Got worry?

Some literary writers will tell you that “literary” novels focus on characters rather that plot and that makes the story more valuable. They’re wrong.  Sure, good novels—novels that we read and reread, think about, and share with our friends—have great characters, but they also have strong plots. The reader must care about the fiction people in the story, but those people need to be engaged in some action that will keep the reader reading.

So the beginning of a novel is all about having the reader falling in love with a particular character. But even if you have a novel that’s based on a terrific character, at some point (maybe page 50 or so), you are going to have to add some plot elements.  Even fabulous characters can fizzle if nothing happens.  Last time I talked about character’s action, or plot elements that are derived from character decisions.  Today, I’m going to get more basic.  How do you keep the tension moving page to page?

Sol Stein put it this way, “You are in a long line of storytellers whose job was to keep the listeners attention. The storyteller around the fire droned on. If his audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him. You are lucky. Your job is to arouse the reader's curiosity and not satisfy it.”  So it’s that simple, keep the reader worried.  It sounds easy, but it’s not that simple.

In working on my own novel, I found that every scene has to in some way up the tension of the narrative. (I’m working on a suspense thriller, so that’s a no brainer.) Of course, suspense is achieved through conflict, but conflict is a continuum. In our current culture of high drama, we sometimes suppose that every conflict in a story should be played out with a certain level of emotion and consequence. But if a writer does that, he or she is in the precarious position of needing to make each conflict a bigger and bigger moment.  Lots of big moments mean the conflict is loosing wind.  The reader is not feeling more and more anxious about the outcome for the characters, and more than likely the reader will stop reading.

Particularly in the middle of a narrative, conflict must build with every scene.  But it can be subtle, strained, or subdued in context, as long as the next moment of conflict ups the ante just a bit for the character.  Last weekend I watched The Godfather marathon on A&E. (Yes, I’ve seen the movie at least fifty times, as it’s the best movie ever made.) What I noticed this time was the scene were Michael kills Sollozzo, the police chief.  Michael comes out of the bathroom and sits down at the table, ready to shoot the guy between the eyes.  But all we see is Al Pacino’s face, and his eyes are darting around like a mad man.  The audience knows the fear and adrenalin that’s pumping through Michael’s mind because of the way Pacino is moving his eyes. Small bit.  Huge impact.

Here's the video clip:

Writers can do the same thing.

As anxiety increases for the character, readers feel more and more angst.  They want to know what happens.  The job of the middle of a story is to never let the reader get what they want.  It sounds almost formulaic, but as I write the middle of a novel, I often ask myself,  “What would the reader expect?”  Then I try to do exactly the opposite as long as it makes logical sense for the novel.

Keep the reader worried.  Kathi Appelt was the writer who first told me this, and I’ve learned writing this novel that that’s the whole purpose of the middle of a narrative.

I had a comment this week on how to get all the threads of a novel captured from the middle and woven into the story’s conclusion.  I don’t think this happens in drafting.  It’s a revision process, and unfortunately there’s no silver bullet to get it done easily. But first create no threads that can’t or don’t serve the story, then work through each of them with logic and intention. And of course, you could watch The Godfather for inspiration!

Choices. Choices. Choices.

Ernest Hemingway said it: “Never confuse movement with action.” Yet how many times have I written scene after scene just to keep my story moving? Sometimes writing the middle of a novel can be an exercise in motion. But it’s not the movement that matters. It’s the action.

So, then, what is the difference between movement and action? Action has motivation. It’s proactive. There’s a reason for it to happen. Characters are acting out of need, of desire, of consequence, of choice. The whole point of a novel is to pinpoint a single moment in a character’s life that changes everything. In her book Writing Fiction, a Guide to Narrative Craft, Janet Burroway notes, “plotting is a matter of finding the decision points that lead to that final choice and choosing the best scenes through which to dramatize them.”

Let’s look at an example. For the purposes of this illustration, I want to define the middle of a novel as the point between the inciting incident—the point that starts the action of the narrative—and the climax—the point where a character is changed. For this exercise, I’m going to use the text from Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond because it’s a familiar text to all of us. The point of realization for Kit is on page 229.

A month ago Kit’s temper would have flared. But all at once she realized that William could not really anger her. She had had a long time to think, that night on the riverbank, and the longer night in the constable’s shed. She had never consciously made any decision, but suddenly there it was waiting and unmistakable.

“’Tis no use, William,” she said now.“You and I would always be uneasy, all of our lives. We would always be hoping for the other one to be different, and always being disappointed when it didn’t happen. No matter how hard I tried, I know I could never care about the things that seem so important to you.”

“The house isn’t important to you?” he asked slowly.

“Yes, in a way it is,” she admitted. “I’d like to live in a fine house. But not if it means I can’t choose my own friends.”

Kit breaks off her engagement with William, but more importantly, she makes a choice that changes her future. So, that’s how the story ends, but what about the middle? Let’s go back and look at the choices Kit makes:

Kit wants to attract William by wearing a beautiful—and totally inappropriate—dress.

Kit learns that William is wealthy, and begins to enjoy his company.

Kit meets Hannah, the old woman thought to be a witch, and loves her.

Kit begins to teach and finds joy in teaching Prudence.

Kit begins to appreciate Mercy and her compassion, especially after Mercy’s true love becomes engaged to her sister.

Kit begins to appreciate her uncle’s fierce, yet quiet strength.

Kit makes a choice to rescue Hannah from a mob.

Kit stays behind to take care of Mercy.

Kit stands up for Hannah and for Prudence.

In the first part of the middle of the novel, we see Kit making choices on a path to marry William, but once Kit helps Hannah, Kit begins making choices that are more true to her authentic self. She begins to realize that money isn’t the path to happiness.

So back to the middle. The middle of the story must first lead the character to a point that will demand a reversal. Kit wants William because he is a fine catch and will bring her security and freedom. So for the first half of the middle of the novel, she does what she needs to do to marry William. But half way through the middle, she makes a choice exactly opposite of her desire for William when she elects to help Hannah and stay on to take care of Mercy. That reversal allows the second half of the middle to build to the climax of the story. Kit stays, so she is ultimately tried for being a witch herself. But she has witnessed Mercy’s unconditional love, Hannah’s faith, and Nat’s bravery and is changed by the experience. Kit no longer desires William for what he represents. She makes a different choice.

The middle is all about character choice. For me, I had to stop drafting at certain points (every three chapters or so) and analyze why and how my character acted on certain choices. He wasn’t just moving. He was following through on his decisions and living with the consequences. Writing the middle wasn’t a nice linear path. I often didn’t get it right the first time. I found myself editing scenes, deleting dialogue, and just trashing whole chapters. It was a recursive process, both creative and analytical.

The point is that the middle of a story is about a character making choices and acting on them. Aristotle said that all human happiness and misery take the form of action. Four thousand years later, that’s still true.

On Friday, I’ll talk about tension in the middle. It gives me a headache to think about it, but that’s the secret to making the middle really work. ~Helen Hemphill 

A little free advice.

There are plenty of writers who hate writers groups.

In fact Zadie Smith, one of my favorite writers of adult literary fiction, says, “The best, the only real training you can get [as a writer], is from reading other people's books.” So, forget the critiques and the workshops and the wine and the M&Ms.

Just read.

That’s great advice, but if you still like the idea of meeting with like-minded friends to talk shop, there are plenty of guidelines for staring and maintaining your own writers’ group right here on the web. I searched for “writers’ groups” on Google, and got back 1.7 million hits. You could write the entire Harry Potter series in the time it would take to look at them all, but here are a few sites that offer up some good ideas:

Holly Lisle
Holly is not a huge fan of writers’ groups, but she offers up some good rules of the road. I particularly like her ideas about what to do if the group turns dark and evil and sucks the life out of your soul.

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America gives a full listing of workshop and writers’ group connections, including links to several on-line groups.

Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators If you are a member of SCBWI, there are some solid basics about starting a critique group and the process of critiquing on the Publications page. Take a look.

Margot Finke has a three-part series on critiques and writers' groups at The Purple Crayon.

For Writers has a full list of online writers’ groups. You will need to scroll down a bit to see the listing, but there’s a lot of relevant information here. Take a while to browse.

Coffee & Critique Writers Group This is a good three-part series on how to get things going written by a member of an active writers' group.

I'll leave you with this video from John Green's Brotherhood 2.0. What does happen in a writers' group? Writing...talking...writing...talking. Oh, well.

Have a good weekend.

Anon. Helen Hemphill

The Reader of Perfect Sympathy

Nathaniel Hawthorn first wrote about the Reader of Perfect Sympathy--the reader who understands the writer’s work and intent as fully as if he or she were part of the creative process itself. The reader who is “a kind and apprehensive” friend, who reads a manuscript to tell us how much they love it, yet also giving us the clear eyes of perspective and analytical thinking. Ah, that we all had that Reader of Perfect Sympathy (within our writers' group or not)!

Recently, I asked National Book Award wInning author Kimberly Willis Holt to address this notion when she mentioned her daughter had been her “first reader” for many years.

Here’s Kimberly’s thoughtful and candid response:

My daughter is the only person that I allow to hear my first drafts. The reason I say, “hear” is that she listens to me read. My handwriting isn’t legible to anyone but me and, at that point, I’m only looking for approval. I need that nod that says, yes, I think you’re on to something good. Shannon understands the rough state of a first draft and doesn’t try to correct something that she knows I’ll catch in later rounds.

She has been my first reader since she was six years old. Now she writes and I’ve become her first reader. Years ago I noticed her sitting on the backyard swing, reading my first book, My Louisiana Sky. Later I asked her, “Aren’t you sick of that story?” She’d heard so many drafts before it was published. She answered, “Momma, I’ve never read it like a real book before.” Poor child! Forced to read her mother’s manuscripts!

With the exception of Shannon, I try not to show anyone else less than my seventh draft. Up to that point, I can usually find things on my own. And if I do happen to show my story at an earlier stage, my readers tend to suggest changes I would have found. I’m not saying that I haven’t been guilty of releasing it too soon. But I try to stick to that rule.

Although I participated in various critique groups before publication, my readers now tend to be a small group of people made up of my retreat pals, my mom, and a close friend. Once a year, some friends and I attend a writing retreat at Kathi Appelt’s family ranch house in the Texas Hill Country. Aside from the two of us, we are joined by Jeanette Ingold, Lola Schafer, and Rebecca Kai Dotlich. The group is a wonderful mix of talent and strengths. My writing has grown because of their input.

We usually arrive with a project that is a priority. Sometime during the week we meet and give each other input on that piece. Other projects are set “on the table” in hopes that some of us will have a chance to read it. Sometimes after reading a manuscript, we’ll seek each other out and meet one-on-one to give our input. Occasionally we don’t agree with each other, but I believe every bit of advice is considered. (If not at the ranch, maybe weeks or months later.)

Before sending a manuscript to my editor, I usually contact this same group to see if any of them are available to read the story, this time, in its entirety. We rarely read a complete novel at the retreat . We are honest with each other. Sometimes it’s just not the right time for us to devote to reading someone else’s work. But usually two are available. Chapters are emailed and so is the valued feedback.

Another person who offers me support by reading is my mom. She is like many moms in that she rarely critiques my work, but applauds the parts she likes the most. I will usually send her a few chapters at a time. Sometimes just knowing that she’s waiting to see what happens next helps me to get back to my desk each day. That is worth a lot.

Occasionally I ask a close friend of mine to read my manuscript. She is not published, but is a fine writer. Since she loves historical fiction, her opinion matters deeply to me. Sometimes I fear she is too kind in her feedback, but a writer needs that sort of early approval, too.

When I’m rewriting, the critique voice I hear the most is my editor’s. I’ve worked with Christy Ottaviano for twelve years now. I have learned so much from her. She is a master at her craft. She challenges me and keeps me going back to the page. Early on, she told me, “Kimberly, rewriting can be truly beautiful.” Not surprisingly, that has become my favorite part of the process.

I’m a better writer because of the people who’ve offered me advice along the way. Their encouragement and critique may be invisible to my readers, but I know their influence. And I’m forever grateful.

A Reader of Perfect Sympathy can bring a writer encouragement and feedback. The next time your writers' group convenes, talk about this perfect reader within your group. Is there someone who can play that role for you?

Tomorrow, a roundup from several writers' blogs: What makes a great writers' group?

Anon. Helen Hemphill

A Writers' Group

In Austin, I’m lucky to participate with a great group of children’s and YA writers who love their work, take it seriously, and don’t mind having a bit of fun. Collectively, they understand the yin and yang of a writers’ group. Individually, each member is candid and thoughtful. Our little band is made up of six members, and three have kindly offered up some thoughts for today’s blog. Let me introduce you to three:

April Lurie, author of the newly released The Latent Powers of Dylan Fontaine (Delacorte, 2008), Brothers, Boyfriends and Other Criminal Minds (Delacotre, 2007), and Dancing in the Streets of Brooklyn (Delacorte, 2002).

Frances Hill Yansky, author of The Bug Cemetery, illustrated by Vera Rosenberry (Henry Holt, 2002).

Bryan Yansky, graduate of the adult program in fiction at Vermont College is an assistant professor at Austin Community College and author of Wonders of the World (Flux, 2007) and My Road Trip to the Pretty Girl Capital of the World (Cricket Book, 2003).

No matter how knowledgeable or how relaxed the writers’ group, getting it to flow is another matter, whether you are critiquing or being critiqued. Some of the dynamics has to come from the sheer chemistry of it. Like marriage, chemistry makes for a partnership made in heaven or in hell.

Here’s what Frances writes:

Certainly chemistry plays a part, and it helps it you like everyone in you group but it is more important to respect all the people in your critique group. Ideally, participants should be on the same level and have the same attitude as you do towards writing and/or craft.

April agrees:

I think chemistry is very important. We need to "get" each other, especially if our writing is quirky, or if we're tackling something new. Also, safety is a must. How can we let loose if we don't trust?

Safety is a big issue if flow is going to happen in a writers’ group. No one wants to feel afraid for their work or their egos.

I like Brian’s take on trust:

One thing you absolutely have to have in a group is trust. You have to trust that everyone in your group is doing their best to give criticism that will improve the work you've submitted. You don't want to worry about other motives. Sometimes you agree with their comments and sometimes you disagree, but you know that they're giving an honest reaction to your work. That's helpful.

So flow comes down to respect, safety, and trust—and to the knowledge and fundamental belief that your work is being critiqued to help improve it. Oddly, I understand that fully as a writer being critiqued. I always hope my manuscript will be liked, but I’m realistic enough to know that the candid reaction of my writers’ group is the only way I can really see parts of my story—I’m too close to it otherwise.

My torment is in the critiquing. Because I worry about my own analytical ability when commenting on someone else’s work, I have a fair amount of angst when reading over a manuscript. I want to love it. Lots of times I do, but sometimes I don’t. How do I say what needs to be said? Gently, of course. There are almost always things in a manuscript that work and can be points of praise a fellow writer needs to hear. But also, I want to be honest. I want the writer to know exactly why the manuscript doesn’t work for me, but I’m worried how the writer will react.

I love this comment from Frances:

Sure, state your opinion, but it is not the job of the critiquer to convince the writer to change his or her mind.

Giving a writer honest reader reaction and the specific detail to support that feedback is the value of a writers’ group. It’s fair to state opinions, just don’t belabor them. And nothing says the writer has to respond in any given way to the group’s comments. They just are.

One other note from my own experiences: writers’ groups work best when the discussion is based in the particular rather than the general. Specific questions about plot points or character motivation or word choice can lead to the kind of discussion that informs every writer in the group. This kind of flow of ideas can reenergize everyone, and can make the lonely task of writing less daunting. There’s that flow again.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the Reader of Perfect Sympathy with Kimberly Willis Holt.

Anon. Helen Hemphill


Get thee to a writers’ group. We’ve all heard the advice. Last week, Tami gave us some terrific reminders on craft; this week I’m going to talk about process--the dynamics of writers’ groups. Sometimes, they can be really helpful. Sometimes, not so much. If you belong to a group, or you’re thinking about staring a group, or participate online with a group, or just wish you had access to a group, we’re going to discuss the down and dirty of why writers’ groups can be good and bad –sometimes simultaneously.

Let me start with my own experiences. I’m lucky to have two writers’ groups, one in Nashville and one in Austin. With both groups, we meet at someone’s house once a month, but there are no set schedules. One or another of us takes on the role of social director, nudging the group to submit pages and offering up dates and times. We informally agree when and where and who’s on first without any particular direction or purpose as to whose turn it might be or to how many pages we should read. Sometimes we read whole novels. Sometimes 500 word picture books. But when we get together, food is a critical component.

There are always M&Ms,usually accompanied by something salty.

We also indulge in coffee or wine, or both, and the first part of the meeting is spent sharing gossip and news. We snipe about reviews. We share war stories. We laugh. We bring show and tell of new book galley proofs or illustrations. But then, after a bit, we get down to business. Social hour becomes truth or consequences. I’m making this sound a bit more dramatic than it actually is. The whole point of having a writers’ group is to one) to get honest feedback on your work; and two) to have some kind of social interaction with other human beings. Writers notoriously live in their heads only a little less than say Neo, so getting out is good.

Before I talk any more about my own writers’ groups, I want to say I generally like writers’ groups. Finding a writing community where I am validated and challenged makes me feel like I’m in the flow of my work—that I’m creating something better than I could do alone, yet it is only work that I alone can do. But the truth is, very one of us knows that a writers’ group or workshop can be downright fearful, particularly if we’re unsure how our work is going to be accepted or critiqued. We’ve all been in workshops where someone has gotten so rankled by the comments, that the whole event was worst than a Chicago Bears game. Defense! Defense! Defense!

So, what is the deal about writers’ groups? Why are we always told as writers that the first rule of common wisdom is to go out and find one?

Let me digress. Remember that happy guy, psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi? Dr. Csíkszentmihályi, or Dr. C. as we’ll refer to him, coined the term flow, meaning that for most people, when they are doing something meaningful, something outside their normal routine, they go beyond their sense of self-consciousness and fear and become immersed in what they are doing to the point of feeling happy. Dr. C, it seems, as a little kid in post WWII Hungry, saw a lot of people pretty unhappy, but he wondered why others, no matter how grim things seemed to be, never threw in the towel. They never “disintegrated” into anguish.

So the question Dr. C. asked was, “how can we live life as works of art, rather than as chaotic responses to external events?" Dr. C. has spent his whole life learning about what makes people feel happy. He has a checklist of things, but when it comes right down to it, he’s talking flow.
Flow is based on a goal and a high degree of concentration doing an activity that is intrinsically rewarding. I think (I hope) I can say we have all felt that sense of flow when a scene is working and the words are flying out of our fingers and we’re not the least bit aware of time or place or if kids are picked up from school or if dinner is in the oven or if the house is falling down. We are “head deep” in the virtual world of our story, living it as if we were standing right next to our protagonist. So, why is it so hard to make the leap from the flow we feel when writing to feeling a sense of flow in a larger community of writers like a writers’ group? The answer is probably obvious:

A writers’ group is there to judge our work, and what’s so flow about having your turn in the barrel?

Well, my dears, let’s talk that…tomorrow. I’ll have a few of my buddies from my writers groups in Austin give you their perspectives.

Anon....Helen Hemphill