Sunday, September 2, 2012

Writing in the 21st Century

(The Bookreader of the Future from:  Retronaut)
In the past, the PNWA Summer Conference held a "Lunch with (Insert Name of Author Here)" around noon.  Lunch usually consisted of a cellophane wrapped sandwich, bag of chips and a drink, purchased at the temporary sandwich stands.  Attendees would scarf down these midday meals while trying to listen to the afternoon's guest over the sound of crunching nachos and slurping sodas.

This year, the conference organizers did something different and held "Spotlight" seminars, which were open to all sorts of writing-related topics. 

The nacho-crunching and soda slurping remained the same.

The first Spotlight session was led by Donald Maas, author of several "how to" books on writing.  Donald's seminar, Writing in the 21st Century, wasn't about the whiz-bang technology that continues to change the nature of reading and publishing.  Technology which is evolving so fast, today's toys may be as outdated as the "Bookreader of the Future." 

Instead, Donald discussed the continued appeal of literary fiction.  Stories that have an emotional inner journey as well as a physical journey, because it is emotions that connect us to the characters in a story.  So a writer must create an "emotional landscape" for the protagonist and other characters to travel through.

To set out on this journey, a writer must know how well, or ill-prepared, the protagonist is, to make this journey, by asking these questions:

What shames the protagonist the most?
What will force the protagonist to face this shame?
When will the protagonist have to own their past mistake(s)?
At what length will the protagonist go to conceal a shameful secret?
How has the protagonist attempted to compensate for his past actions/offenses?
Who else in the story can keep a similar secret?
Who guesses the truth before the protagonist?
Who must the protagonist forgive?
Who is withholding the healing, the protagonist is looking for?
What will it cost someone else, if/when the protagonist is healed?
What will bring about reconciliation between the protagonist and another?
When healing is possible and forgiveness arrives, how will home look to him now?
What change occurs outwardly?  What will change symbolically?
What is the most challenging thing the protagonist must do?
Is the course of action against the protagonist's principles?
(Clue to highly-charged story:  Everything the protagonist hates and fears is what he must do to change).
The protagonist should have one rock-solid belief about people in the world he lives in--then find a place in the story where the protagonist proves to be dead-wrong about this belief.
What is the protagonist's greatest hope?
Why does this journey matter?
What does your protagonist dream about, or dream of?
In what way is the protagonist's dream naive?  How will he find out?
How is this dream unattainable/impossible?
What will cause the protagonist to let his dream go?
And, what will replace it?

But literary fiction isn't merely about inner turmoil.  There's a physical journey characters must embark upon.  The writer then, must set the scene, by asking these questions:

What does the protagonist hope to achieve upon arrival at the destination?
What is dissappointing?  What exceeds expectations?
What do at least three people say about the destination?
How do these predictions come true?

Keep in mind the destination is only a place.  The true journey is the innermost, emotional one.

To maintain a reader's interest, the characters in the story must have universal appeal.  They must be unlike anyone else.  However, a writer should include at least two traits the protagonist has in common with everyone else.

Also, play on the character's beliefs and superstitions.  Donald used a great example of a man leaving one sip of coffee left in his cup as an offering to his gods.  Then he suggested, at 2/3rds of the way into the story, the hero slurps down a whole cup of coffee without giving thanks.


The readers will now be bracing themselves for the mayhem they KNOW is about to ensue.

Finally, Donald discussed the use of descriptions in fiction.  Classic literary fiction is chock-full of scene-setting descriptions.  Donald suggested tossing them aside, since today's readers skip the scenery in order to get back into the action.  Use characters as a subjective "filter" to the world around them.  Ask:

What is "true" to the characters?
What intangible things make up the reality of the characters' world?
What is the one "truth" and one "ugly truth" your protagonist "knows" about people in his world?

Strong opinions on a page are much better than descriptions.

What does your protagonist feel about some of the sundry of things in his world, such as:  Soda (or pop)? SUVs? Luxury vehicles? Abstract art? Longform narrative poetry? Pop music? Credit? Fourth down passes?

Magnify such opinions.  As an example, Donald went into a staged rant (or was it real?) over ice cream should never be served in the bland-tasting wafer cones, but nestled in the sweet-tasting waffle cones.

Remember:  The more particular and unique a character is, the more universal they become.

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