Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category
There are many reasons — many more than five — that I’ll keep reading your story.
But there are also at least as many reasons I won’t.
(For example: He had nothing in the way of a like God-concept, and at that point maybe even less than nothing in terms of interest in the whole thing; he treated prayer like setting an over-temp according to a box’s direction. Thinking of it as talking to the ceiling was somehow preferable to imagining talking to Nothing. And he found it embarrassing to get down on his knees in his underwear, and like the other guys in the room he always pretended his sneakers were like way under the bed and he had to stay down there a while to find them and get them out, when he prayed, but he did it. — David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest)
Here, then, in no particular order, are five reasons I will:
1. You can sustain a long sentence.
I like long sentences that sing. I always have. It’s become cliche these days to talk about “simplicity in writing” and “clarity is king” and so forth — and it’s incontestably true that clarity is the principle thing: you must make yourself understood. But in delicate hands, long sentences are the opposite of unclear: they are the very acme of clarity. Here’s an example:
“If it made any real sense — and it doesn’t even begin to — I think I might be inclined to dedicate this account, for whatever it’s worth, especially if it’s the least bit ribald in parts, to the memory of my late, ribald stepfather, Robert Agadganian, Jr.” — J.D. Salinger, De Daumier Smith’s Blue Period
A writer who can sustain a long sentence is a writer who thinks clearly.
2. You’ve given me something to fret over
You’ve established a series of obstacles that in reason interest readers, and you’ve doled that information out gradually, feeding it to readers step-by-step, in a way that keeps us hungry for more. The obstacles your characters encounter are not inconsequential or meaningless obstacles — i.e. your lead character’s biggest conflict is not what color she should paint her nails — but you’ve instead asked yourself: are my characters’ values important enough for readers to fret over?
3. Your plot shows your inexhaustible imagination
Plot — true plot — is difficult. It’s plausible but unpredictable. It presents a sequence of events that progresses logically and builds toward a climax. Note that: your plot should build. It can build slowly, as in Anna Kerenina, or quickly, as in Raiders of the Lost Ark. This means, among other things, that your plot culminates in a climax. Climax is the point at which your plot brings together all the major elements of your story and then explodes. Good plots are not action alone. They are an integration of action and ideas. Good plots do not just raise questions. They raise questions and answer them, which in turn raises more questions which are in turn answered, and so on. That is partially what I mean when I say that plot is “a sequence of events that progresses logically yet unpredictably.” Good plots, through a process of satisfying your curiosity and then piquing it more, keep you wondering. They hook you and reel you in. “Good plots stem from characters under adversity,” wrote Crawford Killian.
4. Your story is about something
This means you’ve woven meaning into your story. (This, incidentally, is one of the many links between literature and philosophy.) That meaning can be purely historical, like Gone With the Wind, or it can be abstract, like Bladerunner. It can be a basic love story with a road plot, like Wild at Heart, or a love story with a horror plot, like House of Leaves. It is, in any case, a story about something — a story that appeals to things real within the body of the human experience, or “the human heart,” to use Faulkner’s beautiful phrase.
5. Your characters are believable AND remarkable
Readers like reading about exceptional people. We’re fascinated by antagonists like Hannibal Lecter and Mr. Frost, who are infernal but formidable, wicked but outstanding.
Readers are equally or more fascinated by protagonists like Sherlock Holmes or Ellen Ripley, who are rarified but entirely human.
Yet it’s difficult to create believable characters like this.
Part of the trick is to develop a storyline (i.e. plot) that can showcase your characters’ virtues and vices. (It is in this sense that I refer to plot as a vehicle.)
Another part of the trick is to be able to show your characters’ motivation. In a real sense, the process of creating memorable characters is nothing more — or less — than showing what motivates them. This means that you know your characters inside and out, every bit as much as you know, for example, the human heart.
“Do not start a story with the protagonist waking up,” says Joe Konrath. But with him here — as with so many other things — I must demur.
Konrath’s peevish list of proscriptions came to my attention recently via Radical Roz Morris, who wrote about another preposterous notion Mr. Konrath (along with many others) has that you should never begin your story with weather.
As it happens, one of my favorite openings in all of literature comes from The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles.
That novel beautifully begins like this:
He awoke, opened his eyes. The room meant very little to him; he was too deeply immersed in the non-being from which he had just come. If he had not the energy to ascertain his position in time and space, he also lacked the desire. He was somewhere, he had come back through vast regions from nowhere; there was the certitude of an infinite sadness at the core of his consciousness but the sadness was reassuring, because it alone was familiar. He needed no further consolation. In utter comfort, utter relaxation he lay absolutely still for a while, and then sank back into one of the light momentary sleeps that occur after a long, profound one. Suddenly he opened his eyes again and looked at the watch on his wrist. It was purely a reflex action, for when he saw the time he was only confused. He sat up, gazed around the tawdry room, put his hand to his forehead, and sighing deeply fell back onto the bed. Now he was awake….
But there’s yet another beginning I found almost equally beautiful, from the moment I first saw it, which was relatively recently, and that, perhaps, is at least in part why I’m writing about this subject now — because I’ve been thinking so much about how I liked this opening.
Watch the following clip, which is very brief:
This is from the 2001 movie Monster’s Ball, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Heath Ledger, and Halle Berry. It’s a movie about racism — or, more specifically, about one man overcoming his deeply rooted racism — and whether you liked the movie or not, whether you thought the movie succeeded or not, that opening is a deftly done symbol of a man waking up at last.
Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
The force and originality involved in the primary spasm of inspiration is directly proportional to the worth of the book the author will write. At the bottom of the scale a very mild kind of thrill can be experienced by a minor writer, noticing, say, the inner connection between a smoking factory chimney, a stunted lilac bush in the yard, and a pale-faced child; but the combination is so simple, the threefold symbol so obvious, the bridge between the images so well-worn by the feet of literary pilgrims and by cartloads of standard ideas, and the world deduced so very like the average one, that the work of fiction set into motion will be necessarily of modest worth.
On the other hand, I would not like to suggest that the initial urge with great writing is always the product of something seen or heard or smelt or tasted or touched during a long-haired art-for-artist’s aimless rambles.
Although to develop in one’s self the art of forming sudden harmonious patterns out of widely separate threads is never to be despised, and although, as in Marcel Proust’s case, the actual idea of a novel may spring from such actual sensations as the melting of a biscuit on the tongue or the roughness of a pavement underfoot, it would be rash to conclude that the creation of all novels ought to be based on a kind of glorified physical experience. The initial urge may disclose as many aspects as there are temperaments and talents; it may be the accumulated series of several practically unconscious shocks or it may be an inspired combination of several abstract ideas without a definite physical background.
But in one way or another the process may still be reduced to the most natural form of creative thrill — a sudden, live image constructed in a flash out of dissimilar units which are apprehended all at once in a stellar explosion of the mind.
There’s a game that certain writers like to play — and in answer to your next question, it’s not called Hide-The-Salami (although that one is popular with certain writers as well, myself perhaps foremost among them), but “Eavesdropping.”
Here’s how you play:
Sit in a public place. Sit near people who look interesting. Have something with which to write. Now listen unobtrusively. Write down bits and pieces of what you hear. You don’t even need to see who’s talking. Just listen and write. Try to capture cadence, tonal quality, speech patterns. And ask yourself: what does the person’s manner of speech tell you about that person?
In my chosen profession, I’m in the enviable position to play this game all night, every night. Here are two recent samples:
Man on cell phone talking to daughter(?):
Yeah … Yeah … All right, Sweetheart. Love you too. Oh, and hey: you by-God better not be getting a bunch of piercings when you’re down there in Santa Cruz. You come back looking like that, they’ll kick you out of that school so goddamned fast it will make your head spin … Yeah, ‘whatever.’ Just don’t be doing it, hear? All right. Bye-bye, Sweetheart.
Next call: same man on cell phone talking to co-worker(?):
Not much, really. Having a scotch. I’m about to head over to Starbucks for a cup of coffee, though. Yeah, I DO like their coffee … That’s because you don’t drink coffee — hey, ever see that movie Pulp Fiction? … I say PULP FICTION … Yeah … Guy goes, ‘My wife buys shitty coffee because she’s cheap. But I buy the best.’ Blood’s splattered everywhere on the walls, and they’re talking about coffee! Haw-Haw-Haw! … All right … Yeah. See you later … Sales? Sales? Those are those white things the put on the top of boats, right? Haw-haw! Bye, now.
And there you have it. My first game of Eavesdropping made public. Pretty stimulating, n’est ce-pas?
For the record, I’m quite familiar with the Pulp Fiction dialogue that man was referencing — because I too thought it was funny. Here, though, for anyone interested, is how it actually goes:
David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino?
I couldn’t possibly calculate the number of times writers of all ages have come to me with their pages asking me to evaluate their work to see if it shows talent.
The truth is, there’s no such thing as innate writing talent, and I am by no means the only writer or editor who thinks this.
As a matter of fact, the most important trait a writer can possess is just the opposite of natural-born: it is a trait that must be willed. And more: that very act of will is part of the trait that I and others regard as the most important component in the personality of a writer.
The most important thing is the desire to be a writer, which, in turn, presupposes discipline.
In my experience — my personal experience and my experience in the capacity of editor — persistence is undoubtedly the best measure of talent (so-called).
…the degree of one’s perseverance is the best predictor of success. It is some combination of ability and ego, desire and discipline, the produces good work. And the writer’s success or faltering can usually be traced to some abundance or deficit of those elements.
Her observation is not only accurate: it’s stunningly accurate.
And yet, in my experience also, most writers don’t understand this. Editors, however, do.
Since writing is in large part editing, it’s the editors — the true editors — who, in the main, grasp the full process even better than the writers. Too often, writers regard the creative process as mysterious, even mystical. Which it is not. It is complex, and it is difficult. But it’s not incomprehensible, incommunicable, or unintelligible.
In the recent past, I have inadvertently offended a number of writers by saying this, but its veracity remains incontrovertible: Writing, like anything difficult, requires first and foremost a burning desire.
Therefore my first advice to aspiring writers: imitate the writers whom you love.
In literature, there’s no such thing as natural talent, because writing is learned.
In a brief but well-written post, now several months old, Randy Murray captures this sentiment nicely, I think. Here’s most of it:
Things You Cannot Convey To A Young Writer (Or Any Other Calling):
You are not a natural.
You will have to work for your success.
It may take you years to find your voice.
Your friends will flatter you.
Red ink is useful to you.
The struggle and effort will pay off.
Remember always: writing is like any other skill, only more so: no one is born with the innate ability to use language, and that’s why writing requires practice.
There is among writers predominantly, though not exclusively, this rather absurd notion that you’re either a writer or you’re not, and that if you’re not, you’ll not be able to learn how. This notion is not only false: it’s dangerously false.
Writing is like any other skill, only more so.
In fact, talent (so-called) is of very little importance — in most things, actually, beyond the brute physical (and even then it’s overrated), but in literature perhaps most especially — precisely because so much of writing must be learned: nobody is born with an innate ability to use language.
Which is of course what writing consists exclusively of.
In the beginning even the most talented writers have an enormous amount to learn. And writing is learned in the same way that everything in life is learned: through volumes of study and countless hours of practice.
Writing, like any job, must be learned by first grasping the attributes that go into the job, and then by incorporating what you’ve learned and developing that skill through repetition.
You can, however, be a professional writer before you publish a word, provided that you approach writing as a job to be practiced and mastered.
Study means reading.
Practice means writing.
The reason that all this is so is that writing is the art-form of language, and words are its tools. But words are learned, as is the ability to read and to write.
Thus, in answer to the question I so often get — can I learn how to write? — it could be no other way: a person can only learn how to write.