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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