Monthly Archives: August 2012

Untangling the writing disconnect

Someone posted this not long ago on one of the writing sites:

How do authors like Barbara Taylor Bradford get away with writing so badly? Why does she get published and I don’t???

With all due respect, I think that’s the wrong question. I think the right question is this: despite all the less than stellar writing, what is it that makes BTB such a popular author? Looking into that question is an opportunity to see how fiction works.
This is the same thing that bugs the hell out of writers when they comment about The DaVinci Code. Jeez! Such awful writing! But the damn thing has sold 40 million copies. And now Fifty Shades of Grey (horrors!) has passed it in popularity! How do you resolve the facts with your personal standards of what makes good writing?
My suggestion asks that you change your point of view. Stop looking at the writing and investigate the storytelling. Which do you think is more important? If you answered “writing,” then in terms of popular fiction (oh, do you really want to write UNpopular fiction?), I think you might be on a questionable detour.
BTB’s latest, “Playing the Game” is on Amazon with the “look inside” feature enabled. So I read the prologue. It’s certainly not my cup of tea, but if I put on my professional/objective viewpoint, I can understand the appeal.
Quite a few people like you and me are living reasonably contented, generally mostly serene lives. Then add in the people who are downright unhappy. This adds up to a whole lot of potential audience not involved in crimes of passion (on one side or the other), high crimes and misdemeanors (ditto), or intense celebrity tomfoolery. Let me put that in plain terms: Normal life is fairly humdrum most of the time.
This is why so many people like rollercoasters and horror movies — it’s fun to be frightened (when you know you’re really safe).
I think this is a key fundamental underlying the appeal of popular fiction. Fear comes in a wide range of colors. Feelings of terror, horror, dread could be said to be at one end of the spectrum, and a lightly felt concern or vague unease at the other. At one end you have rollercoasters, horror movies and Stephen King, at the other you have Miss Marple and “cozys,” where the key description might be “gentle.” (Perhaps which genre of fear you prefer is really a measure of how much adrenaline in your system feels like “entertainment.”)
To my way of thinking fear at some level or other is one key ingredient of fiction and wish-fulfillment is another.
One way of looking at “wish-fulfillment” is envy. To the extent a protagonist arouses our admiration, we wish or dream even a little bit that we could be just a little more like him or her. Envy might be one end of the wish-fulfillment spectrum, and a vague aspiration to be a little more decisive or forthcoming might be at the other. On the one hand you have Brangelina (the most enviable twosome on the planet, according to grocery store tabloid sales) and on the other the dedicated high school teacher of “Stand By Me.” Thus the fictional appeal of characters as diverse as Agent 007 and the plucky heroine who goes up against the misguided social worker.
“Tut-tut,” Amanda said, her normally smooth brow wrinkling in consternation. “Just because Carlos has a devil tattoo, that doesn’t necessarily make him a bad boy.”
So there’s wish-fulfillment in the sense of wanting to emulate a character with some enviable (heroic) characteristics. To mirror: Anytime you watch someone else doing something (or even starting to do something), the corresponding mirror neuron might fire in your brain, thereby allowing you to “read” and understand another’s intentions, and thus to develop a sophisticated “theory of other minds.” Or, another way of putting it, you experience empathy.
Envy is one dimension of wish fulfillment, probably the most obvious, but in Freud’s view, dreams were all forms of wish-fulfillment — attempts by the unconscious to resolve a conflict of some sort (that’s from Wikipedia.)
If this theory works in fiction (maybe it doesn’t just happen in dream-dreams but in fiction-dreams as well), then perhaps whenever you have a conflict going on in your manuscript, you automatically have generated wish-fulfillment chemistry in your reader (those mirror neurons are firing). I can see how that would work. No conflict is ever absolutely even. There’s always one side we favor. And if there’s a conflict, then there’s the apprehension (fear) that the person we favor (probably the protagonist) will lose. So the wish to be fulfilled becomes the reader’s inner goal as well as the character’s story dilemma. This gives two dimensions to wish-fulfillment. One is character based (Agent 007) and the other is more story based, i.e., will Elizabeth Bennett somehow overcome the disdainful and snobbish but attractive and wealthy Miss Bingley and win the affections of the apparently arrogant but actually all-too lovable and lonely Mr. Darcy? Oh, Lord, how I wish it to be so! (Because if Elizabeth Bennett can win in this unfair competition (conflict), then maybe there’s hope for me. Especially if I can learn to be a bit more like her.)
What does all this have to do with the popularity of Barbara Taylor Bradford and the opinion some writers have of her work?
Many do like reading about wish-fulfillment characters like Annette Remington, the attractive and smart owner of famous art gallery who has just sold a Rembrandt painting (a painting she has personally restored) for twenty million pounds. Annette has a fascinating, busy life, rich with social connections to wealthy, witty, charming and famous people. Despite all these wonderful things going for her, Annette (at the end of the prologue)

“. . . leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, sinking down into the past, thinking of those early years, of all the terrible things she had buried deep because she did not want to remember them. She shivered, and goose flesh sprung up on her arms. She felt a trickle of fear run through her. So many secrets, so much to hide . . .”

Barbara Taylor Bradford sets it up with a lot of character-based wish-fulfillment, then lays out the first layer of the story question, generating story-based wish-fulfillment.
BTB has other things going for her. She has built an audience with the 26 novels she’s published. If you would like the same success, then you must wake up early and get to work about 30 years ago. Yeah, authors with that kind of track record get their books rushed into print with no quibbles because they are publishers’ cash machines.
There are a lot of people posting manuscripts at various writing sites who write pretty well, probably as well as BTB. But not that many of them are good storytellers, or, to perhaps put it in a more nuanced way, are willing to do what you have to do to become good storytellers. Often they don’t choose a protagonist and situation with sufficient reader appeal and when they do they have trouble structuring a story that generates a sufficient level of apprehension, anticipation and uncertainty.
Easy to say, not so easy to do.
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Not for everybody

An email this a.m. from a colleague referring me to an online thread with multiple posts on the use of third person vs. first person.
First person, third person, for me any argument seems silly. The writer writes it the way it seems to need to be written, and it may work for some and not for others, but that’s always the way with everything. Back in the day when I was working for a living, I soon realized that 20% of any reader group wasn’t going to like it, no matter what it was. Stand on any street corner, I would say to people, and hand out $20 bills. You’ll find 20% of the people won’t go for the offer. They’ll know there’s some nefarious scheme involved and refused to be tricked.
The tense, like other conventions in fiction, tends to disappear in direct proportion to the depth of the reader’s engagement in the story. Writing fiction is in one sense very much like a magic trick, the kind of magic that practitioners call close work, where the cards or coins or whatever seem to appear and vanish not on some distant stage, but right there under your nose, over a dinner table or standing at a bar. You can smell the magician’s aftershave, but damned if you know how the queen of hearts turned out to be the card when you were the one that did the choosing.
To someone who knows the two-handed pass, the answer is simple (isn’t the answer in both magic tricks and fiction always, more or less, simple?). The artistry is making the two-handed pass transparent, so deft it disappears. And so it is with fiction, making the story and character (always a blend as tightly wound as strands of DNA) so agile, nimble, dextrous and proficient in the telling that the language, the tense, the words and punctuation — all the elements of the two-handed pass — become transparent, disappear, and all that’s left is the effect, the magic.
It doesn’t matter how you do it, only that you stumble across the doorway, perhaps the one in the ivy-covered stone wall in the Hermann Hesse novel, the entrance to the Magic Theatre, and you step through, ignoring the warning: Not For Everybody.

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Is the bitch dead or what?

Often does a naïve tyro approach me with the age-old problem.

“Bill,” they whine, “I’m at my wit’s end. I need a title for my WIP. Something colloquial, idiomatic, with some snap to it.”

My limpid brown eyes glistening with empathy, I speak not, but simply hand them a copy of Wendy Williams’ (and in smaller type co-writer Karen Hunter’s) second novel in the Ritz Harper trilogy, “Is the Bitch Dead or What?”

When I saw it in the new release section at the library, I couldn’t resist. When I began reading, the payoff was immediate.

The first chapter opens with a third-person account from the point of view of Jacob Reese, and one of the first things I learned was, hey, if you want to highlight something, put it in caps:

(From page 2) He sat for a minute and reflected on what he had just done. He already regretted it. But it was over. He was mad at himself, but he was FURIOUS at Ritz Harper for being such a dumb bitch—such a smarmy, money-grubbing bitch—that people would gladly pay to see her dead.

It’s interesting the way Ms. Williams handles Jacob’s characterization:

He decided to do the thing he did best. He buried the thoughts he was having. Jacob was cursed with an uncanny ability to be totally delusional. He could fool himself into thinking anything he wanted. As a result, he didn’t have many friends and he hadn’t achieved anything in life.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking? Dostoyevsky passed up just this nifty characterization opportunity with Raskolnikov. Saying the dude is totally delusional and letting it go at that works much better than a bunch of philosophical blather that everyone skims past anyway—and isn’t the point more or less the same?

Being TD didn’t work out well for R., and it’s not working for Jacob, either:

(From page 3) But the fronting was wearing thin on his psyche and his wallet. A woman can tell if a man is broke—it’s in her DNA, like the mothering instinct—even if you give her all the X she can handle. Jacob had a steady supply, but not an eternal supply. One day, the keg of ecstasy would run dry, and he knew it. That was why he was desperate.

Whew! Talk about life lessons from literature! All these years I’ve been ladling out tabs of X the way a Bishop deals wafers on Easter morning, and yet that long line of babes all sensed somehow I was just an ink-stained scrivener without two dimes to rub together.

But look how Ms. Williams inserts Jacob’s problem into the story and clearly highlights it for the reader. He has shattered his own self-image by murdering the bitch, and he knows that one day his keg of X will run dry. There you have it inside three brief pages: the inner, psychological weakness, and the outer need. (Budding novelists take note.)

But Mss. Williams and Hunter do not leave it at that. Jacob Reese has a Plan. A plan is, of course, one of John Truby’s 22 points explained in his book, “Anatomy of Story.” I forget which one, exactly, but one of them.

Ms. Williams explains Jacob’s plan

(page 3): Jacob was determined to get to “the top”—whatever that meant—but he wasn’t going to get there by being on the bottom of some powerful man. He was not going to be that new bitch; he was going to scratch and claw the hard way and make it on his own. Being a new bitch in the record industry wasn’t much different from being a new inmate in a small cell on Rikers Island.

[I thought this an interesting comparison, but don’t let me interrupt the narrative flow.]

If you come into Rikers without a rep or street credibility or much muscle or hustle, or without somebody watching yur back, you are open to being eaten for lunch—literally.

Unless cannibalism is now the norm at Rikers, I think the “literally” might be misplaced. But don’t let me interrupt the narrative flow.

In the music business, if you come in new without any rep, or anybody who will stand up for you and have your back, you are subject to being the next Bentley the Butler, with an emphasis on the bent part, as in bent over and drilled in the butt by any mega rapper/rap mogul. There are lots of Bentley the Butlers in the music business, and very few of them actually get to be anything but. . . In the record industry, just like in jail, you either bend over and take it, hoping for the best, or you find another way. Jacob was determined to find that way.

Well, at that point I was hooked.

How it all turns out for Jacob, Ritz Harper and the characters in this novel? Like those poor victims taking the path that Jacob is trying to avoid, I’m hoping for the best. In the meantime, excuse me, but I’ve got a book to read

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Show and tell and the hook

It’s one of the drum beats of the online writing boards: show don’t tell.

The inner urge to set the scene, to explain, to paint a picture of the endlessly clever fantasy world you’ve just created, this impulse can be almost irresistible. Usually it’s not a great idea.

Contrary to this often-cited good advice, in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, “tell” can work and work exceptionally well.

Here’s how Maile Meloy begins the first story, “Travis, B.” in her collection “Both Ways is the Only Way I want It” (Riverhead Books, New York, 2009). The first paragraph:

Chet Moran grew up in Logan, Montana, at a time when kids weren’t supposed to get polio anymore. In Logan, they still did, and he had it before he was two. He recovered, but his right hip never fit in the socket, and his mother always thought he would die young.

The plain, Western (in the U.S. sense), flat prose of that first sentence makes it easy to read, and sets up just enough of a question in the reader’s mind (or did in mine) to keep me going. The last sentence really pulls me in. His mother always thought he would die young.

I think one of the reasons the paragraph works so well is because it doesn’t try to explain anything for the reader. It simply states the facts, doesn’t ask for any sympathy, doesn’t show anybody’s feelings. But it does make the reader feel a certain way. It makes the reader root for this crippled kid whose mother expects him to die young. You pretty much can’t help it. The characteristics the writer has shown by that paragraph are lots of restraint and a trust that if you set out the facts with no window dressing, and if you’ve got some good stuff in mind, it will work just fine. You feel like your in the hands of a writer you can trust.

But after that first paragraph, where do you (as a writer) go? Meloy keeps up the pace:

When he was fourteen, he started riding spoiled and unbroken horses, to prove to her that he was invincible. They bucked and kicked and piled up on him again and again. He developed a theory that horses didn’t kick or shy because they were wild; they kicked and shied because for millions of years they’d had the instinct to move fast or be lion meat.

The first phrase of that second paragraph jumps the reader forward ten years, answering any question of survival, and (I think this is important) letting the reader know that this isn’t one of those stories that’s going to bog down. We’re going to fly right along, the writer seems to be saying, and everything in here is essential stuff, trust me. Then the sentence goes right on with what Chet did and why he did it. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of any way to make that first sentence any more direct, any simpler or any better. The next sentence tells what happened in damn few words, and the third sentence tells us the theory Chet developed.

He’s fourteen, he’s got a bum hip, he out to prove he’s damn tough despite it and he thinks about things.

How are you not rooting for this character?

That is a hook.

The hook has the Character component: Chet, the kid we root for. It also has a good subject matter component: You’re going to get another way of looking at things from this story, viz. in the second paragraph we’re into a theory of animal behavior. And it has a third component that lets you know that this writer is not going to bore you, not going to drag things out; this writer is going to tell you only those things about Chet that are worth telling. No digressions, nothing superfluous. We’ll skip ahead ten years here and there, whatever it takes.

There’s something about the way Meloy writes about the West that particularly appeals to me because I’m a child of that country. A great-grandmother grew up in a sod house in Kansas, I was born in Spokane, went to school in Idaho, and at one time or another criss-crossed plenty of that country on two-lane road, not always paved. With nothing much to listen to on the radio, you look out at the fields that sweep away to rolling hills, sometimes to mountains, the tick of telephone poles passing, and there’s not much to see but the land fenced off with what must be a million million miles of bobwire. Sometimes the fence posts are modern painted steel. Sometimes they’re perfect smooth round wood posts. But every once in a while you come across a stretch that goes way back, with the barbed wire all rusty and sagging and pulled out of the posts to curl back against itself. The fence posts, triangular in cross-section, have been hacked out of pine logs with axes or maybe a sledge and a wedge. You can see in their twisted shapes where the limbs were cut away. That’s what Meloy’s prose reminds me of, land like that and all the effort and sweat that went into fencing it off.

Just a few more paragraphs, because they’re too good not to include:

“You mean because they’re wild,” his father had said when Chet advanced this theory.

He couldn’t explain, but he thought his father was wrong. He thought there was a difference, and that what people meant when they called a thing “wild” was not what he saw in the green horses at all.

He was small and wiry, but his hip made it hard for him to scramble out from under the horses, and he broke his right kneecap, his right foot, and his left femur before he was eighteen. His father drove him to Great Falls, where the doctors put a steel rod in his good leg from hip to knee. From then on, he walked as though he were turning to himself to ask a question.

Yes, there are damn fine story openings that use “tell.”

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A unified theory of excess baggage

Ever read the advice that whatever doesn’t move the story forward shouldn’t be there?

Here’s how it strikes me.

The Writer and the Reader

To write well, you have no choice but to be two people. You need to be the writer, W, but then on the other hand, you need to be your Typical Reader, TR. (“Your” meaning the reader you are specifically writing for.)

I know that right away some writers are going to start yammering that they are not writing for a reader at all, they are writing for THEMSELVES, they write to please themselves only, not some nimrod browsing the graphic novel shelves at Barnes & Noble. Okay, okay, okay. Do we have to go  over that ground again? Isn’t the writer, in that case, writing for the reader who is his or her ownself? And now some ink-spattered hand will go up and a young person with dandruff on his glasses and a copy of “Ectoplasm” sticking out of his bib overalls will remark that, in the interests of a more pure artistic endeavour, his goal is to write a novel that he, personally, finds completely boring and uninteresting, and this certainly disproves right from the git-go what was just said.

At this point it’s only sensible to have the sergeant at arms take the young person in question out to the courtyard, stand him up against the wall and admonish him, saving us all quite a bit of anguish. As President Obama forthrightly said in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, sometimes violence is the best way to work things out (I paraphrase).

Whispering the TR

Some writers can only be one person at a time. First they write and then some period of time later they can take the ms. out of the drawer and pretend to be the TR and start revising. Others (and I think this tends to happen, if it ever does, after lots and lots of writing) can handle both roles more or less at the same time without having the TR overwhelm and inhibit the W (generally the cause of writer’s block).

The key thing in this W-TR interaction is that the TR needs to be imperceptibly led along the narrative trail by a lead rope that (key point) always “seems to” (but doesn’t really, it’s an illusion) have some slack in it.

Did you ever read the The Man Who Listens to Horses: The Story of a Real-Life Horse Whisperer? I’m talking about Monty Roberts, not Robert Redford. Monty found that if he stood in a certain way a wild horse would amble over and stand behind his shoulder, in effect “link up” with the whisperer. Then the whisperer could walk around the corral and the wild horse would willingly follow.

That’s what good narrative does. The opening sets something in motion that generates in the reader a flicker of curiosity that causes her to want to know more about whatever it is you’ve started (the inclination to link-up, sometimes called the willing suspension of disbelief combined with a little curiosity). And then the next sentence is both responsive to that flicker of curiosity and causes the reader to be interested in . . . and yes, there it is in the next paragraph, something that satisfies the curiosity and something else the reader wants to know, and the reader thinks, “this is getting good.”

It’s when the writer does anything other than this that problems like overwriting, digressing, getting wordy, self-indulgence, purple prose, etc. crop up. These are all ways of saying “it doesn’t work for me.” The fundamental transaction that the TR desires isn’t taking place the way the TR wants it to. It’s as if the writer arbitrarily decides this is what I want to stick in at this point, or I really need to get this stuff in at this point, ignoring the prior expectations (if any) that have been set up in the TR’s mind. The TR doesn’t like this. It’s not entertaining, it starts to feel more like work than entertainment. It’s not what the TR signed up for.

When the W is acting like the horse whisperer, when the TR is being gently led through the story but isn’t aware of the lead rope much less the halter, then that’s what I think of as transparency—it’s as if the text almost isn’t even there and the TR is caught up in simply watching the story unroll in her mind’s eye.

Adverbs

The dreaded adverbs fit right into this theory.

Here’s the adverb problem:

“You have no chance with me,” she said sneeringly.

It’s as if the W doesn’t think the TR is going to quite get the right understanding just from the dialogue alone, and so tightens up the lead rope and gives the TR a jerk along the trail, causing the TR to roll his eyes. Give the TR enough jerks on the lead rope and the TR puts down the book.

That seems to me to be the fundamental process in learning to write — learning to stand in the reader’s shoes and look back at the text and see how it plays for the TR. That’s the essential skill. I know my saying this will make some writers crazy. They just cannot tolerate the notion that some nobody from nowhere is going to read their stuff and render a judgment. Of course this circles back to the writing-for-myself argument mentioned above. I have no problem with someone who wants to write only for his or her ownself. Fine, do it. But don’t go posting your manuscript on some board for others to read. The act of doing that is an admission that you are (despite your protests) writing for readers, and welcome to the cesspool along with the rest of us.

But back to the adverbs. Here’s a section taken from a published novel that is pretty amazing:

“Well,” Alma said, “we better get out of here and let him rest, whatever happens. How does it feel now?”

“Okay,” he said, “a little sore.” He could feel himself grinning sillily like he always did when he was in pain and he had to choke back a hunger to laugh.

“I’ll give you another sedative, if you want,” Alma said.

“I don’t much like them things,” he grinned sillily.

“They can’t hurt you any.”

“I couldn’t sleep anyway,” he grinned sillily. “Whynt you save them for tonight.”

“That would be the best idea,” Georgette said.

“I hate to see you in such pain,” Alma said nervously.

“Hell, this ain’t nothin,” he grinned sillily. “Lemme tell you about the time I broke my arm on the bum and dint have no dough to go to a doctor.”

“Come on,” Georgette said, “Lets get out of here and leave him alone.”

Yes, let’s leave him alone before he writes “grinned sillily” once again.

Here’s something that may surprise you: The novel in which this section appears was a run-away best-seller. Maybe more surprising: It won the National Book Award and was ranked number 62 on Modern Library’s list of Best 20th Century Novels. The movie of the novel won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture.

The book: From Here to Eternity. It’s full of adverbs.

This might lead you to consider the proposition that for a novelist, it’s not so much about the “writing” as it is about the story-telling.

Making the TR Want What You Want to Give Her

Let’s put all possible story data into two categories: there’s what you (the writer) must somehow convey to the TR so that you can get along with the next development, and then there’s what the TR wants to know.

If there’s something you want to tell the TR, it’s a good idea to take the preliminary step of making the TR want to know it. Say you want to include the description of a house, say the house is going to become a character in your story. Before you get to the description, you need to generate in the TR at least an inclination, and hopefully an interest, in reading it.

The driver slowed and turned into a long, cinder drive.

In the backseat, Anna put her hand on Phil’s leg and leaned close to whisper in his ear. “They say that every woman who has ever spent the night in the mansion had a baby nine months later.”

Phil turned to her with a raised eyebrow. “Even if she spent the night alone?”

“Even then.”

“Some Goddamn house,” Phil said.

What if you don’t want to make the house a character in the story? If it’s not a character in the story, why bother describing it? Because you want to? Because you happen to have composed a dynamite description of the house? Maybe those aren’t reasons enough.

Here’s an example in another genre:

“You think we are entirely without resources? You think we haven’t done this before, that we are virgins at extracting information?” Shevchenko grinned, the scar on his cheek livid.

“We have a mansion,” he went on, “yes, right here in the heart of Kew Gardens, quite an amazing mansion. Would you like to know why the mansion is so unusual?”

Phil flexed his wrists; the ropes were iron-hard, no give at all. He wished he were back with Anna, in that amazing, baby-making house. But he wasn’t. He’d made a wrong turn, probably a lethal wrong turn. He had to play for time; he didn’t have much of anything else to play for.

“Yeah, okay, Vladimir, what’s the big deal with the goddamn house?”

“It’s invisible,” Shevchenko said. “To all intents and purposes, it’s not there. The neighbors, the passersby — no one ever sees it. They don’t see who goes in, they don’t see who comes out. And most important, no one ever hears anything from it. It’s as if the mansion were not there at all.”

“Your full of shit,” Phil said. “You’re as full of shit as a Christmas goose.”

“Enough!” Shevchenko barked. “Throw him in the car, in the trunk this time! Don’t be gentle!”

Probably another mistake, Phil thought, rattling the Ukranian’s chain.

For both examples, the TR has been primed, and the next paragraph can begin “The mansion . . .” and the TR will be interested in reading something about this unusual house.

Not every reader “likes” every writer. There’s The Fermata by Nicholson Baker and then there’s Harry Potter. Each W has his or her own certain style, subject matter, emotional availability, the level of detail and the pace of story that suits the W’s personality and taste. That’s something that always comes across in the opening paragraphs, and if it resonates with the reader, then it does, and if not, not, and that’s what makes a horse race.

The chances are the W will write the kind of thing the W likes to read and be most successful drilling in that layer of rock. But not necessarily and not always. When the buckarooskies are on the line, when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro (as Hunter Thompson said so memorably). And down in the engine room, amid the steam pipes and junction boxes, when one gets greasy and knuckles are bleeding because the damn pipe wrench keeps slipping, if one keeps at it (and if one has no other choice) one generally finds enough interest and enthusiasm to finish the job and then feel pride at a machine that is finally made to run, in the ability to produce a well-crafted piece, even if it’s not one at the end of the day you’d prefer to have sitting on top of your marker in Westminster Abbey.

Of course, the disclaimer: none of this will help you as a writer.

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Overwriting

Here’s a question someone asked on one of the online boards:

What exactly do you mean by ‘over writing’? I’m curious: I’ve heard it said a lot, and have always suspected it as being shorthand for just not liking a writer’s style. Does it mean more flowery, too many adjectives, stuff like that? Or sentences overloaded with ideas?

I think overwriting is ubiquitous on writing sites and can refer to several causes/symptoms. Sometimes it’s the use of three descriptors where one is enough. Often it’s senseless and endless exaggeration; everything has to be the most, the biggest, the people (especially the women) beautiful beyond compare, etc. This boils down to too many adjectives and adverbs and sometimes a misperception of the audience.

Often the root cause of too many adjectives and adverbs is the writer’s desire to describe whatever it is absolutely down to a gnat’s eyebrow, so that the reader is forced—forced I tell you!—to see it just the way the writer wants it seen. Caving in to this desire is almost always a mistake. Stephen King has described this problem, and its cure, elsewhere online, so I won’t go into a lot of detail on it here. I think it’s enough to say that written narration is a pretty broad-brush medium. The writer only needs to get things down generally, often just to indicate rather than describe, and each reader’s mind’s eye will supply (and apply) the specifics. Exposition is almost always overdone—too much of it too specifically gone into. A good example of how little exposition is needed is No Country for Old Men. Just pick it up and start reading from the beginning (or read the Look Inside pages on Amazon) and notice how little exposition there is and how you don’t miss it at all.

But overwriting, its causes and cures, can be more complicated. When reading someone’s manuscript, it’s difficult to separate out what is consciously intentional from what just happens to arrive at the point at which the writer needed something, i.e., what’s more toward the unintentional vs. the on-purpose end of the spectrum. What I mean by that is what’s written down in full awareness and what comes from habit, the writer’s more-or-less unexamined proclivities and tendencies, and we all have them. What I think I’ve learned about writing fiction is that until one becomes aware of it, the basics of the writer’s personal behavior patterns often get superimposed on the characters and their interactions without the writer really being too much consciously aware of it. I think this is particularly true of the writer’s personal modes of handling emotional issues and behavior. Maybe there are two issues involved. One is the writer’s lack of awareness that this is what he’s doing—how do I relate to people in the real world and do I relate to my characters the same way? Then there is the situation for writers who haven’t yet reached a point where they’ve got their characters over there in another part of their mind where they are characters and not in some sense “the writer” in another guise. Of course, in another sense, everyone and everything must be by definition part of the writer (since it all comes out of his/her mind). Down this path lies endless back and forth, and I’m not going there; you know what I mean. Of course they’re all you, but when you’re more experienced (hardened? deft? facile? schizophrenic?), not that much you.

Maybe the root causes can be a lack of confidence in the writing and a lack of understanding how fiction works its magic in the mind of the reader. Getting this right is for a lot of people probably a pretty intuitive thing, but I don’t think it has to be kept at that level. I would contend that the more conscious you make the process the better the writer you’ll be. Here’s a snippet of scene (a re-write by me of someone else’s purposefully bad example):

“You’ve got to be kidding,” the hooker said.
They stood on the corner, a light drizzle turning the midnight streets to inky blackness.
“You’ve got a freaking beard down to your bellybutton, and you want me to do what to you?” She laughed. “You are one sick dude!”

Take just the phrase: a light drizzle made the streets an inky blackness. A true-life fact: this is pretty far from being an accurate description of how a dark, asphalt street really looks in a light rain. But what I was consciously aware of when I wrote it was that all I needed was a rough brushstroke or two that would get the idea across, because the picture it generates in the reader’s mind is a  memory of all those wonderful movie shots where they have wetted down the streets beforehand because it makes them look so cool and dramatic. No one’s mind’s eye sees a real street; everyone imagines the movie image, which is so much better.

What the opposite of overwriting? I think a lot of the art of writing well is to stay what could be called “below the line.” By this I mean restrain yourself in the writing (or in the editing) process so that you allow the reader to bring his/her own images and associations to what you’re doing. In the most powerful writing, the connections occur in the reader’s mind. If you’d like more examples of how to do it, I always suggest finding a copy of “Lie Down in Darkness,” William Styron’s first novel. It is filled with such an abundance. I just picked it up and flopped it open and here’s what I saw on page 126:

“Wait, no!” she began. “As God is my witness—”
But only watched those smooth young wanton legs, limp-kneed, moving across the lawn, and into the house. Milton sitting spraddle-legged in his chair, glass in hand, turning lazily to see Peyton disappear beyond the door, his red neck swelling, enlarging as Helen approached on the run, digging in with her heels past the lawn chair.

Not a lot of words to create an indelible impression of a rather complicated bit of business. And don’t you just love those young wanton legs? Maybe that’s an intersection of prose and poetry. And don’t you see Milton spraddle-legged, glass in hand, turning lazily, his red neck swelling? You don’t need to have clarified just how drunk he is. Of course, “Lie Down in Darkness” is probably unique in the annals of American fiction; it’s certainly one of a kind so far as I know. I’m unaware of any modern English-language novel that’s as richly layered.

What, you haven’t read it? You should do that right away.

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The language of story

Our local art house/foreign film theatre used to run a trailer that had a line narrated voice-over in several languages, concluding with a woman with a fake British accent: “The language of fil-um is universal.”

(A fil-um is something quite distinct from and far superior to a mere movie.)

Whenever we went to this theatre I always made fun of the trailer, the logo line, saying it in my awful Indian accent, my terrible Irish accent, my appalling English accent, and sometimes, if I timed it right, catching her a little by surprise, getting a derisive laugh, or at least a smile, from my wife.

And then this morning I realized, all kidding aside, that’s it’s actually true. More than true. Yes, the language of film is universal. But it’s not the language of film that’s universal, it’s the language of storytelling.

The language of storytelling works below the level of spoken or written language. At its most fundamental, it only requires a few gestures and a surprisingly simple music track. And the music track is probably optional.

You can see for yourself how it works if you happen to have the right laboratory available for the experiment. My test subject is a chubby female age eleven months named Avery. Experimental conditions often take place during her noon meal, when she is sitting in her high chair with the tray before her waiting impatiently for lunch. The story begins when the narrator taps the fingernails of two fingers on the tray in front of her, and the two fingers begin marching this way and that, just a few small steps, accompanied by a little “toot toot toot” marching music. The musical quality of the tune doesn’t seem to matter. But I do like my stories to have what we professionals call production values, so I softly breathe a little cheerful tune that provides a mood and a rhythm for the marching fingers.

Avery’s attention immediately fastens on those two fingers. Throughout the rest of the story, her attention stays fixed; never once does she look up at me “breaking the fourth wall” as they say. This gives additional depth to Henry James’s “willing suspension of disbelief.”

Clearly the suspension of disbelief is not merely willing. It is abject surrender. Even that, I think, doesn’t go far enough. It seems to be simply lapsed into, it is attention given in a relaxed state. After all, seeing a movie, reading a book, these are forms of relaxation, aren’t they?

The marching fingers seem to bring the immediate appeal of entertainment. Or certainly that far end of the entertainment spectrum that starts with diversion; something at least barely more than nothing.

The fingers march for a moment then approach one of Avery’s hands resting on her tray. With a little hop they are on her hand and marching up her arm. She doesn’t move as this happens, yet somehow I can feel her excitement grow, the dramatic tension heightens, she almost seems to vibrate. This is it! And suddenly the fingers borrow beneath her arm and she wiggles and laughs. The fingers withdraw and Avery looks up at the writer-producer-director and bestows her version of a bouquet of roses. Her look clearly says please, shall we do it again?

And so it goes, the same basic play with a variation here or there, again and again.

And now comes the boring part, the theory.

I think the little playlet works because it recreates in a safe way the fundamental fear that even an eleven-month-old child has of the near approach of an unusual creature of some kind. The immediate situation has an element of fear, yet overall it is safe, for certainly Avery can see that the fingers are attached to Grandpa.

I think the basis for “story” is no more complicated than this. I also think at the same time it is just this profound.

It’s fundamental. It’s pre-language, it’s in-born. It’s anticipation mingled with uncertainty.

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