Tuesday, April 2, 2013

What am I looking for?


I continue my series through Kurt Vonnegut 8 points of Creative Writing 

1.     Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2.     Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3.     Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

Have you ever walked into a store with a clear idea of why on this day at this time you have come into that store? And very helpfully you are greeted by a guest services assistant (also known as a clerk) and asked. “Can I help you find something?” What do you do? Of course you answer, but which answer.

a.     I’m looking for a wiznev can you help me find a good one?
b.     I’m just looking.
c.     No thank you.
d.     None of the above.

I have gotten better about saying a. I’m looking for a wiznev can you help me find a good one? But I still don’t always say that. Not because wiznev is a made up word and I don’t really want one. The issue is that even though this may be a planned trip that has taken over thirty minutes of my time already, I am not absolutely certain I am committed to buying a wiznev this day at this time in this place. And what if the clerk took me directly to the wiznev counter and they had the absolutely best wiznevs at the absolutely best price and the clerk produced a special additional 20% off coupon he would give me and I just didn’t want to buy it. What excuse could I give?

Given all this internal conflict over trying to decide what I really want how can I hope to know what my characters want? Fortunately as my characters emerged in the writing of Henry on Fire they began to make clear what they wanted. Papo and his friends wanted to prevent the rise of the Tara. Tanya and Anree both want to share more of Henry’s life in suburbia. Jamal wants to go out with Angela. I don’t think Fred wants anything. And Henry wants to feel alive.

I like the idea of giving characters the freedom to look around the story before they really commit to why they are in it and what they want. Then in the rewrite as I strengthen the characters I can go back and make their desires emerge more quickly and more clearly, but it’s their desires emerging not my plan for them.

My greatest learning in writing Henry on Fire was realizing that I as author could only succeed by giving my characters freedom to develop beyond my original vision. I had previously heard author’s describe this approach to writing and I never believed them until I experienced for myself.     

4.     Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5.     Start as close to the end as possible.
6.     Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7.     Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8.     Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

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