Crystallize Your Novel

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

When I teach workshops based on my book Write Your Novel From the Middle, I usually say that finding your “mirror moment” illuminates the entire book for you. It shows you what the story is really all about, from beginning to end––even if the novel is largely unwritten. So be ye planner or pantser, whenever you find your mirror moment, the path to your completed novel becomes a whole lot clearer.

autumn-imagoThere’s another word to describe what’s going on, and it came to me in an email from writer Bryan Wiggins. Bryan is a serious student of the craft (via Brother Larry Brooks, myself and others). His novel, Autumn Imago, was recently selected as one of only three books to launch Harper Legend, a new imprint of Harper One, a member of the HarperCollins family.

Bryan wrote:

In my story, my protagonist, Paul Strand, is a ranger in Maine’s remote Baxter State Park. Paul has turned his back on his nuclear family after it was shattered by the death of his sister, years before. Circumstances conspire to bring them to the park where Paul struggles between the isolation that has protected him from the wounds of the past and the intimacy that stands as his only chance for the healing that can make him whole. Paul battles those opposing forces throughout the book, but Middle provided me with a way to look at the central turning point in the story that helped me shape the “before and after” of his spiritual catharsis for maximum effect. That scene takes place during a rainstorm in a lean-to at the top of a mountain. There, Paul must decide whether or not to abandon his recovering addict-brother, or to give him the second chance that Paul doesn’t believe he deserves. The Mirror Moment helped me crystallize not only that crisis for Paul, but also helped me sharpen my larger narrative with the clear focus that helped earn the book a publishing contract with one of the “Big 5.”

I like that word, crystallize. It means to assume a definite shape. When Bryan’s character reached that decision point, he was looking at himself (as if in a mirror) and asking, What kind of person am I going to be? The shape of the story became discernable. That’s always a great feeling.

Bryan went on to say:

For a story structure freak like myself, one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is to simply surrender to the organic power of writing when the muse begins to sing. But as an analytical writer at heart, I’m always looking for a sharp instrument that I can also apply more directly to my work. Your book has proven to be such a tool.

I love story structure freaks. But I also tell writers that when they write they shouldn’t think about “rules” or “guidelines.” Just write! (“…simply surrender to the organic power…”) But then, afterward, put on the analytical hat. Fix what you can, learn how to fix what you can’t (via craft books, workshops, editors, teachers) and absorb. I always come back to the golf analogy. Don’t think of the 22 most important tips about your golf swing as you swing! Just play! Do your thinking after the round. And if you keep messing something up, go visit a teaching pro.

What will happen is this: you’ll get all those lessons into your “muscle memory,” and they’ll be there for you next time you play (or write!) Bryan went on in his email about writing the second book in his planned trilogy:

As I’ve been outlining, free-writing, and scene-writing my way to the middle of this sequel, I’ve been conscious again of “the magical midpoint moment” of my tale that Middle illustrates. My goal in this novel is to craft a character who demonstrates the drive for success meant to resonate with my readers, but to also show how that force can corrode the compassion for others that should always temper such ambition. Middle has again pointed to a critical mid-manuscript turning point between two opposing forces in my story. In this case, it’s a critical choice Wolf must make about whether or not to propose marriage to his lifelong friend (the girl next door) not for love, but to advance his career. As Middle suggests, that vantage point is providing me not only with one of the big, dramatic beats of my plot, but a perspective for tuning the entire thrust of my story before and after that point for maximum dramatic effect.

Let me add that if you know you’re writing a trilogy, you can have mirror moments for each book, and one for the entire series. There are mirror moments in each of the Hunger Games books, and one big one for the trilogy (hint: it involves Katniss’ inner argument about whether to bring a child into the world).

So I thank Bryan for his email, and the chance to share some of his writing process. You might also be interested in an early blog post by Bryan when he felt “lost” writing his first novel, and how he fought through. It’s called “Eighty Thousand Mistakes.”

To sum up about crystallizing your novel:

  1. When you write, write.
  1. At some point, brainstorm your mirror moment. It’s subject to change, of course, but I think you’ll find one that feels right. Let it be your guide.
  1. Visit the Lead’s pre-story psychology in light of the mirror moment. Flesh out the moral flaw. Why is it there? What happened in the Lead’s backstory that made him this way? (E.g., Rick at the beginning of Casablanca. Why doesn’t he stick his neck out for anybody? Because he was betrayed (he thinks) by the only woman he ever truly loved.)
  1. Brainstorm the transformation at the end (wherein the character overcomes the moral flaw, or has grown stronger). Come up with a visual that proves the transformation. (One of my favorites is in the film Lethal Weapon. Riggs is suicidal, has been carrying around a hollow-point bullet to blow his brains out. At the end, he shows up at Murtaugh’s house on Christmas and presents the bullet—with a ribbon on it—to Murtaugh’s daughter. “Give it to your dad, okay? It’s a present for him. Tell him I won’t be needing it anymore.”)
  1. Finish the novel, let it sit for a few weeks, then start the editing process. What you’ll find is that the issues you have in re-write are not with the central story, but in how you tell it. In other words, because you went to the mirror, the story will have a definite shape. It will be crystallized. Now smooth out edges, deepen characters, sharpen dialogue, tighten scenes.

Then let people read it. Then fix it some more.

This is called growing as a writer.

Which, as the Geico commercials say, is what you do!

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On Fishing For A Story

Hemingway Fishing

Ernest Hemingway working on his hook.

Analogies about writing, especially about how to write, abound. In my first writing book I beat them to death (because I love analogies), and have since been beaten senseless by some reviewers who don’t care (or know) that analogies are a proven and strategically effective way to teach.

So I was delighted to see Jim Bell’s analogy about playing basketball a couple of weeks ago (and another in the first paragraph yesterday), if nothing else than it allows me to point to him if someone reading TKZ isn’t appreciative of the analogy I am about to offer in today’s post.

Thanks, Jim, for opening that can of worms (itself an analogy, for the record).

All of the analogies I have employed – flying an airplane, playing golf, cooking, building a bridge, a few others – become a thematic chorus when considered en masse. The message is clear, and twofold: professionals can wing it and play loose with the core principles (just like when Michael Jordan shot and made a free throw in an NBA game… with his eyes closed), in a way that less experienced cannot and should not.

At the core of each of these avocations there are unimpeachable truths…

… essential physics that are not to be messed with. When a proven professional does so – and we all do it from time to time… because we can – even a little, they do so in context to an evolved storytelling sensibility and learning curve that a newbie does not yet possess.

In effect, they can do it with their eyes closed, in a way that would make the rest of us look silly.

You don’t tee off with a putter in the name of your art, you don’t under-cook the chicken in the name of table appeal, you don’t build a bridge on sand for obvious reasons, and so on.

The second thing is this: the same is true, every bit as true, for authors who are navigating, cooking up, teeing up, or building a novel. Mess with the core physics of the craft and your story will crash and burn. And when you are rejected, it will most likely be because of an ignorance (as in, to ignore) or a lack of regard (as in, to over-estimate your skills) of the core physics of storytelling.

And so we come to today’s analogy: fishing.

When I was a kid my father took me fishing several times each summer. He selected the tackle, baited the hook, threaded the line, made my casts and, when something nibbled, put his hands on mine as we played the line before setting the hook and reeling in. Then he gave me credit for landing “a big one.” The result was a few fabulous rainbow trout breakfasts and more than a few thrown-back bottom fish, not to mention some of my most precious childhood memories.

There came a point when I was a teenager too cool to fish with my father, so off I went with friends to fish on our own and talk about girls we could not catch from the bank of a river containing fish we could not catch. That period of my fishing life lasted about ten years, when that teen independence gave way to young adult cluelessness.

Over that decade, I caught exactly zero fish.  Not one.

Because I was imitating what I had seen my father do for me, and had been too proud or busy or stupid to learn those basics on my own. He smiled when he realized the life lesson to be learned from this failure, a lesson that took years to sink in for me.

I haven’t been fishing since, perhaps disqualifying me from using this analogy at all.

Except… it works.

I can’t help but think about how those fundamentals and processes of fishing are parallel in every way to the experience of learning how to write a novel. How the selection of the story, the way we set it up, the way we play the line and set the hook, are not only essential, but complex and nuanced, not remotely something that can be done without instruction or via imitation.

New writers must be excused from what they don’t yet know, because there is something noble about attempting to learn by doing. At least for a while. But when that takes place in a vacuum, without a parallel experience of learning and apprenticeship, the nobility of it fades away like a fish fleeing from a poorly tied fly.

Most writers come to the intention of writing a novel based upon their reading experience…

… usually joyous, but often riddled with a wildly uninformed belief that they can do what those authors they read can do, or worse, do anything they want – as a reader of novels. Some writers believe this is all you need, that writing is purely intuitive, a misperception reinforced because so many of the authors they’ve read made it look easy.

Logical and functional is not synonymous with easy. Just ask Michael Jordan as he lined up to shoot that free throw with his eyes shut.

Writing stories from this limited base of knowledge is no different that believing you can fly the plane after years of sitting in coach… that you can whip up a killer chicken piccata because you’ve been ordering it for years at the Cheesecake Factory (their best dish, by the way)… that you can hit a nine iron off the tee of a 205 yard par three because that’s what Tiger does… or that you can design and build a functional bridge because you’ve been driving across one for years on your way to work.

Or – I forgot perhaps my favorite analogy, so here goes: You believe that you can take out your own appendix because it took your doctor only fifteen minutes to get that job done. (I smiled when I just saw that Jim used nearly this exact analogy yesterday in the first paragraph of his terrific post; analogies are universal and eternal, and they often speak things more clearly than the direct route can achieve.)

My wife, who is an excellent cook, has for years been trying to nail a chicken piccata that holds a candle to the Cheesecake Factory’s (the recipe for which is not for public consumption), and she’s finally resigned to simply going there to enjoy this dish. Just like we can try to write like Stephen King, using his process (as described in his book, On Writing*), but until you know what he knows, that may not – probably won’t – serve you.

By implication, King is saying that all you need to do is just write. Imagine a surgeon being told, in her first year of med school, that all she needs to do is just cut.

Of course those are silly and obvious comparisons. 

And yet, so many writers attempt to write a novel from an equally consumer-focused and over-simplified learning curve (and dare I say, naive), and as a result they inevitably crash, burn, throw up and, like me, fail to catch a single fish for decades or more.

But that’s not you, you’re saying. You attend writing conferences and read all the writing books, maybe even mine and Jim Bell’s.

Which is great, keep going. But ask yourself this: are you truly and deeply internalizing the principles you read there, and are you practicing and applying them in a way that trumps the in-the-moment bliss of storytelling, which is what some writing gurus tell you is the only thing you need to pay attention to?

Do you know the difference between a concept and a premise?

Do you understand the nature of classic story structure, or even believe in it in the first place? Do you know the role of theme in a story? Do you understand what creates drama and suspense, and how to pace it over the arc of the narrative?

Do you believe you can simply make up the forms and standards and processes by which these things are made manifest in your story?

Professional writers know these things, and they just don’t do it any other way than the prescribed and proven way, no matter how they choose to describe their process.

Something to think about the next time it’s just you and a pole on a peaceful afternoon at the river, waiting for the next story to descend upon you from heaven.

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*In his book On Writing, King advises writers to take their initial story idea and just sit down and start writing from it, allowing an inner sense of story to help navigate the road leading to the best possible story. He omits, however, to add that this works for him, which by definition could mean that unless and until you know what he knows, the results you achieve may not compare to his, and thus, rendering this among the worst writing advice ever rendered… this being my opinion, of course. I’m no Stephen King, either, but at least I know what a writer must understand before that or any other method of writing a story will bear fruit, or not take you a decade to write, which is why I’m here.

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Larry’s new writing book, Story Fix: Transforming Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant” is available now in digital formats on Amazon.com and BN.com, and will be out in trade paperback within the next few weeks. Analogies kept to a minimum, he swears.  Visit Larry’s website at http://storyfix.com/.

Flickr photo from Don…The UpNorth Memories Guy… Harrison.

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