Orchestrating Tension Writing Workshop at OCWW

Please join me at Off Campus Writers’ Workshop on April 7, 2016, from 9:30 a.m. to noon, for my workshop on the art of Orchestrating Tension.

Tension may well be the storyteller’s deepest magic. Tension is the secret to both your hook and your hold: the pulse that keeps readers turning the page. Tension can range from subtle and psychological to big and action-based – the stuff of profound literary work or gripping genre fiction or wonderfully addictive stories for kids. Once established, tension reverberates under the surface, akin to a movie score. You can build it up or quiet it down, blending different kinds of tension like music. As author, you’re both the composer and the conductor. This workshop will cover the various sources of tension in fiction and ways to exploit and combine them.

The workshop will take place at the Winnetka Community House, 620 Lincoln, in Winnetka, north of Chicago. Members: $10; nonmembers: $15. All are welcome. Members of OCWW may submit manuscripts in advance for critique by sending them by email to OCWW VP Fred Fitzsimmons at fredfitz@gmail.com no later than Monday, April 4, 2016. Critique fees are $15 up to 15 pages and $25 up to 25 pages. Manuscripts must follow the guidelines posted on OCWW’s website.

I hope to see you there!



Voice is a Verb

Three riddles, all with the same answer: When we talk about inborn talent in writing, what do we mean more often than anything else? What attribute is most likely to make a novel leap off the page? What do many people write entire novels without understanding, despite its centrality and importance to modern fiction? Voice. Hard to teach and even harder to learn, except for those writers for whom it seems as natural as breathing.

Voice is often defined in terms of attitude, especially in first person, but it’s more than that. Voice gives us our lens, our scope, our storytelling rhythms, our sensibilities, our figurative language, and our potential for insight. Each new voice opens up fresh territory to us and confines us at the same time. Mark Haddon does a brilliant job of rendering the narrative voice of an autistic boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but it has none of the edgy self-reflection which Joseph Heller brings to Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. How could it? When a writer finds a voice, she or he also finds a particular take on this world – a unique way of experiencing and processing life. In first person, the writer essentially inhabits the main character, akin to playing a part.

The ownership of voice is more complex in third person. At one end of the continuum are novels in which the narrator is clearly distinguishable from the characters and makes comments, such as in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte or, more recently, White Teeth by Zadie Smith. At the other end are novels in which the third-person narration seems to be at one with the words, thoughts, and attitudes of the main character. The technique of free indirect style may be used to achieve a certain elasticity, at times moving closer to the main character and then farther away. This allows the writer to open up dramatic irony, as in Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, when Olive stands next to Jack Kennison as he lies in bed, both of them widowed, aging, and alone (pg 269):

“God, I’m scared,” he said, quietly.

She almost said, “Oh, stop. I hate scared people.” She would have said that to Henry, to just about anyone. Maybe because she hated the scared part of herself – this was just a fleeting thought; there was a contest within her, revulsion and tentative desire.

These insights somehow belong both to Olive, the character, and to the barely visible narrator. It’s as if the writer has stepped into the character and written from that inside place, but at the same time retained a kind of privileged discernment. Still, the dominant personality of the voice remains the character’s own. This type of voice may also progress through a series of characters in turn, colored differently for each one, as is the case in Strout’s book. In Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, the voice shifts in every section, sometimes in first person, sometimes in third, each time taking on a markedly different set of attitudes and manner of speaking, in a tour de force on the power of voice.

I say elsewhere in these pages that fiction is the art of human empathy. Voice is that empathy given flesh. When we refer to “finding” a voice, we’re talking about the work of sympathetic imagination. Voice isn’t simply a noun, a thing, a conclusion; it’s also a verb, an action, a state of becoming. To voice is to express, to make known, to reveal. Voice is the ultimate show rather than tell: the distillation of our main characters’ personalities and histories into the very way in which we tell their stories.



Watchman: Cynicism or Hope

9780062409850Publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has set off controversy on two levels. For writers, the book may represent the industry at its most cynical: publishing an inferior book by a cherished author who may no longer be competent to decide her own literary legacy. Articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker have raised issues about possible manipulation, as well as about the book’s provenance. For readers, the book presents the unsettling picture that Atticus may be fundamentally racist. As writers and readers, do we greet Watchman with depressing cynicism, or is there room for hope?

Whether or not we like to hear them, Watchman tells us a few things about the business of writing. Lee is said to have written Watchman first, even though it’s set about 20 years later. An editor guided Lee to write a new book based on her flashbacks, which turned out to be excellent advice. To Kill a Mockingbird is the far stronger book. 9780060935467It was probably also a better fit for the market at that time. In other words, the editor knew what she was doing when she didn’t publish the original book. Lee’s first instincts were not without validity: her story of the disappointment of a young Southern woman in the racism of her otherwise honorable father is complex and worth telling (with some revision). But not every story worth telling is going to be supported to market. And the kind of editorial help which Lee received as an unpublished writer rarely happens anymore. Publication of Watchman also reveals that a weak book will get published if it can be turned into a publishing event. Publishing is less about art than it is about business. That’s the reality check.

At the same time, Watchman gives writers some grounds for hope. First, that they can improve – that rejection doesn’t mean they should give up. Lee went back to work and wrote an amazingly stronger book, with better drawn characters, greater tension, more compelling action, smarter dialogue and bigger heart. That editor performed a huge service in sending Lee back to her desk. But I’d like to think that Lee would have improved even without that intervention. Like many writers, she leaves clues for herself on the page – my second basis for hope. The flashback scenes in Watchman are indeed the most vivid, and in time I believe Lee would have recognized that. She has Jean Louise/Scout ask herself: “What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present?” (p. 225) Writers should pay heed to the messages left by themselves. Finally, writers often start with something they need to puzzle out from their own lives, but art benefits from distance and detachment. To me, Watchman reads like an autobiographical story. Truman Capote once asserted with respect to Lee’s depiction of Boo Radley in Mockingbird, that “Everything she wrote about it is absolutely true.” Watchman includes long tracks of lecture – the kind of thing real people may have to learn from, but which is boring for readers. Mockingbird is more consciously crafted. Scout learns as a result of acute observation and the events of the story, and we as readers grow in tandem with her.

The building of Scout’s conscience is where the two books come together. She, not Atticus, becomes the watchman, and she’s set on his conscience. As she herself claims, somehow she got raised right. Atticus may disappoint us in Watchman, but like other children who end up seeing more clearly than their parents, Jean Louise gives us hope. Watchman is a flawed book, especially in its ending that at times seems to undermine her stand against prejudice, and I think a younger Lee chose not to publish it on purpose. But the world we have is the world we have. My advice is to write your own story as well as you possibly can, to keep learning from others as well as from yourself, and not to give up on publishing, even as tough as it is. What if Harper Lee had given up, instead of trying harder with Mockingbird? We would all be less.