Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Mary McFarland Author - Official Blog: The Best How-to Writing Advice You'll Ever Receive...

Mary McFarland Author - Official Blog: The Best How-to Writing Advice You'll Ever Receive...: Why Do Writers Seek Validation Outside Ourselves? When you write, do you become paralyzed ...

The Best How-to Writing Advice You'll Ever Receive

Why Do Writers Seek Validation Outside Ourselves?

When you write, do you become paralyzed listening to your critique partner's, your beta readers', your editor's advice?  Do you scour the Internet for "how to" advice on writing?  Then you try the how-to instead of writing?  It doesn't work, so you don't write, or you polish a paragraph until it screams, while the rest of your novel goes unfinished? 

You repeat these negative patterns, over and over and over, imagining you've got all the time in the world to build a writing career.  No one's watching: I'll spend the day polishing this sentence if I want to.

Why?  Why do we look outside ourselves for ways to overcome our fear of accepting ourselves as we are and simply letting go and then writing? There are more reasons than time here, but in The 7 Deadly Fears of Writing, explained on, a few are mentioned.  They include:

  • Rejection
  • Inadequacy
  • Success
  • Exposing Yourself
  • Only One Book
  • Too Old to Write
  • Fear of Research

There are, in addition to the infinite blog posts on this subject, books and doctoral dissertations ad infinitum.  I'm not implying you shouldn't try to discover new or better processes for writing.  Au contraire.  Part of my journey to becoming a better writer has been looking at all the how-to advice out there, and then choosing what works for me.

Are You a Fearful Writer?

I used to be so anal that I'd clench up when I sat down to write a new scene.  I'd spend days applying a new piece of how-to advice to every scene I wrote, but then--after I'd spent a year writing my novel--I'd decide: it's not good enough.  Worse, I'd shop my gem at writing conferences trolled by agents looking for emerging authors, then I'd go apoplectic if they didn't seem to love it. I'd sapped my creative spirit for a year, after all, and I'd done precisely what the latest how-to said I should. Why wasn't anyone wanting my novel?

Let Go: Write Fearlessly?

In Writing Fearlessly: An Exercise in Letting Go, Nanci Panuccio provides advice she gained from F. Scott Fitzgerald.  "The more vulnerable we allow ourselves to be on the page, the more universal we are." 

What does it mean to allow ourselves to be vulnerable on the page?  

Great question.  For me, it's much deeper than being vulnerable only on the page. I had to re-evaluate my whole writer's ethic.  Where was my "vulnerability" hiding?  Why couldn't I let myself go and be totally honest with readers--and with myself?  What was hiding inside my creative spirit blocking me?    

Oooooooo!  Those are tough questions, aren't they?  Let's return to Men with Pens and the 7 Deadly Fears.  Yes, there's fear of rejection, of exposing ourselves on the page.  There's also the fear that what we write will be deemed inadequate (where in hell does that come from?) by readers.  

If you and I stop and think about it, there's a whole world of fear buried inside us.  It keeps us from being vulnerable with readers.  Show me a writer who denies this: I'll show you a liar.  Basically, however, if we could marry Men with Pens to Nanci Panuccio, we'd be on to something.  Let's couple our fear with our crippling need to let go and be vulnerable.  To write.  To listen to our muse.  Then let's get to the bottom line: how do we let go and write fearlessly?  

I disagree with just about everyone on "how" this is to be done.  Panuccio says, "Free associate." And further, "Don't judge what comes up on the page.  Don't control it.  Don't worry about chronology, or even if scenes and fragments relate in any way.  Allow emotional significance to dictate what flows onto the page.  Trust it."

That works for a brainstorming session, but when we get down to writing several novels a year, I don't see that working, not even for a first draft.  The issue is time.  There's no time to go back and revise several hundred--or thousand--pages of "free-write."  

It's not just time, either, that prevents professional fiction writers from free-writing.  I'm going way-way out on a limb here, but hey! it's my limb.  I'm owning it.  Readers love us--if we're lucky--but they're reading for narcissistic reasons.  Pleasure.  To connect with a favorite character.  To Relax. Who knows?  They're not worrying about whether or not we've shrank ourselves enough to be "vulnerable" on the page.  If we are, they'll pick that up, anyway.  If we're not: same deal.  They'll know.  What they're doing is looking out for number one: themselves and their interests as readers.

Build Your Pitcher, Then Pour Yourself In

This is the part where I offer you--tough love.  Fiction writing is the toughest gig on this planet. You're competing with the best--and worst authors--on Amazon, the clock's ticking, and readers are jumping from book-to-book like fleas on a dog's back.  So you better build a pitcher, i.e., a scene (or chapter or plot), into which you can expertly pour your words--and emotion--without having to go back and revise extensively.

There's myriad ways to construct your pitcher, metaphorically speaking, your scene or chapter, so pick what works for you and then own it.  Once you've got your pitcher, pour your soul into it.  Ignore everyone.  Everyone.  This, again, isn't an invitation to free-write.  Within the structure of a scene, you can free your voice and pour with abandon.  Make no mistake, however, even the pantsers know you've got to have a vessel to fill before you can let go and write like the crazy gifted mad woman you truly are.

I'll be demonstrating my "structure and pour" how-to in an upcoming workshop at the Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia Writers (KYOWA) in Russell, Kentucky on April 29, 20176.  Here's the link:   I'll offer a free PowerPoint and PDF version of my "how to" workshop on freeing your inner voice and adding suspense to your work.  To get your copy, find me on Facebook at and message me.

Works Cited

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Do Your Characters Poop?

Do Your Characters Poop?

Create Interesting Characters, Not Brooding Turnoffs?

In 8 Ways to Write Better Characters, author Elizabeth Sims realizes, looking back on her first manuscript, that its shortcoming was "poor character development." Sims says of her characters, "The kids just don't pop."  I, being half blind, read, "The kids just don't poop."

Elizabeth, of course, didn't say "poop," but take a moment and think about it: how anal retentive were you being when you developed your characters?  Did you bedevil them with a mish-mash of personality traits--all narrowly detailed or imbalanced--that made your emotionally troubled characters unlikable?

Let's not go into your characters' potty training--or yours.  Rather, let's ask simply if your characters lack that certain je ne sais quoi that makes them interesting despite brooding minds and personality flaws. Think Professor Humbert, who obsesses over twelve-year old Dolores Haze. He's a sicko, but we can't quit reading Lolita.  Rhett Butler is also a personality many women today would find over-bearing, yet frankly, he and Professor Humbert are both fascinating.

Since Lolita and Gone With the Wind, characters have grown more "over the top," "edgy," and "dark," but they've grown--in Freudian parlance--less in-your-face emotionally, less raw and real (in my opinion).  However, they're still beautiful memorable misfits that pop for readers.  Think of the Bella Swans and Edward Cullens, the Anastasia Steeles and Christian Greys.  Do they not have those ineffable personalities readers enjoy so much they speak of them like family? 

Leverage Your Characters' Group or "Power Dynamic"

How easy is it to develop a Professor Humbert, a Rhett Butler, or a Christian Grey?  How can you make your darkly brooding or disagreeable characters pop? As Sims points out, there are many things you can do, but one tip among the eight she offers, which I find helpful, is her idea of leveraging the group. We're "students of human nature," says Sims, so shrinking our characters and analyzing their group dynamic is both necessary and fun.  Thus, we need to pay attention to what our characters do in groups.  I immediately thought of Lord of the Flies.

The key, however, isn't just analyzing group behavior.  You must leverage it, us it to enhance and develop your characters' personalities.  Sims identifies three works that "[ . . . ] use group dynamics to gripping effect," and then lists Richard Hughes' A High Wind in Jamaica, Kathryn Stockett's The Help, and David Mamet's play, Glengarry Glen Ross.  Sims breaks down the inter-relationships and how each contributes to making the characters more likable and dynamic.

In a previous post, Fouc U 101: Using Foucault to Enhance Characters' Power Dynamic, I also show how you can analyze and use your characters' power dynamic, basically by dismissing your inner narcissist and avoiding the use of descriptive narrative as a mode.  In this and future posts, I'll be providing more "how to" tips on using your characters' power dynamic to develop your characters.

Helpful Links

McFarland, Mary H.  Fouc U 101: Using Foucault to Enhance Characters' Power Dynamic
Sims, Elizabeth:

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Fouc U 101: Using Foucault to Enhance Characters' Power Dynamic

Fouc U! 101: Using Foucault to Enhance Characters' Power Dynamic

What Readers Want

We're readers with individual tastes and needs, yes, but we're all on the hunt for that one novel.  We open it, start to read, and hallelujah!  We hear an angelic chorus, and we instantly know: this is no work of modest vocal force.  It's the one.  Yes, it's the big Messiah.  We don't just hear the words, but we also sense the author's fidelity to characters' moods, intentions, and motivations: we feel it. Reading thus becomes an ecstatic experience that seduces us, pulls us into the story and bonds us with the work's composer.  There's no greater experience in the realm of reading pleasure--none.  It's addicting.  We crave it.

The Near-Sensual Experience

Why?  Why do writers ignore the chance to create this near-sensual experience and, of more importance, why do we cheat ourselves of the chance to write stories that build pleasurable emotional bonds with our readers?  Many reasons, perhaps.  I've struggled to infuse my stories with this force, the force that makes characters' lives and personalities come alive, the force that grabs us by our souls' heels and makes us rise (pun intended), as King George II did when he heard Handel's Messiah, and cry out joyfully.  I can think of one reason indulged religiously by most writers, and it's as natural to us as breathing.  It's our desire to narrate as narcissist, rather than studying our characters' power dynamic and then articulating it with the emotional depth readers need and long for.

Whoa!  That's a mouthful.  Yup.  I'm not dumbing this down.  You've got to do your homework, which means immersing yourself in Foucault 101 (see link at bottom).  Don't like the idea?  Yeah, Fouc U, too.

The Magic Formula

I'm a writer (technical writer) by profession, with an extensive background in the software industry and, of late, a struggling fiction writer.  Thus, I automatically search for some formula I can hand you and say, "Here it is. Follow this, and readers will love your story." 

There is no magic formula for anything in fiction writing.  On the other hand, I've found a way of exorcising my narcissist, while narrating with passion (hallelujah!) and emotional depth my readers want.  It's based on my beta readers' response to my present WiP, a literary erotica (out-of-category romance) couched in a suspense plot.  It's called Damage, and it is shaped by my immersion in studying Foucault's power dynamic as it relates to text and subtext

The Event Horizon

As I said, exorcise your narcissist.  Tell her, "Be gone!"

Your story isn't about you: it's a composition, the same as Handel's Messiah, and it's got to reach your audience's "event horizon," a Foucault phrase.  In the most basic sense (Foucault is impossible to deconstruct definitively), but from my perception developed during my graduate studies, it's the point where readers' emotional core engages irrevocably with your story's text (and, especially, it's subtext).  Less literally, it means the "cosmic vault from which there is no return" (Görgün, Sevova).

So step one in reaching readers' event horizon is realizing: I'm not writing for me.  I'm writing to interact with my readers.  I'm creating emotional performance art.  I'm writing so readers can feel my characters' power dynamic, and that in response, my readers' will interact emotionally with my characters and their passion will be stirred.

Easy for me to say, isn't it?

The Poison of Reader-Character Interaction

The poison of writing that incites passionate reader-character interaction is descriptive narrative, simply describing what happened between characters and when.  When you do this, you ignore the potential to create a reader-character power dynamic.  All that remains is your own narcissistic interaction with your text and, some would say, your ego. 

It's habit, like breathing, and it's difficult to consciously analyze that we're doing it as we write.  The good news?  We don't have to.  There are infinite points in our novels where we can stop, go back, or move forward for a look-see and say, "Oh, wow, this is the point where my protags switched power lanes."  For example, in Damage, my WiP, Madison Warner finally gets it that her former lover's suicide made her needy in her present relationship.  At that point, I could have simply narrated and described her reaction.  Instead, I analyzed her power dynamic with Bale Buckwalter.  How do I want Madison to wield--or not--her newfound power?  What will Bale do in response, and why?  How does the couple's relationship pivot--or not--on the alteration in their power dynamic?

After my analysis, I carefully avoided narrative description as my writing mode, choosing instead other tropes to support the scenes' and my readers' emotional demands in ways that stimulate beyond the limits of narrative description.

Performing this type of power-dynamic analysis opens infinite ways to create scenes that excite readers, or enable us to return to old scenes and ask, How might I make this scene more emotionally satisfying for readers?

One Interpretation of Foucault's Power Dynamic

Doctoral candidates have built careers studying Foucault.  Today, he's viewed as anachronistic, but we can still learn a lot about passionate writing from the master of deconstruction.  In his dissertation on Foucault's power dynamic, Doctor Sergiu Bălan, with the Institute of Philosophy and Psychology, Bucharest, points out what we writers neglect, and that is the idea that power dynamics are not uni- or even bilateral.  They're organic and alive, and further, individuals are conduits of power, not passive recipients.  

My understanding of Foucault's power dynamic has helped me create and tweak my characters' power dynamics in Damage, and further, it has helped me get the intensely passionate reaction at this point, which I'm seeking from beta readers.  

Bălan, in "M. Foucault's View on Power Relations," sums it up as follows: 

Usually, power is understood as the capacity of an agent to impose his will over the will of the powerless, or the ability to force them to do things they do not wish to do. In this sense, power is understood as possession, as something owned by those in power. But in Foucault's opinion, power is not something that can be owned, but rather something that acts and manifests itself in a certain way; it is more a strategy than a possession: Power must be analyzed as something which circulates, or as something which only functions in the form of a chain . . . Power is employed and exercised through a netlike organization . . . Individuals are the vehicles of power, not its points of application.

Helpful Links