Thursday, September 9, 2010

My Thoughts On Writing

1. All stories have been told. The only things new under the sun are the sunbathers. So a writer has two options:

- He can offer a new perspective on an old tale.
- He can share his enlightenment.

He can show the shine through a pair of unique eyes (character perspective. Fiction.) He can explain why the sun is so hot on contemporary skin or why sunshine is so necessary to those who‘ve been told to sneak to the shade (enlightenment. Nonfiction. ) You want to show me a new way to see an old story? Create a head with moveable eyes and let me crawl inside the chasm. Don’t put a mask of a man in front of my face. Have you ever looked through a mask? The eyeholes don’t match. My views are limited. The fa├žade suffocates.

2. The reader doesn’t know the author’s characters. And the reader doesn’t know whether or not he is supposed to like or dislike the characters. Adjective, adverbs, and dialogue tags are the clues that provide back story. They tell the reader how the character feels about himself, his companions, and his objects. They reveal actions and reactions. Without these clues the character is merely a common caricature.

3. Writing is about the reader. It’s not about the writer. A reader doesn’t want to get lost in your prose. He wants to find himself in it. All readers do. Go back and read that again. It’s worth the time. Either I need to engage with your characters because they mirror me - or I need to engage with your characters because my abhorrence of their behavior makes me redefine my behavior. Either way - all reading is about the reader. See? Authors think reading is about them. No. Not at all. If it is? It’s not well written.

Readers are smart but writers get worried that the reader won’t get just how wonderful the writing is. So writers over explain or over write. And the writer needs to get over this assumed stupidity. The reader is an author’s ally. The reader wants to love a book. They just spent the money to buy it. They want a novel to succeed. So an author must trust that the reader is with them and that the reader is gobbling up each word. Well, unless the writer is too full of himself and his words are too mouthy. And then it all becomes too much and the reader passes the book and won’t digest it.

4. Readers are lazy. They’re not going to do the work. If a writer creates a character that doesn’t engage the reader - the reader is not going to provide the necessary mirrorable attributes. No. He’s not. The writer is required to provide the imagination. The reader is required to provide the physical exercises of thought and eye movement. So, when a reader encounters a caricature - (unfleshed forms) he goes to the wrote (previously read similar novels) and mentally provides the rote. Films actors / characters, or characters from better books are referenced and pieced into the prose.

5. When a writer writes a first person narrative, it makes the reader an accomplice in the action. It instantly creates a relationship between author and reader. The author takes the reader in as his confidant. But the narrator needs to be human; underdeveloped characters are cardboard cutouts. The immediacy of first person present tense narrative makes the character and the reader comrades. The reader isn’t just observing; he’s participating.

But then here’s the problem: if we’re friends (character & reader) then you have to talk to me like your friend. So slipping into formal word choices in the middle of the narration is a misstep. First person present tense is actually a conversation. Slipping into formal words breaks the scrim of an assumed friendship and the reader sees the author as an authoritarian and the reader no longer participates; he sits in observation. He disengages. I think good writing can be poetic; I think good writing can be authentic. Sometimes it can’t be both.

6. Unexpected words make the eyes dance. When the mind and the eye and the heart are synchronized - you have literature. When the heart, soul, mind, and body are synchronized - you have art.

7. I think truly great literature is an oral medium and not a written one. I think great words demand to be allowed off a page. They must be aloud. When one chooses the proper word for clarity - you have literature. Well, because even when the prose lacks clarity - you have a story. A child can tell a story. Clarity isn't necessary in a child‘s tale. Yet clarity is necessary for literature. When one chooses the proper word for clarity and for the way it dances on a tongue or teases an eye - he has written right.

8. All writers are didactic. Some conceal the chalkboard - some scribble until their words screech.

9. You know - writing is really difficult work. I know. I’ve done it. Hell, I’m doing it. And then one day you take your hands off the keyboard and you sit back in your chair and you exhale. Because let’s be serious - the exposition is exhaustive. And everyone knows the cost of energy. That’s why they don’t offer a declarative yes or no. And that’s why they leave so many moments unmentioned and leave without offering a remark. But the difference between great writing and merely telling the tale is that you have to take your hands off the armrests and wipe the sweat off your brow and start again.

10. The real work of changing writing from remarking on a story and making it remarkable - is trying all your words in the mouths of the participants. You have to put the words in your narrator’s and characters’ mouth and see if they fit. Do they slip and slide and slather out like spit on a blouse? Are your characters mouthy enough to enunciate your thoughts? Do they have the bite to make your pronouncements?

Hear your prose aloud. Print your piece. Sit in a comfy chair. Have someone read your words to you. Do not follow along with your eyes. Your eyes have traveled the prose path so many times that your mind assumes clarity. So follow with your ears. You will hear every misstep of a badly chosen word. You’ll hear where the eye needs to rest and the mind needs to breathe. Stop. Have your reader circle the text and move on. This is particularly effective with dialogue. You’ll hear every word that does not fit into a human mouth.

11. The thing about italicized words is that they seem to put personality in the prose. But if you need to stress the point of a word - it’s probably not the best word for the spot. Italicized is really just a cheat. You need to create whole characters with descriptions. Italicized words add emphasis but mustn’t be used in place of exposition.

12. You know there’s a really fine line between sarcastic and caustic. Lenny Bruce was funny. Well until he found the fuel of the shock. And then he was shockingly full of hate and rancor. Razor sharp wit is great - but you have to remember that someone’s pride is left in shards. A narrative can’t sustain sarcasm. It has to have a heart as well as a brain. You can’t scream at the reader with so much disdain that your spit slaps. Profanity isn't offensive; it's authentic. Real people are cursed with limited vocabularies.

13. When one writes historical fiction or fantasy or science fiction, the writer must do a great deal of groundwork. A writer has to build an existence from the foundation so the plot can move forward. But, there can’t be so much exposition and explanation that a reader is unable to emotionally engage with the work. The difficulty with sci-fi is that the writer is creating a world that doesn’t exist. And a reader has to suspend his disbelief to enjoy the journey. But when there’s too much exposition in any genre, a reader has to suspend the pace and take out a map to follow along. It kills the pace and the enjoyment. The reader cannot find himself in the plot so he must find his echo in the emotions.

A piece has to emotionally engage the reader so that the reader can find himself in the prose. A writer needs to offer something for a heart to hold onto. Does that make sense?

Now the primary path to illuminate the characters’ emotions is through dialogue. Otherwise - the author has just built even more expositional blocks for the foundation. That’s a hell of a lot of exposition. It’s made the page a chalkboard with a scrawled hieroglyphic map.

14. A narrative voice really is a guide through the plot. It must be steady and assured. Now a narrative can be lyrical and light. A narrative can be like a ballerina as it glides and wisps. But a ballerina has surety in her steps. Each move is choreographed. Each move is plotted. There is an exactness to her movements. A narrative voice must not be too passive.

15. Reading is an athletic event. Oh hell yes. Wait. Let me finish. A reader’s eyes exercise. Think about it. The eyes journey from side to side. It’s an actual physical event. And the oddest thing? Our bodies prepare for the journey. We take breaths at the beginning of paragraphs - and then we move our eyes. Expert writing - and I mean writing that’s on an award winning level - plans the journey. And expert writing considers attention span. In a thriller the writer must make the reader’s eyes dash. A writer must push the pupils to the period. The writer must propel the reader through the plot. A reader must feel the tension through the writer’s tenses. And how do you do all that?

Pace.

Sentences must not be too lengthy for the eye or the mind. A writer must slice them up. Lengthy sentences are exhausting. It doesn’t matter how great the sentence is if the writer loses his reader before the suffix. A writer needn't limit himself to monosyllabic words and subject/predicate clauseless sentences. He must vary it up. A writer must treat a paragraph like a figure skating routine. A writer can spin the reader's eyes. A writer can make the reader's mind jump - but a writer must let the reader soar on a blade too and catch his breath

16. Reading a novel is like being in a car and taking a journey. The narrator is driving. And whether he drives fast and cruises the curves or whether he’s pedestrian and pokes through the plot - he’s in control.

Now in a thriller - the author is pushing that pedal and speeding through the plot and the reader must know that the narrator is in compete control so that the reader can relax and feel thrilled. A poor writer insists that the reader provides a map. A competent writer handles the steering wheel and takes the reader from start to finish. A competent writer doesn’t force the reader to whiplash through the plot points. Well, which reader wants to close the book and have a headache?

Yet a great writer maneuvers the reader through an intricate plot with twists and thrills and terror traps and leaves the reader with a thumping heartbeat and sweaty palms and a grin that reaches lobe to lobe. And a great writer does that by remaining an authoritarian. He uses declarative sentences and makes assertions and reminds the reader that he’s gripping the wheel and masterfully twirling the tensefilled text.

A passive narrative voice makes the reader stop and pull out a map to follow the writer. Thrillers need a narrator with a swagger and a fully grown pair and the confidence to smile and slur, “get in the car” as he slides the keys out of his pocket. A thriller deserves a cocky chauffeur.

17. Do you know that you can create a story about two peas in the middle of a land of candy confections and if the dialogue rings true - it will work. And if you take two people and put them in a room and only allow them to speak in affected sentences, it will be less truthfilled than the peas. Real people - not literary creations - don’t consistently speak with conjunctions. And like swollen bellies popping out of spandex, we frequently lapse out of proper grammar. Yet narrative should be grammatically correct or it’s confusing. Also, men usually do not use adjectives or adverbs in conversations. And they omit them when bantering with a buddy. Grammatically correct dialogue is as intrusive in a casual conversation as rummage sale bought dentures are in a trailer park talent show. It may look pretty, but it is a pronounced flaw. It’s artifice.

18. Readers read all texts as nonfiction. Now that sounds odd. But think about it. We “suspend our disbelief’ and believe it’s real. So, in a very real way - readers read everything as nonfiction.

Now - writers write everything as fiction. Whether it be true or asserted, writers write things better than they are - or worse than they are - or more interesting than they were. Remember Joe “just the facts” Friday? He was the least interesting character. And that’s why news anchors are physically attractive and address us as friends. They feign a relationship with the viewer so they can seductively spoon-feed their subject matter.

19. The writer of an autobiography must remember that the reader is not reading about you. He is reading a character that is you. The reader emotionally identifies with the author by making the author an object: an object of affection or revulsion. The reader doesn’t know the author. He doesn’t know how the author speaks and sounds and stresses and relaxes. The author must define himself to the reader.

20. Novels need to flow. Novels are like domino games; they must hit a rhythm that propels. And there can be no verbiage blocks of stumbling similes or muddled metaphors. A writer must have the talent to chose the perfect word for pace, power, and plot.