Saturday, 9 January 2016

When writing falls flat

From college students facing an essay deadline to professional bloggers trying to make a little cash, everyone who writes will occasionally stare down at his creation and realize it sounds dull and lifeless. So why is this problem so much worse for fiction writers, who often fail to find a fix?

Every writer who is not eternally delusional will at least once in his lifetime complete his latest masterpiece and give it a quick read to confirm its brilliance, only to discover that it sucks. The piece in question, perhaps a hard-hitting university essay on climate change or maybe a from-the-heart Facebook post on motherhood, will come across so flat that the only tears it will elicit come from the writer himself as he realizes it’s a colossal failure.
Often the writer will grit his teeth and dig into a hearty rewrite, determined to whip the writing into shape by changing a few words and moving some others around. This will be followed by more revision, followed by more, and more. Still, the result will be the same. You’ve written the crap out of it, but it’s still crappy. You’ve poured your heart into it, but it’s still lifeless.
So what’s gone wrong? In most cases, the problem doesn’t lie with what you’ve written; it instead stems from what you haven’t written. To put it in a less riddle-like fashion, your writing has come up short because you don’t have something to say or, at the very least, don’t have enough to say.
As a newspaper editor, I recall dozens of conversations with reporters returning from an assignment who would sigh and flip aimlessly through their notebook after I asked what their story would say. It was clear they weren’t sure. In almost every case, they needed to do more reporting before they were in a position to start writing.
These professional writers are not alone. Countless people facing a writing deadline begin typing before they’ve spent enough time gathering research and grooming their ideas. Often they lack the basic facts to support their argument or the emotional first-person interviews to bring it to life. Sometimes they don’t even have an argument to make because they can't draw any meaning from the insufficient research and interviews they collected. So they dump all their energy into trying to write around the holes, when what they really need to do is keep gathering information and continue exploring what it means, only stopping when all this fresh material comes together in an urgent sense of direction. At this moment they will know exactly what they want to say, and they will feel the story or essay trying to force itself into the light. Only when this happens, only when the controlling idea coalesces in startling clarity in their minds, is it finally time to sit down and write.
So, when it comes to fiction, this problem of flat writing stemming from a less-than-fully-formed creation should not be an issue, right? After all, fiction writers are just making all this stuff up, so there is no reason for their work to land with a non-compelling thud. Yet it often does. And strangely, fiction writers are often the worst suited to address such a potentially manuscript-destroying setback.
The first thing they do when a scene comes up short is begin furiously rewriting, because rewriting is writing, and everyone knows first drafts are shit. And sometimes that’s all the scene in question needs. But often the flaw runs much deeper, and no amount of beautiful language, intriguing characters, amazing metaphors and witty and realistic dialogue will bring it to life. So they try adding something, often action. Maybe a main character needs to get hurt or perhaps suffer a broken heart. Yet these panicked and contrived revisions still leave the writer unsatisfied and ultimately struggling to understand why, even with the help of other writers who will review the scene and offer small bits of advice they’ve read in books and magazines, along with a little well-meaning encouragement.
Unfortunately, some fiction writers never discover the true problem, because they are looking in the wrong place. Like the students and bloggers and social media fiends who struggle because they don’t have enough to say when they sit down to write, these fiction writers fail to realize their problem doesn’t lie in what they’ve written, but instead in what they haven’t written. Specifically, it rests in a narrative structure that’s lacking in at least one crucial way.
Usually their predicament can be boiled down to one four-letter word: risk. There is not enough at stake in what they’ve written, and no amount of rewriting will change it. Screenwriting guru Robert McKee describes it this way in his book, appropriately named Story: “Here’s a simple test to apply to any story. Ask: What is the risk? What does the protagonist stand to lose if he does not get what he wants? More specifically, what’s the worst thing that will happen to the protagonist if he does not achieve his desire? If this question cannot be answered in a compelling way, the story is misconceived at its core.”
Often, McKee says, the weak scene amounts to little more than exposition, and if its sole justification is to convey information about the characters, world or history, the scene should be trashed and the information woven elsewhere into the story.
Sometimes a fiction writer’s beloved scene can be saved, but only by revising the structure of the scene and perhaps the entire novel. So how exactly?
Lisa Cron is a writing coach and instructor and the author of the book Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. For fiction writers wishing only to read one book about their craft, this is the one I recommend.
Cron argues that our brains are hardwired to turn to story to teach us how to navigate the world, usually from the safety of our own home, in a survival-driven dress rehearsal for the future.  She also believes humans are hardwired to recognize good and bad stories but not to write a good one.
She explains, “When a story enthralls us, we are inside of it, feeling what the protagonist feels, experiencing it as if it were indeed happening to us, and the last thing we’re focusing on is the mechanics of the thing. So it’s no surprise that we tend to be utterly oblivious to the fact that beneath every captivating story, there is an intricate mesh of inter-connected elements holding it together, allowing it to build with seemingly effortless precision.”
She perfectly describes a story as “how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result. As counterintuitive as it may sound, a story is not about the plot or even what happens in it. Stories are about how we, rather than the world around us, change.”
So, back to that flat scene. In any fiction scene you write, you need to ask yourself what your protagonist wants (like finding love) and what inner issues or long-held belief (like fear of commitment stemming from a crazy college girlfriend who nearly destroyed his life) must be overcome to get it. Then you need to ask yourself if the conflict your character faces in that scene is related to both his quest and his inner issue. If something feels off about the scene, like perhaps there’s not enough at stake, odds are the obstacles in your protagonist’s way are not relevant to either his quest or inner issue. And if what’s happening doesn’t matter in the big picture, why should anyone care? Which translates into: Why should anyone keep reading?
What this means is that every single word you write in a novel must relate directly to the protagonist’s quest and the inner issue he must overcome, with the obstacles steadily increasing, with the risk constantly rising. And remember, somewhere in your story is the sound of a ticking clock, which means a sense of urgency pervades the entire manuscript. 
Even once you've written an entire flawed manuscript, you can return to it and, scene by scene, make the necessary repairs. But it's a huge job. It's much easier to ask the tough structural questions before you’ve written a single word. This means that early on in the process you need to outline your way to your main character’s final destination. Some fiction writers contend you can’t write the first sentence of a novel until you’ve written the last one, and they're right about this paradox.
With my debut novel, Sneaker Wave, I created an outline of the entire novel and then wrote the final scene first. This way I knew the exact destination of my protagonist’s risked-filled journey, making it easy to determine if a particular stretch of road fit within my narrative structure, and whether there was enough at stake in that scene to make it sing.
In other words, before I sat down to write, I made sure I knew exactly what I wanted to say. And this helped make it much easier to try to write something captivating.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Author Lorna Suzuki interviews me about my novel Sneaker Wave and the writing life

B.C. author Lorna Suzuki interviewed me about my novel Sneaker Wave and about the writing life, in her blog All Kinds of Writing, on Sunday, Jan. 12. Lorna is a script writer and creator of the Imago Fantasy series. Her books have been optioned for a motion picture trilogy. Below is part of the interview. To read the entire interview, click here

I had a chance to read an excerpt from your debut novel, Sneaker Wave and I can see why it has been receiving some great reviews.  For me, it gave me the chills and brought back memories of the Reena Virk murder of 1997, when teens involved in her horrific death tried to keep the details of her murder a secret. What was the inspiration behind Sneaker Wave and can you tell us a little bit about your central protagonist, Brady Joseph?

Jeff Beamish:   I hate to use the word inspiration when talking about senseless tragedies like the Reena Virk murder, but, yes, that was one of three incidents in B.C. involving so-called codes of silence that in part moved me to write Sneaker Wave. The first was the 1989 murder in Surrey of a 12-year-old boy named Shawn Tirone by a teenage acquaintance in a case where dozens of teens heard about the killing but few came forward to police. I covered the case as a newspaper reporter and I can remember interviewing the mother of one of the first kids who spoke up, a boy who wasn’t afraid to do the right thing even if it caused him trouble. The third case was the 1998 manslaughter death of Bob McIntosh in Squamish after he went to break up a house party. While each case is extremely different, there was that one moment in each where everyone involved agreed it was in their best interest to keep quiet about a horrible act. I’m fascinated both by how these people got to that point, and how they got away from it. In Sneaker Wave, my main character Brady Joseph acquiesces, and, for him, the stakes get higher as weeks and months turn into years.

Without giving away too much, can you reveal what’s in store for the readers when they crack open Sneaker Wave?

JB:   It’s a story about how the choices teenagers make can haunt them for years if the circumstances are bad and the decisions are even worse. While at times it’s a plot-driven novel with numerous twists and turns and, I hope, plenty of suspense, I think Sneaker Wave finds it strength as a study of how different characters react when they realize they can get away with a horrendous crime if they just keep quiet. The coastal geography and beauty of the Pacific Northwest area where the novel is set help bring the story to life.
Can you share that exciting moment when you sold your novel to Oolichan Books?

JB:  I signed my book contract with Oolichan in February 2011. My wife photographed the moment with her cell phone and then I went off to work. That night I told our children the news at dinner and I believe later that night we popped open a bottle of champagne. But I told very few other people, thinking I’d wait until closer to the publication date so I could avoid people asking me for incremental updates. Good thing too, as numerous delays meant Sneaker Wave wouldn’t be published until the fall of 2013.
At one time or another, most writers hit the wall and their work stalls because of the dreaded writer’s block. What do you do to get around or over this mental wall to resume writing?

JB:   I don’t believe in writer’s block. Writers only get stuck when they have nothing to say. For newspaper reporters, if they get stuck writing a news story, they haven’t done enough reporting. For fiction writers, if they get stuck they haven’t done enough imagining or creating.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Where do great story ideas come from? Or more aptly, what do Stephen King and Leonardo Da Vinci have in common when it comes to creativity?

How do fiction writers generate their ideas? It’s one of the most difficult questions for a writer to answer, maybe because the act of creativity is at its heart random, chaotic and unexpected, not a structured formula to be shared like a long-held family recipe.
Sometimes the best stories do come from simply plotting your story out through a strict framework that follows a character on a quest for his desire, as delineated in dozens of how-to-write-fiction books and magazines. Sometimes they come from brainstorming – from spiralling out more words, phrases and thoughts from a central word. And sometimes you simply dream them.
The first chapter of my novel Sneaker Wave literally came to me in a dream. I’d written the manuscript, but hated the way the book started. Something was missing, but I couldn’t figure out what. This shortcoming haunted me for months, until one night my subconscious finally pushed it forward.  I dreamed about a father and son on a seemingly idyllic family outing, one suddenly interrupted by an unexpected and deliberate tragedy. I awoke, sat straight up in bed and knew I finally had the beginning to my novel.
So a writer can arrive at an idea for a scene or a story in dozens of ways – plotting, brainstorming, dreaming, stealing and sometimes simply stumbling upon them in a manner they don’t understand. But whatever the process, some of the best ideas have one thing in common in their origin. And that one thing is actually the use of two things – two very different things.
I’m talking about a blending technique that master horror writer Stephen King and Renaissance inventor and artist Leonardo Da Vinci have both put to use, even though their creations came five centuries apart.
Da Vinci, for his part, was considered one of the most diverse talents to ever live. The man who came up with concepts for a helicopter and tank and painted the Mona Lisa often found creativity by blending together two completely unrelated items, following a principle that everything connects to everything else in some way. He made connections that no one else would, letting his imagination fill in the gaps between the two very different things. He would often combine art and science, and, for example, in the case of his flying machine invention, combined his fascination with birds with his knowledge of aerodynamics. No matter what he did, the results were usually brilliant.
Da Vinci
So what does this have to do with Stephen King, who has used his often dark creativity to sell 350 million books? King, in his 2000 book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, tells the story of working as a high school janitor one summer and venturing into the girls’ changing room, a foreign place with tampon dispensers and shower curtains. Later he would envision the opening of a story, a girls’ gym shower room where there were no curtains and one girl gets her first period and is pelted with insults and tampons from her nasty classmates. The girl fights back the only way she can, through telekinesis, the movement of objects through thoughts or willpower, a power King had read can come to some girls in their early adolescence, at about the time of their first period. Two unrelated ideas – adolescent cruelty and telekinesis – came together to provide the start to his first published novel, Carrie.  It might be a story, and not one of Da Vinci’s inventions, but the creative process is the same.
In the dream that gave me the first chapter for Sneaker Wave, my subconscious mind had combined a pleasurable father/son activity, a Sunday morning jog, with a deliberately catastrophic event. After those two polar opposite ideas collided and blended so perfectly, the chapter almost wrote itself, and when people describe the chapter as “dreamlike” I almost have to laugh.
The overall idea for my novel also combines two divergent things. Some would quickly suggest these two are 1) a back yard full of partying teens and 2) a random act of violence.  But that’s not it. Those two things easily go together, at least in many peoples' minds, and in fact an actual incident like this did provide some of the inspiration for me to begin my novel. Where the story really comes to life, however, is when this random act of violence is combined with a participant who possesses a conscience, albeit one hidden so deeply that he even wonders if it exists.
This is where my story and many others find their vitality: in the electricity that sparks in the gap between two unrelated ideas brought together.
Consider the work of American writer Cormac McCarthy. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Road, McCarthy combines an apocalyptic world with a father determined to safely raise his young son. The result is a brutally tender love story unlike any you’ve read before.
Or McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, a novel that initially appears to combine ruthless drug gangs with a mostly honest man who winds up with their money. At this book’s heart, though, is a story that stirs together an increasingly violent world and an aging lawman who’s lost faith in himself to stop the carnage.
Doesn’t matter where your two unrelated ideas come from. When they come together in a way that generates creative tension, new insights and perhaps something wholly unexpected for your readers, you’ll know it. Stephen King uses one word to describe this moment of cognition: “Pow.” If he was still around, I’m sure Leonardo Da Vinci would agree.