxis?”
  • ·       “Yes, we’re poor as church mice, Marjory.  Let’s go buy that yacht.”
  • ·       “You never tell me anything.  How am I supposed to know what you’re thinking?  Why do I have to be the one to always bring it up…” (e.g., If she’d shut up he could talk!)

The Environment:
  • ·       A homeless camp fosters a warm and tightknit family of souls
  • ·       A drug-infested slum harbors a school that produces poor but gifted prodigies
  • ·       A bucolic country village is polluted with toxic chemicals
  • ·       The earth-saving water supply requires a journey across a killer desert
  • ·       A deadly forest holds the secret to eternal life
  • ·       The compound of a spiritual retreat is booby-trapped to prevent escape
  • ·       Per the movie…  the town of Pleasantville lives only in black and white

Character Names:
  • ·       A Chihuahua named Moose or… a bruiser named Tiny
  • ·       An evil cult leader named Faith
  • ·       Her name was Curtsy, but she was crippled, so she couldn’t
  • ·       A ne’er-do-well bum named Lord Standish
  • ·       A hateful bitch named Lovey

Personality Twists: (which might also serve as plot material)
  • ·       Pious/religious but mean as a snake
  • ·       Uber wealthy and not a friend in the world
  • ·       Animal rescuer by day, serial killer by night
  • ·       Exercise/healthy diet guru, secretly binges and purges
  • ·       Nursery school teacher runs a drug smuggling ring
  • ·       Family-values politician caught in a sex slave scandal
  • ·       Keeps a meticulous daily calendar but logs nothing of consequence
  • ·       Profoundly annoying but clueless about their impact on others
  • ·       Chronic complainer leads a life rich with blessings or… Destitute and complains of nothing
  • ·       Freely dishes out criticism but cannot receive it
  • ·       Frets over minutia and ignores the big problems
  • ·       In therapy for relationship issues while sleeping with her therapist
  • ·       A brilliant mind disintegrates into dementia or madness

A technique where the questioner admits (falsely) to not knowing something as a way of tricking the other person into revealing his own lack of knowledge or a flaw in his logic, thus the irony.
  • ·       TV detective Colombo was a master at this.

A plot device in which the reader’s knowledge surpasses that of the character’s.  The words and actions of the character’s therefore take on a different meaning for the reader than they have for the character.  This may happen when a character reacts in an inappropriate or foolish way or when they lack self-awareness and thus act under false assumptions.
  • ·       In the Oedipus cycle, the audience knows that Oedipus’s acts are tragic mistakes long before he recognizes his own errors.
  • ·       William Shakespeare’s Othello’s trust in the treacherous Iago
  • ·       Anton Chekov’s story “Lady with the Dog,” an accomplished Don Juan engages in a routine flirtation only to find himself seduced into a passionate lifelong commitment to a woman who is no different from all the other number of women with who he has flirted. 

The opportunities to employ irony seem endless and entertaining when crafted with subtlety or in the extremes.  For every name, situation, and character flaw there may be a compelling surprising opposite to enrich a story. 

I have many opinions on writing.  And, the irony of that is…  I’m not exactly prolific and have hardly published a thing.