Who makes up your literary ancestry? Which authors stand as your lettered godparents, your artistic aunts and uncles, who have passed down, whether you asked for it or not, their characteristic genes with all their faults and strengths? Just as we have a biological genealogy, we must also recognize and come to terms with our literary heritage. Brainpickings‘ Maria Popova and Michelle Legro recently covered Circles of Creative Influence illustrated by Wendy McNaughton who visualized for us an artistic dynasty wherein poets Rachelle Cruz and Barbara Jane Reyes followed suit by mapping out their own creative family trees.
Part of understanding one’s influences is also seeing the cracks. Every idol has them, and we’re not talking about personal defects such as womanizing or man-hating, or being a class snob, but artistic weaknesses that rupture fissures within the art itself. At the salon, we’ve been discussing the downfall of a former champion, E.M. Forster, (see Part I: “How E.M. Forster Jinxed My Writing”). I’ve had to come to grips with the negative influences he might have had on me such as his lack of spinning real, bone-breaking conflict. Anyone who’s every lived by Forster’s decree “only connect” may find it difficult to sever and destroy. Perhaps our inclination is because we don’t like conflict in real life. We’re always trying to avoid conflict. But on the page, conflict is what keeps the reader going.
Forster’s work embodies compassion, which is inspiring for life, but everyday life does not make great literature. As Flannery O’Connor argues in her book Mystery and Manners, from the talk “The Grotesque in Southern Fiction”:
Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put a finger on in any exact critical sense, so it always safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. (43)
O’Connor essentially indicts the very strength that pulled me to Forster as a youth. I loved his novels because they were filled with compassion, but compassion was merely Forster’s way of playing the novel safe.
In a Saint Mary’s Fiction Craft class, dated around 2006, novelist Julie Orringer stated something like the following:
Good fiction is when characters are forced to make decisions, forced to do scary things as they get deeper and deeper into the situation. Characters need to be thrown off balance where they want to regain some sense of equilibrium–whether its good or bad. Disrupt the normal pattern of motivation. Natural motivation vs. momentary motivation. Plot and characterization have to be working in a problematic disharmony.
Writing novels is not for the weak of heart. Thomas Hardy commits a horrible plot act toward the end of Jude the Obscure, absolutely horrific. Critics lambasted him for his supposed obscene treatment of marriage, but they missed the true obscenity, which won’t be revealed in this post. If you’re going to spill blood, you might as well do it on the page, that’s what its for. And, if you want to know how to effectively spill blood, you may want to take a look at Hardy’s Jude. He explodes his characters from the inside out and effectively punches the reader in the gut.
Fiction serves the same purpose as nightmares, allowing us a chance to explore the darkest, most dire possibilities without risking too much in the flesh. Risk is what makes or breaks a writer. We constantly take risks, from setting aside hours of our day to pen words and wasting countless sheaves of dead trees and postage in the hopes for some redemption for the time spent hammering at the keyboard. Writers must take risks both on page and off, which means moving beyond compassion, beyond safety, and beyond what feels comfortable. We must practice employing IEDs in our story-lines. If we care about our work, we will use guerilla force. We won’t stop at inserting shrapnel into explosive plot lines, so we can spread conflict. Otherwise, why write stories? Everything has to be at stake or its not worth it.
So how do we put lives on the literary line?
Firstly, when drafting, don’t worry about piecing everything together by leading through a step-by-step narration. Jump and jump often. Build through clues, pent up emotions, and disjunctive actions that remain true to the character but don’t exactly add up for the reader. It’s not necessary to explain every step. Withhold plot points but never motivation. We need to see why characters do what they do, but we don’t always need to know how.
We needn’t concern ourselves about answering all the questions. Life is comprised of endless loose ends. Think of Charlotte Brontë’s “suspended revelation” where she emphasizes the importance of concealing information to keep the reader in suspense. Nothing is ever neatly tied, so we just need hone our vision and see how many strings are necessary to hold the story together. The fewer the better. Some ties can remain slack, others may need to be extremely tight. It’s all about lifting the work up, getting as much height as possible to capture the reader’s imagination.
A lot of times we’ll put all our cards on the table, which is the last thing we want to do as writers. The game is to keep readers guessing up to the very last word. We do need to have the whole story straight in our heads, only straight enough to create a universe. Whether its a microcosm or macrocosm, the story must encompass a network of lives. When drafting and revising, trust in yourself that you’ll fill in the necessary gaps as you move back and forth through the story, combing through it until its impeccably polished.
As you revise, drop explosive hints at critical junctures. Find the hot spots and train readers to leap with the story. Train them to be athletes in the obstacle course you’ve created. You want readers to leap to conclusions whether right or wrong. So, how do we keep readers leaping and guessing?
- Figure out the reversal of situations with each character. Simply flip the plot around from where they started. It’s simple, really. Hamlet wants to kill father. He can’t kill father, so he ends up being killed himself.
- Make a running list of verbs for each character and track their evolution or devolution of verbs to ensure you have maximum explosive action.
- As salon member Virginia Jones says, “the climax is the point at which a character can’t go back. There’s no return, each character has to keep to the decisions they’ve made,” so we, as writers, have to make each decision count. Each choice has to be a stab at the body.
J.J. Abrams gave a recent TED Talk on the mystery box, his personal method of suspended revelation, which can help give insight on how to explode the teapot.
How do you punch the reader in the gut? How will you take stabs at your idols? What’s the best way of setting down literary land mines?