Thursday, January 31, 2013

My Last Semester Plan

I am going to be a cautionary tale.

That is my actual plan.

Most people end up being a cautionary tale by accident. They go through life doing stupid things and racking up the inevitable consequences. Then concerned mothers point to them and say, “Now, remember, children, don’t do X, Y, or Z, or you’ll end up like that person.”

It follows, then, that someone purposefully doing something stupid with the intent of teaching others a lesson will be much more effective because they have the end goal in mind.

That’s why I’ve decided to make everyone hate me.

Most seniors live their last semester in the shadow of the looming reality of graduation. They gradually pull away from the general population of campus, stop trying to meet new people, and slowly fade from the memories of underclassmen before they’re physically gone.

This is a totally normal coping strategy. “It won’t hurt as much to leave if I won’t be missed,” the thinking goes. “Why bother investing in others if I won’t be able to keep up with all of them after graduation?”

Therefore, I have decided to take this reasoning to its logical extreme. “It won’t hurt as much to leave if I am actively hated. Why bother interacting with others in a positive—or even a neutral—way if I won’t be able to keep up with them after graduation?”

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Talking About Dialogue

Recently, I asked the question, “What would happen if we spoke in dialogue all the time?”

Let me explain how this is even a question, in case you think the things we say in real life would be considered dialogue.

Nope. They’re not. The purpose of normal, everyday language and the purpose of dialogue are not the same. If they were, you’d be bored out of your mind by the first page of your favorite novel.

In stories, dialogue exists to advance the plot or characterize the speaker (or the subject or society or whatever). It’s not to cram loads of background information down the readers’ throats or give us overly obvious foreshadowing about what will happen next or tell the readers things they’ve already figured out. It should feel real without being real, without the “um”s and “How are you”s and totally unnecessary clauses and sidetracks of real life.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Editing and the Statue of Liberty

If you had asked me to write an inscription for the Statue of Liberty, my first instinct would have been something like: “Come to America, land of the free, home of the brave.”

Or, if I decided to spend more time on it, I would have written a nice bit about the U.S. being the land of opportunity, and how people coming here would have a chance at a better life. Focus on the positive, you know. On the future.

Not Emma Lazarus. She took the ordinary people coming through Ellis Island and transformed them into characters of an epic, not by making them seem great, but by welcoming them in their bedraggled and outcast state. Here is what she wrote:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

See that? See how it defies our expectations? The poem doesn’t make the lives of these people sound happy. It doesn’t make wild promises of fame and fortune in America. It doesn’t have to. It shows the state they were in before, and leaves the reader hoping things will get better for them, grateful that someone saw their inherent value and gave them a place to rest.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Three Backstory Strategies

I’ve discovered recently that the stuff that happens to a character before the start of the story is critically important, even if the reader never hears about any of it.

That’s right. You don’t need a flashback every other page (or worse, awkwardly staged dialogue intended to give the readers information) to make use of backstory. Backstory makes a character who he is when the story starts.

Think about yourself. Right now, if someone were to make a movie of your life, starting today, there would be some items of backstory they’d need to tell the audience. Who you are, how you got here, significant relationships, anything traumatic that is currently influencing you.

But there are an awful lot of things they wouldn’t feel the need to include. Not every shot from your mom’s photo album would need to be shown. Not every minute of home video would make the cut into the montage. But without those boring, unnecessary things, you wouldn’t be the same you. So they’re important, just not shown.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Short Story Novels

Sometimes, when I’m editing a short story for someone, I look up at the end and say, “Hey…that wasn’t a short story.”

Sure, the page count was right. There were characters and plot. But something was missing.

Like about 98,000 words.

A lot of times, people who have invested a lot of time in creating an imaginary world with lots of complex characters decide they want to write a short story about it.

But they don’t usually write a short story. They write an excerpt. Maybe it’s a really good excerpt, but short stories should be able to stand alone.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Mourning Inspector Javert

After watching the movie version of the musical Les Miserables, I began to divide things—songs, sound bites of chapel messages, Facebook posts—into “Javert would agree with that” and “That’s more like Jean Valjean.” It was pretty easy to do. The two characters give us a striking, black-and-white dichotomy of justice and mercy.

Except that what seems to be a dichotomy is actually a paradox. In God’s view of the world, it’s justice and mercy, not justice vs. mercy.

This is one reason why Micah 6:8 is one of my favorite verses. What does the Lord require of you? Seek justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.

So, if Javert was an example of someone completely devoted to one of the defining characteristics of God, why did his story end so hopelessly? Faced with a wrong on both sides—turning Jean Valjean in or letting him escape—Javert resigned his commission in a final way.

And I cried. I cried for how close he was, for one scrap of missing doctrine that is the key to the whole Christian faith, for those few inches between his head and his heart that his strict pursuit of righteousness would not allow the truth to travel. I spent the last seconds of the closing song scanning the mass of people transformed in paradise, looking for his face. But it wasn’t there.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

"Please Preach at Me," Said No Reader Ever

Ever read one of those stories that tries to cram in a bunch of SAT words into a novel? (They exist. Check out a few riveting plots here.)

I’ve never read one, but I’ve heard that they are replete with a plethora of haranguing by the author in an attempt to repudiate the claim that they are lackluster and bombast the student with knowledge.

Did that sentence sound a little strange to you? That’s because I deliberately structured it to fit six of the top 100 SAT words into it instead of just trying to communicate my point in the best way possible. Which is not a good way to do things.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Hearing Myself Talk

Here’s a fun fact about writers: sometimes, we learn things as we write that we did not know before. We discover we believe something as the words form under our fingers, or we use the writing process to figure out why we believe something. Our own fictional heroes will say things that surprise and challenge us. We end up with an insight written on a page in our handwriting that we did not see coming.

Ask the nearest writer you can find if this is true. They’ll agree with me. I’m not crazy, honest.

Well, I still might be crazy. But not for that reason.

This week, I was working with a character who did not want to talk about her family or her past or anything remotely related to herself. And I learned something.

That was an extremely easy goal to accomplish, because most people like to talk about themselves.

And by that I mean I like to talk about myself.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Four Steps to Being a Hobbit

I decided, in a flurry of motivation yesterday, that I will make a New Year’s Resolution after all.

Therefore, in the presence of these witnesses, I hereby resolve to be a hobbit.

If you wonder what this involves, or if it just sounds so intriguing that you want to join me in this year-long adventure, then read on. Here are four ways I’m going to be a hobbit in 2013.