Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Literary Honeymoon: An ICP Workshop

"The longing for a good story ... the want to care about the characters & concept … the desire to believe and be on the Author's side … such is every reader's dream; The ideal honeymoon after the commitment both bought and paid for with time, money, and interest."

This day and age, we all know how hard each are to come by, let alone all three together! Its no wonder why its so short-lived. What may be a week or two at the very best, maritally speaking, lasts between a writer and a reader only about two pages to two chapters at best. 

Orson Scott Card suggests most intriguingly – from the book the notes for this Blog has been adapted – that within this uncertain window of opportunity, the reason to read on must be presented by answering three fundamental questions all readers come armed and ready with. Those being: “So what?”, “Oh yeah?” and the initial, universal favorite of “Huh?”, which are pondered repeatedly in the subconscious when making the leap to read any written material.

What's happening and does it make sense?
What is being talked about, and what messages does it have to offer?
Whereabouts does this all take place and to what point and purpose does it add up?

Choosing this one of the three to start off with, again, because it is the universally initial reaction on so many levels. The minute I read on it, that visual of walking the aisles in Barnes & Noble, Walmart, or your local supermarket leaped to mind … where you skid to a stop at a certain book cover & title that immediately makes you go “Hmm”. We've all done it, or at least I'm sure I have. Sadly, it goes even deeper than that and the above. Especially in this Economy. These days it seems you need cover art to die for, a killer review, and a synopsis to slap on it just to get anyone to spend their money. But does the battle end once you've gotten someone to contribute to your writer fund? I can hear all the minds in the business already sounding in perfect harmony at the very question … the ones who want to really make a name for themselves and not just a quick buck, all crying back at me now with a big: Hell No!   That's because they know better, enough to vouch for this when its said: the war is only just beginning.

Get the readers to buy, that's all well and good … but the minute they realize they've bought a bunch of crap wrapped between two covers, it's goodbye career! Such is where all the contained principle inquiries come in handy during what I've coined the I-C-P process … and for those like me who are terrified of clowns, don't worry, that's not what stands for. In this case it is Invention-Construction-Performance. In order to paint a purpose portrait that is essential and accurate in response to this initial inquiry, the four factors of a solid story should be acknowledged and presented in detail as much as possible … especially to book-cover judges. The Milieu, The Idea, The Characters, and Events – also easily remembered all together as the “MICE Quotient” (of which I will be blogging about separately in more detail) – as overlapping ingredients that must be woven into any story worth telling. It is the balance between each that will determine how your story will be interpreted, and thus is what every story pitch must and should be based upon when shaping the story.

From there, the hopes for the recipe is that all sense becomes evident and not just an acquired taste. Sure, our stories make sense to us as the writers, but the trick is to incorporate such sense into the lives of others we've never even met. My conclusion? Just another realization. You don't have to be psychic, religious, nor any sort of moral or political figurehead to find the use in universal concepts as relate to any and all walks of life are concerned; from ethics, politics, the very primal desires of mankind, and overall realistic principles already impacting lives. And if that fails, just living the sort of tried-&-true life that many more can certainly relate to will play a part in determining such story-morals and how to deliver them to your audiences on a platter suitable for their tastes. Either way, the saying still stands testament: “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” ~ Ben Franklin.

So What?”
What makes this story so important?
What makes it better than what's on TV?
If its been done & seen before, what makes it unique or worth my precious time? 

The quintessential question of what readers should care about and why they should care at all. As a writer, I can confess that what makes any of my stories worth writing is their persistence upon my very head & heart. The way each concept and character looms overhead whether I'm awake or dreaming, constantly hounding me to where it gets more impossible to deny myself putting it down on paper and screen every chance I get. Yet, in reading this through the course of my studies, it occurs to me that this alone is a selfish urge … not enough of a means to expect readers to empathize or even understand, especially if they are not writers, but only the flock seeking the needed escape that makes us what we are. Realizing this makes me want to dig deeper, to root out what makes my story such a phantom, leaving me to never know rest until I grant it fruition. In turn, as I expect was the point of Orson's tutelage, I find myself now the seeker within the very quest I've created. Hunting for that pivotal viewpoint – of which eludes often in the flux of the birthing process – and cling to it like a crutch worthy of pinning my hopes upon … that all readers may satisfy themselves with.

But, how then does one make readers care, against all doubts, about what they are reading? Well, that just goes against all logic and is plain silly to even dwell on such a thought … the cardinal rule being you can't make people do a GD thing. In this case, Orson suggests simply thus: As the #1 audience of the story the Author must be unbiased in their belief and gut-inspired interest in the tale and its characters, in order to make the essential demands of materials needed to answer all questions and sustain the hunger to tell the story. In that, other readers will find the hunger to read it. Belief, emotional involvement, and understandability is what it takes to harmonize with all readers even if they are not satisfied with the overall picture. Such is their choice – and, so long as you let them have it, you've done your duty to essential expectation.

Oh Yeah?”
How does the Author know what they are talking about?
What could possibly motivate anyone to do what they are doing in this story?
Is that the way things work in the realm of the pages?
What evidence suggests it's not just convenient, or does the writer think readers dumb enough not to notice?

It goes without saying that one should only ever write about what they know, the same as one would (or should) never talk about something without knowing … this only making it easy for others to determine just how full of shit you are. After all, being a writer is about saying what only we can say, as Barbara Kingsolver said best: “Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer.” So, now you're writing, and you are confident on what you are writing about with all your knowledge of the subject matter … but now what? Can wringing the truth from the story be enough of a persuasion to bank upon? I'm willing to cash-in on Orson's way of setting everything to the measuring scale, as every element of fiction writing has its pros as well as its cons. Wringing The Truth is critical, not just to solidly get the story’s point across even to those who already agree, but to leave little to no room for logical dispute from those who disagree or beg to differ. A story only works when it does not seem like propaganda or “preaching to the choir”. It has to be fair on BOTH sides simply because everyone thinks they're right in a fight. The solution? The term: “Secret's in the sauce” leaps to mind … as within the depth of the inquiry and its various questions does the answer present itself.

Though vaguely suggested in the question, it swiftly becomes evident that even characters must face-off against such interrogations from the audience; for the one thing readers know for sure is that stories are about people and all that they do and are faced with. Just as was established, the one thing a writer should know for sure is that it's the reader's right and luxury to decide for themselves what meaning they can take from it all. With all that considered, Orson suggests the best tactical approach a writer can take is to assure that character roles satisfy these pursuits and further inspire readers to drive for meaning from the story as it unfolds. By completely inventing characters, many unnecessary disputes can be avoided and instead bring more of the audience over to your side. Just as we deny lies by seeking and speaking the truth, authors accomplish this by manipulating characters to convey the absolute truth of their idea through their own eyes; becoming symbols while maintaining a non-obvious reason for doing so. Just as reasons like this make characters come alive, the same breath-of-life into your story as a whole can come from the combination of the answers you get from asking all the aforementioned questions. So, emphasis on Combos! And all with irresistible twists that do not make it easy for ANYONE – not characters, nor readers or critics, and especially not the writer – to take for granted. Making such a habit of interrogating yourself as your own worst critic, in addition to interrogating your own characters as the storyteller – and answering all these question every time they arise – is to show readers you care enough to be prepared. As so should readers be prepared for the answers … especially when certain answers are nothing short of a game of Hide-and-Seek.

When in doubt: Make your own riddles, right? Ah, the insatiable thrill of fighting fire with fire … who can resist? Writers have been doing it for centuries. We keep our secrets and feed our readers only scraps of clues and explanations along the way, just enough to bribe them for their trust and interest. Yet, even while revealing too much to readers early on can be the downfall of every story, the reverse is always true. Withholding too much could put you at risk all the same, enough to violate all your efforts in satisfying all three inquiries against your creations. The more adequate the answers, the more the story will be read. If unanswered or not clarified well enough, doubts will arise and cloud over the story. Making sure there is no confusion – not even while keeping the suspense – by deeming all uncertainty as necessary, thereby readers know what is intended and trust you enough to wait for the delivery of clarity. Where answers do not come swiftly to quell confusion, assumption and accusation are quick to fill the void … it will be assumed that the author has no answers, knows nothing and writes anything he wants with no care for benefit-of-the-doubt where the intelligence of readers is concerned and easily insulted.  

Let's agree, chances usually are, readers come a little too-well prepared. To where the story becomes predictable and ends for such readers before they ever near the final page. As Edwin Schlossberg stressed:The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.” This requires – in order to avoid cliches – avoiding settling on the very first answers you think to riddle these mysteries out with. After all, that is a primary evaluation that has been used by wunderkind for ages in order to find meaning and purpose for the course of their own lives. Preventing the easy connecting of the unconnected can sometimes be achieved by simply wondering and comparing premeditated ideas with progress results as you go along. Presenting riddles by remembering sources from long ago that you did not even realize were there and relevant. Just as one can get ideas for a writing a story can one get ideas from the writing of the story, itself, upon which to base these heavy decisions. Through this will you not only fill a reader with wonderment, but find answers you would not have otherwise even seen as possible beforehand … as will your readers probably not even see it coming. 

Some Honeymoon, huh? Safe to say finally: Its a constant tactical battle, requiring constant vigilance against where your defenses as a writer fall short … where evidence is lacking, and what it takes to fill in the Swiss-cheese holes suggesting convenience and predictability. The objective remains not to make money, but to make a difference by facing readers with a reality money cannot buy. With the hope our truth-telling will make of the world a better place and people within it. Thus, to guarantee ideas will amount to the fulfillment of this objective: Always ask questions!