Monday, May 9, 2016

Do You Yada Yada?

I don't have a lot of time to watch TV, but my recent trip to New York allowed me to catch a few Seinfeld re-runs. I'm still amazed at how well the humor and writing hold up. There are so many memorable lines and plots. Remember this one?

"The Yada Yada" episode came back to me after a recent meeting of my writing group. We've been meeting for almost two years now and certain patterns have been emerging in the mistakes we all keep repeating. I'm starting to think that most writing problems boil down to just a handful of common pitfalls. These pitfalls can be obvious to spot in other people's writing, but can be difficult to see in our own.

The most common problem that has been showing up in our group is the tendency to gloss over the most compelling part of a scene or plot point. The scene might start out strong, full of dialogue and vivid detail, but at the moment that requires big action or the story reaches an uncomfortable emotional pitch (in other words, the stuff we readers live for) the writer tends to summarize, back off so that everything suddenly works out, or abruptly end the scene. Rather than confront the dramatic moment, we often yada yada our way out of it. Another name for this phenomenon is "a missed opportunity".

Experienced writers are just as prone to the missed opportunity as newer writers. A few years ago, there was a much-celebrated, award-winning novel that I read that I didn't much care for. The story had all the makings of a great novel, but in my mind it fell short. I couldn't articulate what was missing until a friend of mine, who felt the same way about the book, pointed out that all the major plot points happened "off camera" with the characters discussing or retelling what happened after the fact. All the tension was kept at bay or diffused and the reader was never allowed to experience the most dramatic parts of the story.

The Causes 

As far as I can tell, missed opportunities are rooted in three causes: laziness, fear, or not knowing how to handle an aspect of the writing. No matter what the cause, a missed opportunity is a decision not to proceed.  Rather than writing through a difficult scene, confronting our fear of failure, or researching writing techniques, we are deciding at a subconscious level not to deal with it. We are fooling ourselves into believing no one will notice if we sweep it under the rug. Maybe some readers won't, but the overall effect will be a flat story, devoid of emotional engagement.

Recognizing the Symptoms

If missed opportunities happen at a subconscious level, how do you know when they're there? Answering 'yes' to any of the following questions is a clue that you've given your story the yada yada:

Do big scenes happen off the page? 
Are action scenes over within a few sentences?
When my protagonist encounters a problem, is it easily solved?
Do my characters tend to agree with one another about crucial issues?
During an emotionally intense exchange does one character give in to make peace?

The Cure

Fixing the problem is simply a matter of reversing it. If big scenes happen off the page, bring them in. Lengthen and slow down action scenes. When a character encounters a problem, don't magically fix it. Remember, it's your job to make your protagonist's difficult. The more confrontations, the more obstacles, the more thwarted desires, the better. Don't back away from drama.

Because here's the truth...As much importance as we put on the beginnings and endings of stories, what really makes them compelling is how your characters get from point A to B. That's the yada yada. Don't rob your readers of the experience.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Good Ol' Days

The Flatiron Building. I walked past it every day on my way to work.

I just returned from a trip to New York City. It was mostly a family vacation, but I took a little time out to visit some friends at my old workplace. It's been over ten years since I've visited and the experience was a little overwhelming. New York has changed so much that during my visit I often felt a little disoriented. Once-quiet downtown neighborhoods are now as bustling as midtown. Every parking lot I remember now has a high-rise sitting on it. Once in a while, though, I'd see something completely intact, exactly the way I remember it, and it brought me such delight. My connection to the city--though tenuous at best--is still there.

My husband and I drove our daughters batty pointing out our old haunts. We had a persistent need to press our history upon them. I wanted them to know I was not just someone who drove a minivan and cleaned the house, that I had a few experiences before they came along. But, alas, the girls didn't seem to really care all that much. To them, I'm just Mom and they're more impressed that I make waffles in the morning than the fact that I once crashed a swank party at The Plaza for the President of Ireland. (True story--and yes, Ireland has a President.)

Union Square -- my old neighborhood.
Also while in NYC, I met with my agent. We discussed the next steps in the submission process for my manuscript. He is developing a list of a dozen or so editors he thinks would be interested in this type of novel and will send out a copy of the manuscript along with reviews from my last book. For those of you who are on the fence about getting an agent, here's reason #457 why you should: multiple submissions. Writers acting on their own are often discouraged from this practice as negotiating can get sticky if more than one publisher is interested, but agents do it all the time. In fact, it's expected. So while the unrepresented writer sends out to one editor, waits two months or longer for a response and then sends out again, the writer with an agent gets a bunch of editors looking at their manuscript at the same time. Instead of waiting months or years to find a publisher, the writer with an agent can hear back in a matter of days or weeks.

My earlier excitement has mellowed into a nervous resignation. I've set my expectations so low as to almost be devoid of ambition. When we sent CEDAR HOLE out my mantra was "Knopf or bust!" (That didn't happen, but Simon & Schuster's no slouch.) Now I'm going around thinking, "Whatever happens, I can always self-publish." I've become just as nervous about success as failure. Walking around New York, feeling the once-familiar manic pulse of the city, I kept thinking, "Can I do this? Am I up for it? Do I still have it in me?"

Over vacation I finally got around to reading BENEDICTION by Kent Haruf, the last book in his PLAINSONG trilogy. It was just as elegant and absorbing and heartfelt as I hoped it would be. It will forever have a place among my favorite books. On a related note, my writing mentor, Richard Russo has a book coming out May 3rd, the sequel to NOBODY'S FOOL called EVERYBODY'S FOOL. I will be running out posthaste to my local bookstore to buy it. In a recent BookPage interview, Russo calls out Kent Haruf as one of his literary role models:

"He was not only a great writer, but also a great man. He went about his work with great seriousness and modesty, caring not one iota about fame or fortune, but only the work, always the work."

Great advice to live by.

You can read the full interview HERE.