The Writing Paradigm

Ponderous title, no?

The paradigm of writing has been one of my discoveries, the kind that slaps you upside the head and then laughs at you when you look back over your benighted stumble toward understanding and realize that it was always there, obvious. You were just too dense to see it.

ParadigmWebster’s defines paradigm as “a framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of a scientific community.” The OED weighs in less ponderously than one might have expected, “A worldview underlying the theories and methodology of a particular scientific subject.”

I should have reflected on the definition. Strike the ‘scientific’ and you realize that paradigms are ubiquitous: everything from religion to sandwich-making at Subway has its paradigm. And, as I realized over time, I was light on the ‘methodology’ part of the writing paradigm.

When I began, I thought writing was made up of story-telling and mechanics. I quickly learned (i.e., was corrected) that what I called story-telling is Voice, a somewhat mystical characteristic. Part in-born talent, part life experience, the experts intoned. Not something one can learn by rote. Asked for more specifics, the experts universally mumble something about it having to do with the wealth on one’s life experience and … read a lot. I kind of get it.

I had a rock-solid control of grammar and vocabulary (or so I thought). English major, you know. I had read a lot. Couldn’t do much to influence that ineffable quality called Voice. So what more did I need?

Well, a lot. I’ll call it Technique, the methodology of writing. It is the part I’m learning from other writers. It’s the not-so-obvious superstructure of the story that allows the reader to follow comfortably, the choice of point of view and tense, the way characters and time sequences are introduced. Thankfully, this is stuff one can learn.

It does make it hard, though, to do a rewrite on one’s magnum opus and realize just how much one has to learn. Always the optimist, I look forward to the next epiphany.

Stop Saying “I Feel Like”

One of the many challenges I face as a beginning writer (I can still claim novice status, particularly when making novice mistakes) is the issue of how temporal to be. “Temporal” often means “temporary.” Who knows how long LOL or awesome will last? And, do you really want to date your writing? Then there’s the more complex issue … vocabulary and usage reflect a character’s expressed personality, which is a function of the time and place. “Cool, daddy-o” doesn’t work in a piece set in the 1890’s. Certainly, leave out y’know, like and other limping conjunctions and fillers that are common in conversation … except maybe occasionally, as linguistic spice.  That part I got.

Less obvious is the subtle change discussed in a New York Times opinion piece,“Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’ ” by Molly Worthen. She notes, “imperfect data that linguists have collected indicates (sic) that ‘I feel like’ became more common toward the end of the last century. In North American English, it seems to have become a synonym for ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ only in the last decade or so. Languages constantly evolve … But make no mistake: ‘I feel like’ is not a harmless tic. George Orwell put the point simply: ‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’ The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument.”

So, possibly irritating phrases (such as) “I feel like” don’t get expunged because the help define the characters inner self?  The next big question:  “I feel like” is like fingernails on a blackboard to me, but does it describe a character’s state of mind to my reader?  Am I justifying not including it because I am, after all, an English major living on a higher plane of language?  Is that higher plane really an affectation?

No more questions.  Start, like, writing!

 

 

Details Details

DInerI’m beginning to understand that most of writing involves choices about where to land between extremes. The issue I’m currently working with in rewrite is the question of how much to tell. It came up because I got widely different comments in writing groups on the lead passage of my first novel:

“So you’re the dumbass.”

The woman plopped into the booth across from Joe Mayfield. The bite of over-easy egg halfway to his mouth dripped a spot of yolk on his pants.

“Pardon me?”

He put down his fork and tried for an offhand smile but knew it came off closer to a rictus.

The woman suppressed a grin and picked up a menu.

Joe had seen her come into the diner, now nearly empty after the breakfast rush. She was tall, not quite stick thin, out of place here in farm country in her cargo shorts, MIT T-shirt and an untamed mop of chestnut hair. Not the thug he’d been watching for since ditching Doughboy back in Orlando.

 

One writer’s take was: “I want to see more about the place. Sights, sounds, smells. This isn’t real to me.” On the other end of the spectrum: “Why do I need to know what she looks like? And what about Mayfield, your protagonist. Don’t you want to know what he looks like?”

I finally came up with what you see above. Because I’m writing in Joe Mayfield’s point of view, it seemed important to get the description of the woman we will come to know as Weezy. But she’s challenging Joe, and the challenge is what sets the story in motion. So I chose not to spend words to describe the diner. (The scene recurs later in the book, and there is a fuller description there.)

My go-to advice for rewrite is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. They helped me answer my question of where to land on the spectrum of more or less description: “When you describe every bit of action down to the last detail you give your readers a clear picture of what’s going on, … you also limit their imagination, and if you supply enough detail, you’ll alienate them in the process. Describing your action too precisely can be as condescending as describing your characters’ emotions. Far better to give your readers some hints and then allow them to fill in the blanks for themselves.” (p. 147)

The Difficulty of Simplicity

I keep running into the oh-so-true bits that slap me upside the head:

A comment from Benjamin Moser (New York Times Book Review):  “Today, I realize that clear expression can come only from clear thinking. And I know how hard it is to write something that is easy to read.”

A comment from Tim Mahoney (tpmahoney.com), who has a couple of great books set in the days of Prohibition, back before St. Paul, Minnesota had discovered “Minnesota Nice,” in last night’s critique group:  “watch out for the word ‘because.’  What follows it is almost always an explanation. If you need an explanation, you’ve often not done a good enough job of creating the scene or the emotion.”

The Value of Literature in 30 words or Less

It was a simple statement on a subject too often drowned in words:

Study of the Liberal Arts “is for developing the muscle of thoughtfulness, the use of which will be the greatest pleasure in life and will also show what it means to be fully human.”

It came from Anne Hall, a lecturer at Penn, as quoted in a New York Times column by Frank Bruni. He remembers being transfixed by her lectures on Shakespeare.  His telling took me back to my undergraduate experience, where I, too, realized the power and depth of Shakespeare because of a gifted lecturer.

These days, I am greedy for examples of good writing. I see in this short phrase the brilliance of an analogy that packs a world of meaning into a few words.  Would that we might often write with such clarity … and brevity.

The Blasted Backstory

I took a great short course on backstory at the Cape Cod Writer’s Conference last week. Michelle Hoover, the teacher, is a fine writer (literary fiction – The Quickening) and knowledgeable instructor. I really needed the course.

She remarked to us that we control some part … maybe 60% … of what the reader gets out of a story, and that we ought to embrace the creativity and life experience the reader brings to the reading. That’s something I forget, particularly when wrestling with plot. Her notes for the class remind us, “The biggest mistake most beginning writers make is the belief a reader must know this or that about what occurred before the character’s present moment. The fault is generally due to the following: 1) the author’s distrust of the reader’s intelligence; 2) the author’s distrust of his/her own writing ability; 3) the author’s inability to give up control; 4) the author’s nervousness about beginning his/her own story …”

Ouch! I suffer from all of the above. Does the reader really need to know exactly what stop loss insurance is and how it’s calculated to fully understand the plot line of Hack the Yak? Or am I just a lazy, controlling author?

There. 1,000 words gone. Easy. Just like a good healthy …

stoploss insurance

Groped! … The result

Thank you to the fine folks who responded to my Groped entry (women, I assume, but you never know on the Internet).

girl surprised

(This person looks too much like an ingenue to be Weezy)

I asked to read you a passage describing Louise Napolitani … Weezy in my novels … getting groped by a guy she refers to as ‘the Lizard’ after the fact.  She’s at a fancy party, and the Lizard is the host.  Does she make a scene? Punch the guy?  Perhaps, as one of my friends suggested, dig her heel into his instep?  The conclusion was evenly matched between ‘don’t make a scene’ and ‘raise hell’.  Another interesting dichotomy was how to handle telling or net telling Joe Mayfield. As she says of her relationship to Joe, “If it ain’t love, it ain’t bad.”  Does she tell him, assuming that to not tell him might poison their relationship?  Or does she say to herself that she’s a big girl, and she shouldn’t risk prejudicing Joe about his new boss?

Tough questions for Weezy.  She’s no shrinking violet, and she’s unwilling to be intimidated by the Lizard.  She handles the grope itself with sarcasm but not violence, and she does end up telling Joe the day after the party.  I’m still revising, but I will put the scene up in a week or two.

Cape Cod Writers Conference

A month has gone by since I promised myself that I would get my electronic world in order and blog twice a week.  I also promised myself that I would not give into the temptation to publish personal banalities when I have nothing interesting to report.  But that’s not it, either.  I have a couple of good posts that require some audio/video editing, and I just haven’t had time to do them justice.

I’m attending the Cape Cod Writers Conference, on which more will follow.  And, Oh, yes, I got some fascinating stuff on my ‘groped’ request.  More on that shortly.

Groped! … Help!

Novice writers get a raft of advice.  One of the most repeated is the admonition to ‘Write what you know.’  Probably a good idea.  After all, if your character is someone entirely outside of your experience, how will you know how she reacts to the events in the plot?

That brings me to the problem at hand:  In my current story, my protagonist Weezy, Joe Mayfield’s special friend (lady friend? See last post ‘Pelvic Affiliate’) attends a business event with him.  Now, Weezy is 35 and no shrinking violet.  At the event, Joe’s uber-boss slips a hand on Weezy’s girl surprisedbehind. I need some help from the women who read this, because I haven’t been groped.  Fondled, maybe, and then only in a friendly way.  Never groped, though.

What would you do?

There’s some background on Weezy here, although I’m more interested in how YOU would react.  The lead-in to the grope is an excerpt from Skins and Bone, here.

If you are willing to answer, write a response to this post.  In the response, let me know whether you’re willing to have your answer be public.  (I moderate all posts and will not show your response if you tell me it should not be public.)