Category Archives: Revision

Writing Prompt: Develop Setting – Inspired by Colson Whitehead on New York City

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

copyright Elissa Field; repro w written permission only

I am a very visual person — I think in pictures — so writing setting is perhaps the last aspect of storytelling that I worry about. In writing a story set in India, details crept into every line without me thinking about them. I knew the exact color of shadows, the moment a bird would flush out of dry brush. A lot of writers can relate to this, especially if their drive to tell a story is inspired by place.

But that’s not always the case. In Friday Links for Writers: 3.21.14 , I quoted Anne Enright from a bit of advice where she said, “description is hard.”

Describing setting can be a powerful way to engage readers, conjure up surprising sensory details, reveal character, add resonance to a scene, develop internal and external conflicts… but it has do so in a way that moves the story, and that fits the voice and character(s)’ point of view.

Continuing the series on Novel Revision, today’s post shares a prompt for developing an important setting in your story, making it work to build character, motion and greater resonance. While many details may have come about in a first draft, midlevel revision is a great time to revise for ideas that were not yet clear in your first vision.

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Find a Place to Stand

Anne Enright’s advice was: “Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.”

This is a great starting point for thinking about setting: begin by knowing your character(s)’ point of view and seeing your setting from where the character stands.

Colson Whitehead on New York

Some of you may know I am working from my family’s house outside New York City at the moment, and felt the impact of this year’s anniversary of 9.11.01 in that context. On the anniversary, Jodi Kantor shared on Twitter a link to Colson Whitehead’s beautiful article from the New York Times that ran November 11, 2001.

As a New Yorker living in the city as it recovered, Colson wrote not directly about the event, but about what defines one’s connection to and identification as being from the city.

Read it because it’s beautiful — and because we’ll use it as our prompt. (Read it now, or in the prompt below: The Way We Live Now: 11.01.01)

The First Brick in Your City

Colson says, “You start building your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it.” Anyone who’s spent time in New York knows what he means by “private New York,” as everyone comes to define their own sense of the city — a city so large that any of us sees it only in pieces.

But isn’t that true of each character’s response to setting?

In the paragraph that follows, Colson lists a handful of ways a person might have experienced their first moment in the city.

Freeze it there,” he says; “that instant is the first brick in your city.”

There is so much about writing setting that can be taken from his words. The point of details in your novel is not to inform a reader of what to see and do when visiting the place; you are not a glorified camera taking a picture for the reader. What matters about the places in your story are the ways your character(s) perceive and respond to them.

In Colson’s essay, each example of a newbie arriving in New York City presents a character you can view clearly in your mind, despite being limited to the details of a single sentence. They are details of setting, but they clearly define the interaction of people within that setting. The details involve objects, structures, qualities and even the kinds of actions and thoughts a character has within that setting. A detail could be as mundane as holding a piece of paper or a communication between friends, but the detail is not left vague. “The phone rang,” could happen in any city, but Colson made the same detail of a phone call place-defining, as: “there was some mix-up in the plans.”

Prompt for Developing Details of Setting

So let’s turn his essay into a prompt for your own writing today.

Interpret this for whatever you are working on: a novel, a short story, a poem, a detail in your memoir, a detail in an essay, details fleshed out for a travel piece, or start something new.  You won’t be recreating Colson’s format; you’ll just use the prompt for generating details in whatever scene you imagine.

  1. Read Colson Whitehead’s The Way We Live Now: 11.01.01
  2. Have in mind the place you will write about, thinking of it first as it is in the story’s present. Tip: Have in mind a specific place. For existing work, this will be an important location in your piece. For new work, be sure to have a single place in mind before writing. While Colson writes about a city, yours could be any kind of a place, real or imagined.
  3. What is the “first brick” in your character’s experience of this setting? Be vivid. Be true. Likely part of your backstory, what first memory comes to mind as the moment he/she began to define their own private version of their place? Freeze there. Think, then write where it feels revealing.
    • What emotion attaches to that first brick? Awe? Horror, pain, fear, injury…? Joy, excitement, beauty, anticipation, faith…?
    • What details attach to that first brick? Think of the stub of paper with a new address in the hand of the New Yorker arriving at their first address, or the limited view of a toddler in a carriage.
    • What actions or motion are involved? Are there details of arrival, communication, cross signals, movement? Are there broad sights or limited senses?
    • What does your character want (or think they want) in that first moment? This may be very different — distorted, more basic, more naïve — than later in the story.
  4. Moving through your story, how does your character continue to build their definition of the setting?
    • How does that first brick define the setting for your character?  Does it leave a ghost of emotion through later events? Does it start memory on solid or unstable footing? Do regrets haunt, long after, no matter how much success follows? Do later moments never live up to the first glow? Is there a sweetness the character carries from that first memory that lends forgiveness or blind faith in later experience? or..?
    • Does your character (or do you) come to measure later scenes against that first experience, or is it nearly forgotten as others take priority?
  5. Options for how this might create tensions, conflict development or structure in your story – where you might take it next:
    • What other “bricks” of memory, detail or experience define the setting for your character? Does this possibly suggest a structure for story events?
    • In what ways do these details define your character’s “own private” setting? Is your reader aware of a contrast between that private vision vs. other perspectives?
    • Do different characters perceive contrasting “private” versions of the setting? Does this lend structure, tension or just details to scenes? Would these different perspective ever cause missed understanding in dialogue between characters?
  6. Going beyond a single scene, how could you use this different private viewpoint to add details of how characters dress, what they carry, how they speak or what they do?

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What About You?

Are you working on setting this week? Did you use this prompt or what other inspiration helps you envision your setting clearly? Several of my friends work in photography or other media — how do you reflect on setting in your work?

Let us know how your work is going in the comments. Feel free to share a link to your own post, if you want to share an excerpt or other writing.

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Novel Revision Strategies: Retyping the Novel Draft

At work on novel revisions. c. Elissa Field

At work on novel revisions. c. Elissa Field

 

This week, along with spending time with my boys for their spring break, I am working full days on novel revisions. The first 2 days, I was writing new material and then integrating all new “add ons” into the existing draft, then printing it out. Deep breath. Then, yesterday, I decided to try out a whole new strategy for novel revision.

First off, as with other posts in my Novel Revision series, this is a revision strategy intended for a mid-level revision. That is, at least one complete draft has been accomplished (more about that below). If you want other ideas about novel revision, click this link for a full listing of posts in the series or look for links at the end.

If this novel revision strategy doesn’t work, you’ll hear me cursing. But, so far, I can see merit, so let’s try it out.

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Stage in Revisions

The novel draft I am working on has held together as a novel for at least a year and has gone through several revisions to develop the internal and external conflicts, so that I have my permanent story line in place. The characters are fully developed. It is at the revision stage of working together scenes from multiple revisions, purging out weak portions from early drafts, and working toward smoothing out what will be a final version (prayers skyward).

Where did this approach come from?

Within recent weeks, two writers I follow each shared this piece of advice, here in a tweet by Alexander Chee:

By coincidence, I had just heard the same strategy in this New School interview with Anthony Marra, whose Constellation of Vital Phenomena I’ve been reading (look for link to my review of Constellation below):

At about 7:30 into the interview, Anthony answers a question about how he came upon the narrative style of the award-winning novel, in which there are no minor characters.

Explain the Revision Strategy

In sharing how the style came about, Anthony explains his writing process this way:

I retype everything.  That is sort of my revision method: just retyping and retyping. I’ll print out a draft as soon as I’m finished and put it down in front of the keyboard and go back and retype the whole thing…  This process of retyping, I feel like it’s the way some painters paint the same landscape again and again because… you start seeing it more through your memory than through your eyes…”

Wait, What?

Tell me you didn’t say, “retype the whole thing.”

I know. Isn’t “retype the whole thing” the great nightmare we all have of what would happen if the computer crashed, losing all but that one print copy?

Do the math: Type 30 words a minute? Maybe you’re lucky and type 60 or even 100? Yeah, divide your novel’s word count by that. Starting from scratch on all those finished pages – you’re staring down the long road of WEEKS worth of typing.

As the groan ebbs, the more patient writer inside — the one who genuinely wants excellence — toys with the idea, thinking, “What might I fix more authentically if I were typing this manuscript in from scratch?”

My Manuscript Tests it Out

My novel draft is in a good place for this kind of revision.

  • I want to read the whole thing through.
  • I want to make major revisions to resolve differences in voice that come from working on a novel over a few years’ time.
  • I’m willing to drop any scene or sentence or word that isn’t working.

This is a great point to be recreating the story on a blank page, rather than just tweaking an existing draft.

And I type nearly as fast as I think. It may be faster for me to retype what I like than to mark up a draft and have to go back and implement those changes, knowing they still won’t perfectly fit with neighboring text.

So How’s It Working?

Two days into this approach I’ve typed in 6,993 words (or 19 pages) which is essentially the first chapter (or first chapter and half).

Pros

Retyping has been a great approach for this section of revisions, as 1) I needed this part of the novel perfected to submit as writing sample with a couple applications, and 2) the existing draft was made up of a handful of draft options.

Retyping went very smoothly. I typed in the first 4 pages exactly as they were, as I’ve revised them several times, although I discovered some obvious sentence errors in a couple places. I then cherry-picked 4 old scenes to rescue just key details and wording. Then I typed in, nearly verbatim, a couple recent drafts, which are closest to my intent with the narrative voice.  There was one small chunk that I cheated and used copy-paste to transfer. Sue me.

There were several pages of text I willingly dropped. In particular, it was good to see those “explainy,” psychology-heavy sections from early drafts falling behind on the cutting room floor. This is why I wanted to use this process. I kept only the best wording — only wording that felt strong enough to be worth typing again.

Cons

It does take a bit of time. I did the math but refuse to accept it would really take me 219 days to retype this thing. I’d like to claim faulty division and tell myself I can do it by May. (Update in June: nope, not finished by May. I haven’t given up the approach, but did not have time to devote to it while busy with students the past two months. Getting back to it…)

Have issues with your eyesight? I don’t normally but would empathize with anyone who does, as I injured my eye last month, which has made my vision more sensitive, and it is a little demanding on vision to go back and forth between the print draft and on-screen draft.

Worry about losing one of those darlings you slaughtered? I have a longstanding practice of saving a “cuts” document for anything I delete from a draft, because I can just cut it and paste it there. With this retyping process, I technically still have a record of those lost words as I have the printed draft, but, in order to move quickly, I was not clearly marking the printed text to keep track of words or sections I chose to exclude while typing. Keeping colored highlighters on hand would help with this: highlight one color for deleting and another if you are thinking to move something to another part of the manuscript.

Ah, typos. For anyone who’s already gone through a draft correcting dropped letters, misspellings, capitalizations or dropped words, this is the little nightmare: retyping exposes you to a whole fresh round of typos. I’m sure that writers using the retyping method just address those on the final version, or aim to do their best correct them with each round. < Note the irony of typos in that line? Point made.

Overall

Definitely, I see a value in this revision process, so will keep it in my toolbox, although I don’t know that it will become my one and only process.  I’ll post an update over the coming weeks to see if I stick with this process through the whole draft.

My biggest concern, overall, is that it is very tempting to make drastic revisions when retyping. This could be good — it lets you release those outgrown darlings readily — but that also means that the current revision can only be as good as I am on the day I’m retyping any revisions. Although, just as easily, one could tune out and simply type what’s there without real revision. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Update 6/8/14: I can’t update with a fabulous success story, as I went back into the distractions of teaching for the 2 months since that post, so have not made it far through the manuscript. However, I did finish reading Anthony Marra’s novel (look for link to my review, below), which I praise for its clean narrative and ability to accomplish a complex narrative structure. The strength of his narrative control is a nod in favor of his revision technique. I’ll update again as I move ahead with long revision days now school is done.

Read more about Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena in my June 7, 2014 review.

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How About You?

Are you at work on revision? Have you tried this strategy? Or, what strategies do you recommend? Feel free to share links to your own posts if you’ve written about your own favorite approach.

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, the Bloglovin’ button or via email.  I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

Blake and the Irish cow. c. Elissa Field, request permission for use

Blake and the Irish cow. c. Elissa Field, request permission for use

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Writing in Process: Using Alternative Voice to Understand Internal Conflict

Running manOne of the great things about my online writing community is the way we keep each other motivated, often in ways we don’t expect.  Last week, I shared how it had motivated me to re-set my 2014 goals after I shared a brief excerpt of Wake and gotten feedback that pushed me to think, to have confidence and above all, “Keep going.”

My 500 wordsToday’s post is sort of Jeff Goins’ fault, as the day 19 prompt at his 500 words challenge was to write in another voice. So it is I spent the day evaluating a process I have been going through in deepening internal motivation of a novel character.

This post serves as follow up to several novel revision articles posted over the past year. I’ll include the relevant links to individual revision steps for anyone looking for more on the revision process.

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Revision in Process: Internal Motivation of a Main Character

Throughout my series of posts on Novel Revision last summer (this link takes you to all posts on Novel Revision, or find links to individual skills within this post), I revealed how deeply I felt the need to push my main character, Carinne (Revising a Flat Character).

Motivation for the male protagonist, Michael Roonan, was clear from the get-go. He’s killed people; guilt and loss compel his self-castigation. But, in early versions, Carinne’s written motivation was only that she was getting out of a bad marriage and she fell in love with Roonan.

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

Truth: as I wrote about in Can Literary Fiction Be Hot, the romantic element is often the most compelling and memorable aspect of fiction that sticks with us.  Still… My gut told me there had to be more to her motivation than “failed marriage” and “he’s hot.”  Kind of lame motivation, right?  Too thin, too predictable, too linear.

Many of my novel revision posts have shared the ways I’ve challenged my own understanding of Carinne and character motivation because, one way or another, my gut told me that I knew something more about her than I had written.  (Did you pick up on that when I distinguished her “written” motivation, above?)  But I needed to go deep to put it into words, and part of that included distancing the character from my own experience.

copyright Elissa Field; all rights reserved, no repro without written permission

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

The eye-opener was in an exercise I completed (October Challenge: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation), where I kept assessing and re-assessing stakes for the internal conflict of the main characters.  For Carinne, the written stakes were only whether she raised her son alone or if she could get her lover back with her. Then I realized it wasn’t her own stakes that drove her, but those of the little boy, Liam, she had conceived with Roonan.  The driving motivation to go find Roonan had to come from a place beyond romance — she was off to find him so that her son would not grow up without a father.

Along the same time, I wrote last summer that I had come to understand a crucial backstory for Carinne that distances her from myself.

This is something I have not written about, but have felt deeply in the year and a half since a young photojournalist went missing on assignment.  His last tweet — from a birthday celebration with friends — and the pride in photographs he shared in his online portfolio — have stuck with me as an eerie, disembodied voice over the months his parents and sister worked through international channels to discover what happened to him.  As much as the news speaks of military or civilian losses, lost journalists has been a major piece in international affairs of the past 20 years.

The thing with this novel I am writing is, it has to do with why people get involved in violent international affairs. Roonan became a murderer while doing everything he could to avoid involvement in paramilitary activity in his family’s Irish border town. Carinne meets him years after the violence, finding the ghost of the man. A failed marriage is not her motivation; I quickly wrote that out of the early draft.  Carinne came to life for me last summer when I stopped apologizing and making excuses for her and let her behavior be entirely contrary — then let the missing reporter be the loss that drove her chaotic behavior.

True Revision Can be Messy

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

I began last summer’s revision-series with a post titled Work is Messy, Book May Bite.

What a mess new motivation makes of a draft, but slowly the 2 internal storylines have been laying themselves out clearly in parallel to one another, as the external conflict brings the story to resolution that genuinely resounds with meaning, as Carinne unites father and son.  Yeah, okay: it can be romantically hot, too, but the resolution now resounds on a more universal level.

I once watched my stepmother unravel a month’s worth of knitting to correct a missed stitch in a complicated fisherman-knit afghan, and I couldn’t believe the patience and insistence on perfection it took for her to do that.  Taking apart this main character, Carinne, has felt like all that unraveling — pulling the whole novel apart and putting it back together.  But I knew in my gut that it wasn’t “there” yet.  I love the characters and their story, but I just knew that the resolution of an international conflict could not be just romantic happily-ever-after. The little boy was symbolic of something in the opening, and he had to be the core of the resolution, as symbol of something greater for the novel to resound.

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The Work in Process

That’s a lot of thinking out loud.  How does it play out?  One approach that brought me closer to understanding the mother’s motivation was to write scenes from the child’s perspective.

In final revisions, I’ll be deciding between a close-omniscient or alternating third person narrative structure, which means I am not yet sure if I will keep the boy’s voice or just let it inform the mother’s perspective.  But, for the sake of sharing a piece of the writing process, here is the scene I shared at Gae Polisner’s Friday Feedback last week.

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Excerpt from Work in Progress, Where the Wolves Find Us (nicknamed Wake)

Context:  This excerpt is from a rough draft rethinking an opening scene from the son, Liam’s, perspective. The novel opens with the mother (Carinne) finding her son burying something in the back yard. As Carinne is in the process of washing mud from his hands, he asks, essentially for the first time, if his father is dead.  This becomes the inciting event; by the end of the chapter, Carinne is searching for the missing father.  The drafted scene below is from a long riff that came out when I took time to see “life with his mother” from Liam’s perspective. What would he see, hear or feel, growing up with a mother isolated and obsessed with missing people?

His mother’s shoulder was warm against Liam’s back, the water glittering beneath the sink-light as she sudsed his hands. He clapped his hands so bubbles sprayed and he tracked them, her voice murmuring in his ear as each iridescent orb floated up and sideways and down, each at its own rate so that his eyes measured them as if racers toward a finish line. Plik! Hope. Plik! Each popped, no matter he’d resisted the urge to touch them. Each, in its own path, flicked a mini explosion of its membrane and ceased to exist in the vacant spans of light.

Carinne’s voice reached a pitch – Liam’s feet had kicked dishes stacked in the sink – then went silent, replaced by the constant curt voice of men and women from the television playing in the next room. News. Always the news, and he hated it.

He patted suds onto her cheek. She took it as a joke, laughing, her eyes smiling at his.  He hit her again,  harder, wanting it to stop: the man chopping news into his head.  An airport. A warning. A plane stopped along a runway. Heads talking. The plane. More heads. A fire truck.  She would look: study the stream of words at the bottom. Flip three channels forward, pausing on each. Each, more news. Then back.  Even she didn’t care, he could tell. She took in what was happening the same way she studied the noise of trash men arriving for the blue bins or the neighbor’s garage door motor starting: look to the noise, see it for what it was, and disregard it as not affecting them.  But most hours of the day, he could not make her change the channel.  “Just let me see what’s happening overseas,” she would tell him, “Then we’ll change it.”

She corrects him now, “We don’t hit!” gripping his hands together in her own as if for prayer. He twists his head away and pulls his hands. “Hands are not for hitting,” she recites.

He says very quietly, as if to an unseeable friend, “I hate the news.”

She lets go, relieved. The smack makes sense, as it hadn’t a second ago. He leans into her shoulder, his dried hand reaching along the back of her neck to where her hair is softest, her baby again. “I hate it, too,” she says.

She will change the channel, this time, but he doesn’t believe she hates it. The firemen spraying foam on the plane by the runway did not interest her, but other times she has watched the same repeating footage, over and over.  A black uniformed policeman being interviewed in a mist of rain, dark clouds rising behind him.  A white SUV driving between sand-colored buildings in a cloud of dust behind a reporter cloaked with a checkered scarf. Over and over, she might watch these. Study the images to the corners of the screen. Study faces blurred in the background. Over and over. Then flip channels in hope to see the same scene from another angle.  Not notice the stack he’d made of his cars: three tall, now four, his eyes widening, willing them not to topple.  His mother frozen silent, remote clenched in her hand. Sometimes tears. He hated it as she did not. So easily, she could have flipped to another channel. Thomas the Train. Even Dora.

“I hate the men,” he said once.

She had turned away from him like she did when he broke something and she was mad even though she said she wasn’t.  “Never hate the men,” she said.  She left the room, crying and trying to hide it from him, as if these men were her own friends, her family, as the empty house of the two of them showed no sign of.

Have Feedback?

Of course this piece is in draft form and out of context, but constructive feedback is welcome.  I am on the fence whether it is helpful to actually use the child’s voice, as I think it would be tough for a toddler to carry the opening voice of an adult novel. Would you try to use his voice, or just let his insight inform the mother’s POV?  Hmm.

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What About You?

Are you revising fiction this week?  What challenges do you run into or what has worked well for you? If you’ve also been sharing your work or revision strategies, feel free to add your links or comments below.

Are you exploring issues of conflict or stakes in a character you are writing?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that get you more authentically or deeply into your characters’ motivation?

For more posts on this site related to character development:

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

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Novel Revision: Can Literary Fiction be Hot?

hotfiction

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

So what am I working on next, in this series on mid-process novel revisions? Okay, confession. Maybe, while working on novel revision this week, I caught myself admiring Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. And maybe I rewatched Sense and Sensibilities, catching my breath for the 99th time over Colonel Brandon’s silent anguish of love. Maybe that had me thinking about hot main characters and romantic plots.

But then, just maybe, as I reread parts of my novel which has matured into its thematically-layered 4th or 5th draft, I stumbled upon a love scene between my main characters and cringed.

For a complete list of articles from this Novel Revision series, look below.  But today it’s time to take on love scenes.

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Love Draws Us In

If you’d asked me what this novel was about during first drafts, I would have called it a love story. It opens with the prattling of a toddler conceived in a love affair between the main characters. I feel a loyalty to that love spark, even as growth in the story has come to focus more on the layers of conflict and the larger theme of civilians avoiding violence during war.

That early feeling of falling in love with this broken main character is a central integrity to the story that doesn’t leave me.  Key transitions in plot hinge on the moment they met, the moment they were drawn to each other, the moment they first, well, you know, and whether they are in love, and how that changes their original response to conflict. The love tension between my MCs is the fun part of the story, and a powerful inspiration that keeps me going from draft to draft.

Tough, my current revision process tells me.

How many first dates, even well described, would make it through the rounds of novel revisions? As I re-read these original scenes and decide how to edit love into the final drafts, I’m left wondering what role sex plays in literary fiction.

Purpose of the Sex Scene Fits the Purpose of the Genre

Sex plays different roles in different genres, of course, and thinking about the purpose of a genre helps to establish a guideline for the purpose sex scenes would serve in a book.

If I were writing romance fiction, the purpose of my sex scenes would be to evoke a romantic experience for the reader. For a mystery or thriller, sexual tension might accelerate the tension of a crime or create the more mysterious, romantic motivation for a detective or spy. For young adult lit, sexual activity is handled carefully to depict first experiences crossing the threshold from childhood to adulthood, and is therefore likely to focus on hesitation or anticipation, and small details a young person would remember of a first kiss or holding hands.

In each case, defining the work’s purpose is a good starting point in knowing what love scene details will advance a story without being off kilter or over the top.

What is the Role of Sex in Literary Fiction?

Literary fiction is less easily defined than some other genres, so I was left wondering at the role of sex in my WIP. In many cases, literary fiction is a hybrid with other genres, containing elements of romance, mystery, historical, coming of age, or science fiction. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass addresses the effective crossover between literary and commercial fiction.

What is generally the case in all literary fiction and its hybrid/crossover varieties is that heat and passion can’t be the only purpose of love or sex in a story. Dang. I can’t just say my MC is a hottie and they are so in l-o-o-o-ve. The passion has to fuel or depict a larger purpose in developing character and advancing the conflict.

Of course, there are numerous literary best sellers where sex is not present. In his essay, Sex in Literature, Adrian Slatcher references Julian Barnes in saying “‘the author feels a commercial obligation’ to write about sex. But there have been several literary bestsellers to involve almost no sex at all.”  In Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, there is the non-sexual tension of his main character not sleeping with the prostitutes he befriends. In Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy, love is brotherly and era-appropriate dating scenes involve sitting on a blanket at the beach or arriving at a nanny’s house to pick her up for a date.

But sexual passion is fuel in much of literary fiction. Looking back on stories that continue to resonate as classics, it’s often a romance at the heart of the story that we remember. The fact that the romance between my main characters is important to my own interest in my WIP tells me that I need to give careful consideration while revising, for this to remain a strength in the final story.

Sex Reveals Character and Conflict

Literary fiction tends to be centered on character transformation, and sex can be a powerful symbol of where a character is in conflict. Sex is symbolic of inner conflicts of being trapped, captured, free,  released, linked or united, and often serves as transformation in the plotline of internal conflict resolution.  This can appear as outright sexual activity and its outcomes (think Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter), desire that fuels action without explicit sexual activity (Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence) or the state of desire restrained from action (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day).

Romantic desire can appear to stand alone as a character’s inner conflict, but is generally symbolic of something more.  Even in novels like Pride and Prejudice, where the character’s internal conflict is resolved through acknowledging mutual love and marrying, that desire for love is integral to a larger theme of defending personal identity within the external conflict of England’s old property laws. Sex is an inherent theme of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, but serves to create tension and release of tension and violation within a greater theme of war.

As much as love or sex can be used to signal transitions in inner conflict, it is also used in opposition. Sex is the external act of internal emotion, and tension arises if the external act (or lack of action) is in conflict with what the reader knows about inner emotion. Intense emotions are created when a reader knows the character’s desire but the character does not act on it, as in Kasuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, which exudes a sensual tension partly because the butler never breaks his reserve.

Similarly, sexual behavior or loving actions can create a dramatic contrast to depict a character’s inner torment. In Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, the scene when soldiers walk to a brothel while on leave is the antithesis of sexy, establishing through contrast how nightmarish their battle world has been and how dislodged the men are from emotion. The presence of sex without love or compassion is often symbolic of inner dysfunction, as Hemingway often used to signal the disembodiment of humanity after the shock of war. Reams of literary fiction include sex as sickness or sex in its dysfunctional state, such as The Kite Runner, The God of Small Things and The Color Purple.

Not Choreography

One of the simplest rules I’ve heard in knowing how to write sex in fiction is that effective sex scenes do not involve choreography. If you could replicate the movements and positions based on what is written, then it’s too much.

Like any other sensory details in successful fiction, sexual details have to serve the story, not just paint a picture. In that sense, I have been really resistant to say my main character is beautiful or describe the dramatic eyes I imagine for her love interest (yeah, that picture up top comes close). My story is not advanced by the characters being attractive.  Beauty is only meaningful when it reveals what the character perceives as beautiful, or beauty in relief against themes of pain or darkness. Hot details need to be something more than just what we, as writers, find hot in a mate. As with any character traits, they should reveal the character’s fear or hope or history or greater desire and what keeps them from finding happiness. For my female character to notice scars on my male character’s knuckles is more meaningful (and less ridiculous) than to say he has nice hands.

Often, the novel’s sexual tension is best achieved in description of a nonsexual event. In Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, the hottest sensuality comes not from deflowering of the mute wife, but in the nights she sneaks to feed the wild tiger meat from her husband’s stores.

But let’s say we do want to communicate that the scene was hot.  The details to establish hotness still need to fit the novel’s theme, advance its conflict, and fit the voice. Only rare novels would benefit from Victoria’s Secret outfits and naming of body parts and positions. Words that are hot in imagination or real life — like lips and fingertips and more — often turn ridiculous in writing (and euphemisms can be even more ridiculous).

Successful sex scenes often evoke sensuality with words unrelated to the body or actual sex. Even in overtly sexual novels, like The English Patient, sexual details are often odd, like sexualizing the divot at the base of the woman’s throat. Hardy described blooming mushrooms in the woods rather than describe Tess’s virginal skin in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has his characters wait a lifetime to reach fulfillment in Love in the Time of Cholera, and description of that scene involves reference to constipation.

Revising with a Mind to What Makes Sex Scenes Work in Literary Fiction

It seems the key is to understand the purpose or message of your own novel, and know your story’s internal conflicts, to understand which kind of sex (or lack of) scene can work within your story. Sex is one of the choices my characters make in carving out their odd path toward resolving their inner conflicts, and their scenes together reveal love and hope and passion and parental intentions, but also dysfunction and imbalance and fear.  Revising feels like coming at the scenes from an angle rather than head-on, working to deepen character and conflict, understanding how each detail reveals the progression in character transformation and not just heat.

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What About You?

Have you been conflicted in writing or revising love in a story?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that help you stay productive?

If you want to read more on the subject, I admired this great post by English writer Isabel Costello: Sex Scenes in Fiction.

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Writing Character: Say the Things We Never Say

tunnel forward under  ft mchenry

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been posting a series on Novel Revision Strategies, to address the kinds of revision that take place during the intermediate process between a completed draft (in 3rd or 4th version) but not quite ready to polish and submit. Links for the whole series are below.

A major part of mid-process revisions includes evaluating conflicts, stakes and character motivation, and it is exactly this that has come up 3 times in my morning writing:

  • Stakes: At Wordsmith Studio, Kasie Whitener posted the next question for our craft discussion which references Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. In chapter 2, Maass says, “If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes.” Our discussion is to ask the question, “So what?” in challenging whether our own stories have set high stakes. Back in October, I addressed this challenge using a checklist in October Challenge: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation.
  • Clueless: I stumbled on the post 50 Thoughts #5: I Don’t Know What I’m Doing by another Wordsmith Studio friend, Jeannine Bergers’ Everett, and was reminded how often — as writers, as parents, as adults — we are trying to figure something out and think ourselves incompetent and clueless but keep going anyway simply because it’s our job. Keep reading; this all comes together…
  • Say it: This actually came first. I started the morning writing 1,249 words that began with my character saying the words, “I was wrong to do that.”

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Raising Stakes: Characters Say the Things We Never Say

I’m actually having a stressful morning. Some readers who interact with me in other forums may know I ran into a number of irritating obstacles in life while Mercury was in retrograde the last couple weeks.

The details aren’t interesting, but are parallel to Jeannine’s memory of her mother saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” while cutting her children’s hair (yes, Jeannine is very funny; look for the link below because you’ll want to follow her). I’m trying to get on the road to take my kids on their summer vacation to visit my parents and am nearly paralyzed with worrying that I’ll forget to pack something, that there’s some business I was supposed to attend to here in town, that…

Just as I was tempted to tweet something like, “It’s really scary to be a mom,” I realized what a genuinely true statement that is, and how blatantly obvious, and how no one ever says it and how, well… I wasn’t going to either.

And… of course, since I’m so darn obsessed with this novel right now, I was less concerned with feeling bad for myself than I was struck by the truth that this is a big part of raising the stakes for characters: the power of saying it.

I could describe the tedious list of things it takes to pack the car for a trip with the kids. I could even write the details in a way that is interesting and evocative. In chatting with a friend, we’d roll our eyes and laugh, make it into a charming joke where we empathize over parenting or the summer heat. But, as long as we’re not drama queens, it’d stop there, right?  That’s how stress gets used in our real lives: I turn it into some socially appropriate, “can you believe it?” joke about my day and move on.

I don’t tweet the true statement about the fear or anxiety.

Because I’m not a character in a novel.

But my character is.  And what got me writing this morning was an a-ha trigger of the one line my character needs to say.

At the moment she abandons her mother and sister and grandmother on a trip to Ireland to run off with a man she just met, she doesn’t need reams of polite excuses as to why she’s justified. She needs to say what we don’t say in polite chatter: “I was wrong to do it.” The second I typed that line this morning, an entire new insight opened into the relationship between Carinne and her mother, and their shared grief over her lost brother.

In raising our character’s stakes, our characters shouldn’t politely back down from making a wrong choice or being scared. Fear and anger and mistakes are where conflict happens. Even if I later edit that sentence back out, treating it as a prompt, and only keep the writing it provoked, it was fascinating how readily the flood gates opened the second I said words we don’t normally speak out loud.

“It’s really scary to be a mom.” And all the honest, true details of that emotion write themselves. “I was wrong to do it.” And all the honest emotions of what it means to have done something knowing it was wrong, immediately raise the more interesting question of, “Well then why did you do it?” 

This a-ha could not have found more of a kindred spirit than in Jeannine’s post (DO read it, when you’re done here), in which her mother says blatantly, out loud, what no one confesses: “I don’t know what I’m doing.” As Jeannine’s post and my own experience this morning reveal, it is amazing the authenticity and empowerment that actually saying these unsaid statements produces.

Want to Turn This Into a Prompt?

  • What is one of your character’s values? In what way does the story’s conflict or your character’s choice violate that value? What is a statement your character would not admit to? Now, make your character say it.
  • What is something your character fears? Make your character say this out loud.
  • What weakness or fear does your character fear will keep him/her from what he/she desires? Say it out loud.
  • And, to keep you on track with WSS’s craft chat, ask yourself about any of these questions and statements, “So what?” Are these high stakes, and in what way could you raise them?

Do Now:

Do go read Jeannine Bergers Everett’s post on her blog Mobyjoe Cafe: Throw Out 50 Thoughts #5: I Don’t Know What I’m Doing. Jeannine is extremely funny and insightful, so I really recommend following her.

If mention of the Wordsmith Studio craft discussions has you curious, look for announcements of our group’s weekly writing activities via the #wschat hashtag on Twitter.

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What About You?

Are you exploring issues of conflict or stakes in a character you are writing?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that get you more authentically or deeply into your characters’ motivation?

For more posts on this site related to character development:

For my current series on Novel Revision Strategies:

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Novel Revision Strategies: “Hit List” of 6 Things to Edit Now

Baby pictures. A glimpse into harsh revisions occurring with my poor Wake, last week. (c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

Baby pictures. A glimpse into harsh revisions occurring with my poor Wake, last week. Classic: either move this with a happy star to the next chapter — or cut it and pillage for single words/details to keep. (c. Elissa Field, no repro w-out written permission)

If you’ve read my last several posts, you know that I’ve been sharing the varied processes I’ve been going through in daily revisions to my novel.  If you want to read other posts in the series, a list of links is at the end, below.

As I’ve said before, my novel draft is in mid-process revisions. That is,

  • I am no longer drafting the novel: the full story is written from opening through final scene, including external conflict, internal conflicts for key characters, settings and the major scenes, and all the research is completed.
  • On the other hand, I’m still making decisions and answering questions about what I’ve written, addressing inconsistencies, moving large sections around, or deleting, and rewriting.
  • Just as I’m no longer drafting, I’m also not editing at the sentence level, yet, as I will during final revisions. I may correct word choice, sentence structure or punctuation as I notice them, but I’m still in a more “construction” phase than the final process of polishing to send to an editor.

I say this to recognize that there is a point between mid-process and final revisions, where it helps to be able to run through a series of steps to test for common errors — and that is the point of today’s post.

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A Hit List of 6 Steps to Apply to Target Weaknesses in a Draft

Finishing the middle process and approaching final revisions is a good time to consider some common errors that editors, agents and other pros report finding in novel drafts submitted as “finished.”  One of the reasons this stage of revision can be such a concern is that a writer may have a blind spot to errors that editors and agents find obvious.

The hit list below offers 6 practical steps that can help you target and fix weaknesses remaining in your draft. Inspiration comes, in part, from the advice for writers posted on the submissions page at the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society’s prize for fiction, but also from resources like “query tips” on Twitter, other articles from editors and agents, and my own experience.

1. Run Spell Check

This one sounds obvious. Of course: check for misspellings or errors in capitalization. But also watch for inconsistent spellings of proper names you invented – spell check won’t catch these unless you add them to its dictionary. Did you ever change names of characters or locations? It’s a common error to not catch all inconsistencies before submitting.  Read for misused homophones, which spell-check might not catch. Yup, we all swap out there/their/they’re, etc., when typing fast. Beyond spelling, check grammar and punctuation — use the best spell-checking tool available to you. For example, if you have both Scrivener and Word, use the spell-checker in Word. It’s smarter. Lastly, the skimming nature of bouncing through your document with spell check can also help you notice other subtle issues — for example, consider “overused words,” below.

2. Bad Phrasing and Passive Tenses

Use your software’s search tool to target lame word usage.  You can target passive word choice by searching “there is,” “there are” and “there was/were.”  Search helping verbs and -ing to avoid overuse of vague or passive verb constructions.  I’ve heard at least one pro say it’s a newbie error to use constructions with “become”/”becoming.” For example, “He became scared,” rather than, “Fear ran through him.” An odd example of stilted/passive wording mentioned by the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society was overuse of the word “the.”  They say (link below) that one non-winning novel submission to the Society’s contest in 2012 “used the word ‘the’ 10,001 times. At least half could easily have been eliminated.” To make the point, they revised sample lines to show how wording could have been more vivid. Searching any of these words might help target where the usage is fitting or where it might be written more effectively.

3. Overused Words or Images

We all have certain words or images we overuse — do you know yours? Skimming during spellcheck may increase your awareness. If not, listen for them as you reread or ask a beta reader to notice them for you. Often, these can be unexpected. For example, I was surprised to find I’d used “horse” 47 times in this draft which is not about horses. Only 4 scenes required a horse and the random mentions took their power away (why all the horses? It’s an autobiographical misfire as my family has horses in our background – while my characters do not).  If you have a particular mood or image in mind as you write, you could find it overly pervasive. Some of my overused words, for example, were dark, silver, memory, shadow and light. They are key mood words, but I needed to use them in the most powerful moments, not, um, everywhere. Overused words create vagueness rather than meaning, so targeting them is an opportunity to seed more powerful detail. “Sitting in darkness” is one thing; “sleeping in the cold shadows of a hedge along the drive” moves the story and conflict, not just mood.

4. Is it Over-written?

In early drafts, it’s easy to write reams of words that aren’t yet anchored in the specifics of story details you didn’t yet know. There and in other places, if you suspect a sentence or paragraph is too wordy or not serving a purpose, use a highlighter to mark only the words that matter. Could you edit to just those? What if someone asked you to post a line to Twitter?  If you were limited to 140 characters, what words would drop out?  At the same time, highlighting key information can help you avoid deleting an important detail. Let’s say it’s tempting to delete a cringe-worthy scene from a early draft — highlighting any key information revealed by that scene (“a gun was stored on the top shelf”) will help you make sure to save and relocate it to another scene, so you don’t create an inadvertent hole in the story.

5. Target Dialogue

Personally, I write full conversations between characters during drafting, but delete all dialogue except the lines with power during revision.  Dialogue problems are a common issue to keep drafts from succeeding.  Advice for revision includes reducing wordcounts and improving story flow by removing unnecessary dialogue tags. Other advice from pros suggest editing for pompous speeches or voice that does not ring true, or excessive reliance on lengthy dialogue for information dumps. Unless dialect is key to your story, avoid overuse of phonetic spellings and spacers (“I, like, well, um, really,” she paused..). Every line of dialogue should cleanly, clearly carry its weight to activate the story; weak dialogue kills.

6. Senses Should Sing

Writer Donna Gephart recently shared the advice that 80% of the brain’s perception is related to sight (read her mini-lesson as part of Teachers Write! here). Awesome. Except that may mean that writing is overly preoccupied with details related to eyes and unnecessary sight direction. “He turned and looked toward the dock. The boat was on fire,” is a great example of unnecessary sight direction. Better: “The boat was in flames.” The reader doesn’t need to be told the MC turned and looked. Target “looked,” “turned,” “saw,” “glanced,” and other directions related to eyes, and consider whether they’re really needed. What is really revealed, and is there a better way to reveal this?  And go beyond sight details.  Where could you add detail from the other 4 senses — especially in places where you want to pull a reader deeper? Use sensory details that develop character (name 3 things the character would notice that no one else would) or move the story.  Remove details that are clichéd, assumed or reveal nothing about the character or story.

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Links to other posts from my Revision Series are at the end of this post.

For more on common novel errors:

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How About You?

Do you consider your WIP to be in a drafting stage, in mid-process revisions, or are you polishing to submit for publication?

Do any of these 6 steps ring true for you? Have you tried a similar approach, or do you have a trick of your own to share?

What “common errors” do you worry most about? Or, do you worry about having a blind spot and not be able to notice errors? (Which hints at my next hurdle: the importance of getting feedback from beta readers…)

Best wishes to you, wherever you are in the writing, revising or publication process.

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Friday Links for Writers: 07.12.13

Sailboats off Greenwich. c Elissa Field (request permission for use)

Sailboats off Greenwich. c Elissa Field (request permission for use)

I’ll keep this intro short and sweet as nothing tells you more about my week than the fact my boys and I are eager to get out and enjoy the day, after a work-week dense with revision.

Before we head out to enjoy the summer, I’ll share some of the better writing links I’ve come across this week. Two are inspiration for any creative pursuit. Three address my continued focus on editing.

As always, feel free to let me know which links resonated with you and what you’d like more of, or share your own links in the comments.

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How To Be Prolific: Guidelines for Getting It Done from Joss Whedon

It’s just an article, not a magic wand… But this Fast Company piece has been passed around amongst creative types this week, as Joss Whedon shares his best advice for what it takes to get it all done. (If you read my post yesterday, you know this is my current obsession.) Interestingly, he advises to do what I’m about to do with my kids: put fun first.

The Stealth Cliché

A literary agent tweeted in a chat today that 50% of manuscripts submitted to her open with one pattern of cliché, and a different pattern of cliché begins the other 50%. Clearly an exaggeration (or else she receives zero viable submissions) — but it raises a common issue: often writers are not aware they are writing cliché as the wording rings true and inventive in their mind. In this sense, I love this collection of “stealth clichés” gathered by author Rebecca Makkai on Ploughshares’ blog.

Writing Lessons at Ploughshares

This installment of the Writing Lessons feature on the Ploughshares blog touches on 2 things dear to my interests this week (editing and the Aspen Summer Words Writing Retreat) as Graham Oliver shares his experience in a workshop with David Lipsky. Another reason for including this link: for all my friends and readers who are or recently have been an MFA candidate or attended a workshop, check out the submission guidelines for Writing Lessons, here.

7 Reasons Agents Stop Reading Your First Chapter

We get it, you’re editing. Sheesh. Here’s a third editing resource: this article by Chuck Sambuchino was among the shortlist of links I included on my post yesterday to target novel weaknesses: Novel Revision – 6 Things to Edit Now.

Revision checklist-*

Are you busy with revision, too?

Want more?  Click here for my full series underway: Novel Revision Strategies.

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New Agents Don’t Have Cooties

This post by an Ottawa literary agent (on her blog, I Believe in Story) is an interesting discussion of the ins and outs of querying a “new” literary agent, including how to review background in lieu of experience.

The 9/11 Decade: Colum McCann

Each week I try to end with a multimedia piece that served as inspiration for the week. No secret: I have a shameless literary crush on Colum McCann. Perhaps that leaves me biased, but I found this New York Times video inspiring and thought provoking.

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Summer Reading 2013 c Elissa Field

Summer Reading 2013 c Elissa Field

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