Monday, February 28, 2011

My favorite teachers.

It was in the late 1990s when I had a humbling conversation with one of my writing heros, Frank Peretti. As an author publishing with the same publishing house (Crossway Books), Frank had been gracious with his time and critiqued a manuscript for me. I remember one of his comments like it was yesterday.

"You're breaking the rules, Harry."
I leaned forward. "What rules?"
He smiled. "Don't be afraid to read what the fiction teachers are saying."
When I questioned him further, he gave me an example of how I had broken a point-of-view rule in a scene I had written. Now realize, at that point in time, I had been blessed by having four novels published and had a contract in hand to write a fifth one (that I hadn't yet started). But until that time, I had only written by natural gifting and had never opened a book to instruct me on how this whole fiction world worked, and what the "rules" were (essentially what works and doesn't distract the reader). So I went to work and started reading book after book on how to do what I'd already been doing for years. The result? I had to fight being "gun-shy." As I read "the rules," I found myself worrying. Can I do this?
Of course, that was a silly worry, but when you write without knowing all the rules, you don't really have a basis for worrying if you are doing it correctly!
I think my early success slowed my maturation as a writer. Now, my writing is much tighter, and hopefully I've learned a few tips about conflict, suspense, pacing, and tension along the way. I've been able to polish my dialogue and edit more efficiently.
Now, people often ask me, "who are your favorite fiction teachers?"
I have a few I pay attention to. Here are my favorites: Donald Maass. He has a series of books including the one I pictured above about writing the breakout novel. Read all you can find from Sol Stein and James Scott Bell and even a guy named James Frey (although his books How to Write a Damn Good Novel I and II prompted my then 12 year old to put masking tape over the spine of the book and substitute the word "Very" for "Damn.") OK, so I'm glad my son didn't like the title, but I loved the advice.
Who are your favorite teachers?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Characters that Resonate

If you've ever been to music store you've likely seen rooms with dozens of guitars hanging along the walls for display. I love stores like that. A few years ago I bought my dream guitar, a Taylor made of koa wood.

If you stand in a quiet room with guitars all around you and strum a chord on just one of the instruments, something interesting will happen. The strings of the guitars around you will begin to vibrate. In fact, I've been told that if I wanted my guitar's wood to age (guitars often sound sweeter as the wood gets older...hopefully like experienced authors, huh?) that I should leave the guitar out on a stand instead of always stored away in a case so that the guitar would be exposed to sounds in the room. The strings will vibrate as a result of being exposed to other music.
This is called resonance. It's an important part of fiction, too. What causes readers to remember a story long after the last page? I think it has to do with resonance. Something about the character or their experience or their emotional response to a conflict strikes a chord within the reader and they find themselves nodding their heads in agreement.
It isn't as simple as fashioning a character who acts, looks or thinks just like your readers. No one wants to read about characters who are just like themselves. Protagonists have to in some way be bigger than life. Readers want to read about characters that they wish they were.
But a character can't have qualities that are out of reach. They have to be admirable, but also human. That raises sympathy for the character, something that is necessary if your readers are going to stick with you for the length of a novel.
This also works in life. We all carry our personal stories and we should be sharing them with others. But sometimes we fear that our experiences are unique, different, or weird and that others won't relate to them. Opening up to others about our humanness can be scary, but is almost always freedom-producing. In reality, most of our stories will find resonance with others and will serve to bind us to them in ways that conversations about the weather can never accomplish.
I'm always on the look for qualities in my characters that will find resonance in my readers. And along the way, I need to share my personal stories with those God puts in my path. When I pluck my guitar, other guitars around me start to vibrate.
Just think about it.