Does your understanding of the story you are writing change during the course of the book?

Before I wrote A Spark of Heavenly Fire, I did extensive research into pandemics and into the government’s response to such emergencies (I based my fictional response on actual executive orders that Clinton signed), so there wasn’t much change in my understanding of these matters during the course of the book, but there was a big difference in my thoughts about what “they” want us to know and what they don’t. When I learned about Pingfan, the Japanese biological warfare installation where they did horrendous experiments on POW’s and nearby villagers, I thought I’d stumbled onto something really explosive. Yet, as happened to a character in A Spark of Heavenly Fire, the very next novel I picked up used Pingfan as a setting. It got me to thinking about the nature of cover-ups, and many of the discussions in the last half of the book were actual discussions I had with a friend while I was writing the book.

Here are some responses from other authors about how their understanding of the story changes during the course of the book. The comments are taken from interviews posted at Pat Bertram Introduces . . .

From an interview with Sherrie Hansen, Author of “Love Notes”

I start the story, my characters finish it. Themes come to me as the book goes on, and often, when it’s totally finished. Sometimes I have to rewrite the beginning of the book, because by the time I’m done, I know the characters so well that I think they would never say or do the things they did at the beginning of the book.

From an interview with Cynthia Vespia, Author of “Sins And Virtues”

Sometimes. That makes it fun though. You expect it to go one way and instead it veers off course and takes you to an entirely new level. For me, when that happens, it feels like I’m reading it myself.

From an interview with Alan Place, Author of “Pat Canella: The Dockland Murders”

My understanding is constantly changing as the character evolve their own lives, I never try to force them to do things that I feel don’t fit.

What about you? Does your understanding of the story you are writing change during the course of the book?

(If you’d like me to interview you, please check out my author questionnaire http://patbertram.wordpress.com/author-questionnaire/ and follow the instruction.)

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

A Perfect Grasp of Storytelling

I don’t know who started the whole “characters need flaws” concept of writing, but whoever it was did a disservice to the writing industry. People keep saying that perfect characters are boring, but the way I see it, there are no perfect characters, only writers with an imperfect grasp of storytelling.

A story begins when the normal world becomes unbalanced. In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, the normal world of Colorado became unbalanced when a deadly disease decimated the population. In More Deaths Than One, the normal world of the main character became unbalanced when he found out the mother he buried twenty years before is dead again. In Daughter Am I, the world of the main character became unbalanced when she learned that the grandparents she’d been told had died before she was born had just now been murdered. In Light Bringer, the world becomes unbalanced in a variety of ways, each POV character experiences his or her imbalance, and the nearing of an unknown planet literally unbalances the earth.

A story continues with the characters’ efforts to restore the balance. These efforts result in a worsening of the balance, either in a ripple effect of actions, such as when Jeremy King decided to do anything he could to leave Colorado in A Spark or Heavenly Fire or when everything the character learns deepens the mystery, such as Bob Stark’s search for himself in More Deaths Than One.

A story ends when the balance is restored, a new balance is attained, or the world remains out of kilter. My books all fall in the middle category — things never go back to where they were, but the characters and their world do establish a new balance.

Without this unbalance, there is no story, and within this unbalance, characters change.

Which brings me to the point I want to make about perfect character vs. imperfect understanding of storytelling.

If you create a perfect character — a gorgeous woman with a stunning figure, perfect hair, smart, successful, athletic, kind, talented, knows how to do everything, has no addictions — that is merely the beginning. It is what authors do with such a flawless character that shows their writing skills. For example, if the character always remains the same perfect character in balance with her world, it is not the character’s fault that her perfection is boring. It is the writer’s fault for not unbalancing the character’s world.

A gorgeous, intelligent woman who can do anything is only spectacular in the presence of lesser beings. What happens if she is thrown into a world of people exactly like her? What would she do to preserve her self-image of being extraordinary when all of a sudden she is ordinary? How would she reestablish the balance in her world? For example, a high school cheerleader/student body president/valedictorian goes to an ivy league university and discovers she is just one of many such achievers. Or a stunning and talented young woman enters a beauty pageant, expecting to win the crown and scholarship and a boost to her career, and finds out that she isn’t anything special. Or a perfect human being ends up in a robotic world of perfection. How would she prove that her perfection was natural, that she was a human and not a robot?

Sounds to me as if in the write hands, such a flawless character would be . . . perfect.

All Books Are Not Created Equal

This anything-goes publishing world has been perplexing me for quite some time now, both as an author who is trying to find a place in the wild book frontier of throw-everything-out-there-and-see-what-sticks and as a reader who is trying to find sanity and good-editing and great story-telling among the millions of books being offered for sale.

People think that good books will rise to the top, that such books will automatically find a readership, but that is not always the case. Wonderful books are being overlooked, and dreadful books with no redeeming value are filling millions of Kindles. Shrugging off the conundrum as “survival of the fittest” doesn’t help matters, because in this case, it seems to be matter of devolution, of having to accept typos, poor grammar, ridiculous errors of fact, and an appallingly low standard of literacy. Compounding the problem is that many good writers, who have to watch their books stagnate, no longer see the point in writing, which lowers standards even more.

I used to think this was a matter of a breakdown in the filtering process. If authors have to submit their books to publishers, if they have to go through an editing and copyediting process, then books have a minimum of errors and at least a modicum of good storytelling. Or at least they used to. Even the major publishers are lowering their quality control. If their aim has always been to sell the lowest common denominator, and if those people don’t care about quality, then there is no point in adding to the expense by doing the work. Nowadays, when the fastest selling self-published authors are those with an ever growing stream of books, quantity and not quality are the key.

The real problem as I have come to see is not one of filtering, but of strata. There used to be definite strata when it came to readers. People stuck to their own genres, though even within a genre there were definite layers of quality. Some romance writers, such as Colleen McCullough, rose to iconic status. Others, such as Danielle Steele, were firmly entrenched in the lower middle. And still others churned out myriad books for lowest of the low, Harlequin and Silhouette and the other subscription publishers.

And never, except for perhaps the iconic writers, did anyone consider these books to be great writing. (Most could not even fall under the heading of good writing.) And never did the best writers have to compete or be compared to these writers. Yet that is what is happening today. With Amazon taking hold of the book business and running away with it, demarcations between utter trash and high quality books have completely disappeared. All books are thrown into the slush pile, all are ranked by the same classification system, all are treated equally.

But the truth is, all books are not created equal. Just because a book is uploaded to Amazon, just because it sells, it does not mean the book is worthwhile. A badly written book with no redeeming value is still trash, but few people seem to notice, and fewer seem to care.

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See also:


Let’s Talk About Rhythm in Writing

A story that whips you through scene after scene is as exhausting as a story that drags you through the intervals between scenes at an excruciatingly slow pace. An experienced storyteller knows when to ramp up the tension and when to slow it down, when to take away a reader’s breath and when to let the reader take a breather, when to run through the drama or wander through the background. This alternating of ups and downs, successes and failures, satisfactions and woes is as rhythmic as music and can be as compelling as a drumbeat.

A steady pace of ups and downs can lull a reader into a feeling of complacency, but a syncopated rhythm, with ups and downs coming at uneven intervals can create an underlying sense of unease that gets beneath a reader’s skin. Even a small shift in pace can have a dramatic impact by making a minor defeat seem catastrophic or making a big victory seemed doomed.

Humorous moments, especially in tense scenes, can create a change of pace, lightening the mood and causing the reader to be more shocked by subsequent horrendous events. Sex scenes can create a change of pace, either as a diversionary tactic or as a quiet time between hectic scenes. A sex scene can even be a fast-paced action scene to get the reader’s blood roiling. (What it can never be, incidentally, is a scene thrown in there just because you thought it was time for a sex scene. Such scenes need to be as germane and as necessary as a plot twist or a revelation. If the scene can be removed from the book without leaving a hole, it should be removed or rewritten.)

A change in rhythm can be subtle, such as a shift in the dynamics between two characters, a change in focus or mood, or simply a preparation for future conflicts. Or it can be as blatant as a murder.  The rate of change in a story can affect the rhythm, too. A lot of changes coming rapidly, one right after the other, create a hectic pace. A few changes after intervals of stasis can make the pace seem slower, even bucolic.

How you present dialogue can change the pace. To speed up the pace you can use quick exchanges with few speaker tags. To slow the pace, use longer speeches and/or more detailed speaker tags.

This example from Light Bringer uses short speaker attributes:

Emery regarded Philip with narrowed eyes. “I always know when one of my students is in trouble. It’s time you told me what’s going on.”

“I was never one of your students.”

Emery waved away the remark. “Between the two of us we should be able to solve your predicament.”

“I’m not sure there is a solution. Right before I came here, two NSA agents came to my apartment.”

Emery shook his head as if to clear it. “I must have misunderstood. I thought I heard you say NSA agents.”

“I did. That’s who they identified themselves as, any-way. They told me they were concerned about the books I’ve been checking out of the library.”

Emery froze. “They said that?”

“Yes.” Philip paused to reconsider, then heaved a sigh. “No. They told me they wanted to speak to me. I suggested they were there because of the books I read.”

Emery scowled at him. “Have I taught you nothing? Never volunteer. If you don’t know what’s going on, keep your mouth shut until you find out.”

And this example from the same book uses longer speaker attributes which sets a more leisurely pace:

As the cowboy approached, she wondered why a man like him worked in a coffee shop instead of punching cows or whatever men like him usually did.

In a slow, deliberate voice that stopped short of being a drawl, he said, “What can I get for you?”

“Coffee.”

He ushered her to a table. “How about some pie to go with it? Or a muffin? Mabel from the bakery sent over a fresh batch of whole-wheat blueberry muffins.”

“A muffin sounds good.”

He loped around behind the counter. A minute later he returned and set a mug of coffee on the table along with a muffin almost as big as a cake.

“I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before,” he said.

Jane tore open a packet of sugar. “Just passing through.” She dumped the sugar in her coffee and stirred it. Thinking that, next to bars, her sister liked to hang around places like this to get local color, she considered asking the cowboy if he knew where she could find Georgy.

“Hey, Luke,” one of the old men called out. “Bring me a muffin, too.”

Jane sipped her coffee, grateful for the interruption. Georgy would never have forgiven her for inquiring about her, and there would go any hope of getting a loan.

“Holler if you need anything else,” the cowboy said, then ambled off.

These dialogue samples also show one of the contrasts in the book, the the fast-paced action/conspiracy story commingling with the slower-paced cowboy story. Then there were the ethereal characters contrasting with the down to earth ones. Lots of scope for pacing in Light Bringer!! (Which, incidentally, is on sale for $1.99 for the Kindle edition on Amazon until November 8, 2011.)

So, let’s talk about rhythm. Do you pay attention to the rhythm of your story? Do you use the rhythm to create a mood or a change of pace? How do you create the rhythm of your story? What devises do you use? Do you make sure that even your story’s quiet moments are necessary to the story? Do you use words or sentence structure to help create the rhythm? (Short words and sentences give the scene a feeling of speed and immediacy. Longer sentences and words create a more relaxed pace.)

Seeking Stories that Live Within Us by Malcolm R. Campbell

I am delighted to welcome my guest, Malcolm R. Campbell and his newest novel “Sarabande.” Malcolm is so very generous to other authors, it’s great to be able to return the favor. Besides, he’s a fine writer who pens powerful tales, and he has better insights into storytelling than anyone I know. Malcolm says:

A living myth is told and retold as the centuries pass. Poets, painters, musicians are nourished by its imagery, and in each retelling something is added from the collective attitudes, conscious and unconscious, of the time and from the individual vision of the artist.” – Helen M. Luke in “The Laughter at the Heart of things.”

As I read Helen M. Luke’s analysis of the myth of the ring as viewed by Richard Wagner in The Ring of the Nibelungen (known as the four-part “Ring Series”) and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I was struck by the fact this story is now part of our world view. Whether we learned of the myth through the original source materials, Wagner’s musical dramas, Tolkien’s books, or the feature film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, the story lives inside us as though it actually happened. Tolkien expressed contempt for Wagner’s version of the old Norse myth drawn from the 13th century Icelandic Volsung Saga. Yet most critics believe Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelungen (consisting of “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walküre” Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung”), composed between 1848 and 1874, and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, written between 1937 and 1949, are different interpretations of the same myth, and that Tolkien was also influenced by Wagner. Myths often have as many interpretations as history as though they refer to actual events.

Listen to the discussions about J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and you will hear people talking about Harry, Snape, Dumbledore and Voldemort in the same way they speak of celebrities, world leaders and newsmakers who come into their lives television, concerts and the Internet. All of these people, fictional or actual, are larger than life. While novel readers and film audiences know there is a difference between Tolkien’s characters and Rowling’s characters on one hand and well-known people within our culture, all of them are part of our shared story.

Earlier generations were impacted by Star Trek and Star Wars events and characters just as strongly. We know the difference between fictional characters aren’t read and that real people aren’t fictional, but it doesn’t matter. They’re all the same. While even the most fanatical fans don’t expect to see Captain Kirk, Spock, Frodo or Hagrid searching for salad greens in the produce department at Kroger or addressing Congress about the state of the galaxy, the worlds of those characters is part of our lives as though it’s a living and breathing reality.

Most authors don’t write with the expectation that their stories will impact readers with such force that the characters will suddenly take on independent lives of their own. At best, authors hope their stories and characters will seem real while their books are being read. For a reader, there’s nothing better than plunging into a good story, becoming enchanted by it, and following it with the fervor they follow family dramas and the biggest news stories of the day.

Yet some stories catch our fancy and stay with us long after we put the book down or leave the theater. Those are the stories we seek because they take us on flights of fancy, display new worlds before our mind’s eye, and take us on physical and emotional journeys that expand our lives and enrich our imaginations. Ask any reader what his or her favorite books are, and s/he will tell you about good guys and bad guys and things that go bump in the night and awesome landscapes that are just as much a part of his or her life as co-workers, neighbors and family.

As readers, finding such novels is part of a never-ending quest for a real page turner of a story we will never forget because it lives inside us and evolves every time we read it, talk about it and think about it. As readers, we love our living fiction.

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of three contemporary fantasies, Sarabande (2011), Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey (2010) and The Sun Singer (2004).

Click here to read an interview with: Malcolm R. Campbell

Click here to read an excerpt of: Sarabande

The Themes of Our Lives

I’ve been thinking about themes lately — the themes of our lives, the themes of our stories, the themes that permeate our relationships. (Technically, relationships fall under the category of the themes of our lives, but I like to do thing in threes, and I couldn’t think of a third theme category.)

Someone asked me recently if I ever considered writing a novelization of my life, and I just laughed. There is no story in my life – nothing noteworthy ever happened to me, and I never did anything that millions of others didn’t also do. Still, the question niggled, and a couple of days later I saw a theme: sometimes I’ve put aside my dream to try to help someone achieve theirs. Now that would make a good “three bears story.” The first time perhaps my namesake gave too little when she tried to help someone, and the other person didn’t achieve his or her dream either. The second time she might have given too much and still neither of them got their dream. The third time she gets it right, and everyone wins. In real life I haven’t yet gotten it right, but I’m working on it.

I also read a comment that “nothing changes if nothing changes,” which sounds like a good theme for a book. Perhaps an older woman is whining that nothing ever changes in her life, and someone tells her that nothing changes if nothing changes, so she decides to make a simple change — perhaps henna her hair or buy a dress that is out of character or go to a museum. And from that simple change comes a ripple of changes, so at the end, she ends up completely different.

Another comment was “intimacy is so hard and manipulation is so easy,” which kept my mind occupied for days on end. How much of intimacy is manipulation? If someone tells you they love you, is it manipulation, or is it intimacy? I suppose it depends on the intent, the motivation. Intimacy vs. manipulation would be a fun theme to explore in a novel.

Something else I read: “Every crisis creates a new normal.” Every time something happens to a person or a character, he must readjust his thinking to accept the new normal. How far out of the normal does he have to go before he becomes a saint or a monster? The original comment had to do with accepting the crises of age, but as a theme, it can mean any sort of crisis.

So, what are the themes of your stories, the themes of your lives, the themes you’ve written, the themes you’ve read, the themes you’d like to write?

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Sports As Story

The one thing that separates humans from other animals is not our ability to communicate; most (perhaps all) creatures possess that ability to some degree. What separates us from animals is how we communicate: by words, by stories.

We all have stories to tell. At work, we tell colleagues, “You’ll never guess what happened to me last night.” At home, we tell our families, “You know what Sally did today? She . . .” Out with friends, we top each other’s jokes.

Stories. That’s what we’re about.

We love to hear other people’s stories, we love to tell stories, and we love to read stories, both real and imagined. “I don’t like stories,” you might say; “I like sports.” Ah, but sports is all about story. The hero, the villain, the conflict, the passion, the suspense, the unexpected or the hoped-for ending. We identify with the characters; we empathize with their plight; we feel as if we have a stake in the outcome of the game. All elements of story. No wonder so many sports movies have been made, so many sports novels have been written. The story of a game within the story of a character. Heady stuff.

Conflict keeps us reading a story, conflict keeps us watching a game. When a character or a player with whom we identify runs up against an obstacle, we want to find out how things will turn out. That conflict forces us to pay attention. When a book is too slow or too predictable, we will toss it aside. When a clear winner of a game is indicated, we will leave the ballpark or turn off the television. When a game is desultorily played, neither team giving that fabled one hundred and ten percent, we lose interest.

We might try to avoid conflict in our lives, but when in comes to story, we need conflict. We need characters, we need to care, we need the contrast and the conflict between the hero and the villain, and we like to see characters change. We love when underdogs win, when they pull out the best in themselves and change from loser to champion. Doesn’t matter whether we hear an anecdote, tell a joke, read a book, or watch sports. It’s all the same.

We are human. We are story.

Getting a Word in Edgewise

DeLauné Michel, author of Aftermath of Dreaming and The Safety of Secrets, is hosting my blog again today. She let me choose which of her articles to post, and I couldn’t bear to pass up either “How Do You Choose? Or Why I Wrote This Novel,” which I posted yesterday, or this article, so she graciously agreed to let me use both. I hope you enjoy her story as much as I do.

In the French Catholic world where I grew up in South Louisiana, there was only one ritual more important than Sunday Mass, and that was the dinner hour. True to our heritage and locale, in the house that I grew up in, dinner was the most important time of day, partly for the food – my Momma’s incredible Creole cuisine – but mostly for the conversation. Or should I say storytelling. Because that’s what it was: long, detailed, funny, and illuminating stories. And God forbid you didn’t have one.

My father started first. Every night, my four older sisters (yes, four, and no brothers!) and I would sit quietly, eating our dinner while Daddy told Momma about his day. We were expected to pay attention. We were expected to learn and understand what Daddy did running the insurance company, which I never did until a few years ago. But we were not expected to be part of that conversation.

Then Momma talked about her day. My mother had her own life of running the Arts Council and working on her Ph. D. and writing, but at this point, we were more than just a silent audience because we were actually players in some of the stories of her day.

Then finally it was our turn. All five of us. And let’s just say that with four extremely verbal, intelligent and expressive older sisters, getting a word in edgewise was not an easy feat. So I didn’t. At all.

Finally when I was about six, Momma and Daddy realized that I rarely-to-never spoke at the dinner table, so in an effort at equality and to stave off me being a future dinner-party-mute, they enforced a new rule: Every night, I was to get my own time to talk with no interruptions, no cutting off, no shouting over. Ready? Go!

There I was: the youngest at the table, the one with the least schooling, the least experience, and the least stories as it were, but with the time to talk. I cannot think of this memory without a visceral sense of four bodies literally sitting on their hands with their mouths clamped shut. And possibly bored. Or indulging. But regardless, I got to talk, to tell the story of my day. And boy, did I. From the beginning. Because to me it was very clear that each event flowed to the next and the next wasn’t possible without what proceeded it so how could I tell them about the red-headed woodpecker at the park with Gracie Mae if I didn’t tell them how hard it was to decide which shorts to wear that day, purple or pink?

It never really got much easier to talk at that dinner table, and when I got older, the enforcing of that nightly rule fell away, and I either fought my way in to the conversation or I didn’t, but something amazing had happened. I was able to feel what it was like to have the time and the space to be heard.

As far back as my memory goes, I always knew that I would be writer. I come from a family of writers: my mother, my first cousin Andre Dubus (House of Sand and Fog), and another cousin is James Lee Burke, so that world has always been around me. But that experience at the dinner table is what made me need to write, and made me keep writing. I need to be heard, and doesn’t everyone? Even if it is only on a piece of paper or a computer screen. And if I’m not interrupted, if someone reads my stories, that is a glorious bonus. But what’s most important is that I give that time and space to myself in the dinner party of my life.

It’s no surprise that Spoken Interludes, the reading series that I produce in NY and LA, is basically a reconstruction of the dinner table. People come together, have a meal, and writers tell a story by reading their work.

So, if you pick up The Safety of Secrets, I’d love to hear what you think. And it’s okay to interrupt me. Promise.

Where Do You Insert Dialogue?

Someone asked me where they should insert dialogue into the novel they were writing. I went blank for a moment, unable to comprehend the question. Insert dialogue? To a great extent, dialogue is the story.  The most personal way people interact is by dialogue, and a story is or should be about people interacting,  about relationships. Even  action-oriented stories come down to a basic relationship: the hero vs the villain. 

A better question might be where to insert exposition, but even that is a specious question. Nothing in a novel should be inserted. Each element should flow one into the other, making a cohesive whole. I’ve heard people say that they’ve finished writing their novel, now all they have left is to go back and insert the symbolism. If you have to insert something for the sake of inserting it, it’s better to leave it out. Symbols, like other elements should flow out of the story. 

Novels need to balanced. Dialogue interspersed with exposition or action makes for a more interesting story than dialogue or exposition or action alone. A novel that is mostly dialogue seems lightweight; a novel with too much exposition feels heavy-handed; a novel that is all action gets boring after a while. 

One way to make sure the elements flow together is to know what you are trying to accomplish. What kind of story are you writing? What is your story goal? What is your premise? What is the core conflict? Once you know the core of your story, you can make sure every element connects to it. Sometimes you won’t know the core until you’ve finished the first draft. In which case, just write, let the words flow out of you and into the story. Then, when the draft is finished, read it to see what you have. Do any themes jump out at you? What is the gist of the story (the core conflict)? How can you use the various story elements help you bring out that conflict? Does every action have a reaction? Does every reaction have a cause? Which element will bring the conflict into sharper focus? If a particular conflict is a physical one, then action interspersed with terse comments is best. If a particular conflict is personal, then dialogue interspersed with bits of action is best. 

Where to insert dialogue, then, is not the real question. The real question is what do you want to say, and how do you want to say it?

Stories are our foundation, as necessary to us as love.

Ever since humans first noticed they were different from the other creatures, they (we) have been trying to figure out what specific quality sets us apart. Opposable thumbs? Awareness of self? Awareness of death? It can’t be; other creatures share, or at least seem to share those characteristics.

From the beginning, as humans huddled around the fire, they exchanged stories, and the best storytellers were revered. That is the one trait we humans alone have: the ability to tell and appreciate stories. Stories are our foundation, as necessary to us as love. Stories help us figure out who we are as individuals, and who we are as a people. Stories take us away from our problems, yet they also help us solve them.

We cry at the misfortunes of people we’ve never met, people who never were, people who seem more real to us at times than our own families. And we rejoice in the successes of those story people as if they were our own successes.

With all our sophistication and technology today, we haven’t come far from our primitive beginnings. Where once we huddled as a group around flickering fires, we now huddle singly before our flickering screens, but the need, the basic human need for stories is the same.

Although most of us may never get published, thanks to the Internet we can still reach others with our vision of the world, with our interpretation of it.

There is satisfaction in that, though, to be honest, getting paid would be even more satisfying.

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