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 …
Great writing advice. Not Aristotle’s Poetics. Not E.M. Forster. Not even Stephen King. They’re great resources, but …
TA-DA … South Park.
Great short interview with Matt Stone and Trey Parker in which they divulge their ONE RULE of good writing!
You’ll like it. Script writer, fiction writer, makes no difference … it’s good advice. Simple and to the point. (Contributed by my son, Edward.)
About a week ago, I reblogged (yecch … are we brutalizing the language or just being creative?) — I reblogged a list of books on writing from Carly Watters. I noticed one I wasn’t familiar with, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Renni Browne and Dave King). It promised to speak to the challenge just ahead for my second novel: Rewrite. I ordered the book.
I’m pretty familiar with Rewrite. I’m on the seventh pass through my first novel. I think I’m getting better at it — at least, I know that I’d do the first two or three rewrites of novel #1 differently.
If you’re reading this because you’re a writer, get this book. It’s short, practical and is almost sure to give you insight on what makes writing work, regardless of your level of sophistication.
For me, the two-by-four upside the head is B&K’s margin note R.U.E. (“Resist the Urge to Elaborate”). So I guess the discussion of Hans Prohoffer’s improbably success in sabre fencing inserted in the middle of a fight scene in which he uses a parry two (that goes, too) when Le Pic lunges is out. I do like to elaborate.
Anyway, I consumed the book in a day. Consumed is like a dog consumes a beefsteak. Big bites, not chewing much. But, like that dog and that steak, I loved the process. Now, to read it carefully. Then rewrite.
Important rules, with thanks to my friends at Writers Alliance of Gainesville:
1. Avoid Alliteration. Always.
2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
3. Avoid clichés like the plague.
4. Comparisons are as bad as clichés.
5. Be more or less specific.
6. Writers should never generalize.
Seven: Be consistent.
8. Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
9. Who needs rhetorical questions?
10. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
Finally, when confronted by an upset grammar Nazi, always say softly, “Oh, there, their, they’re.”
One of the things I’m learning from reading other people’s work in progress is the importance and unimportance of mechanics. In several groups, I’ve read stuff that’s mechanically exquisite but not very interesting. Then the other day, there was a piece with interesting characters and the rhythm of a good song. But I had to keep stopping to reread because the mechanics were ‘invented’ … no quote marks to set off dialog, one-line paragraphs breaking up thoughts, commas where they shouldn’t be, none where they should be, and so on. Maybe James Joyce or Faulkner can do that stuff, but it’s hard for we mortals.
I’m realizing good mechanics make it easier for the reader to enjoy the story. Sure, breaking convention is sometimes important, but it’s harder to pull off that plain vanilla mechanics.
Samuel Johnson Reading
Read over your compositions and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
I was just finishing a story yesterday, preparing to submit it. A couple of phrases I had written warmed the cockles of my heart. I read them over several times aloud, letting the words roll off my tongue.
Then I read Dr. Johnson’s advice.
Ahh, those writing groups. When I started, I bought into the concept of the lonely life. You know, the writer sitting at a desk in his hovel (before publication) or hideaway (after publication), concentrating on stringing words together. But ‘they’ said, join a writing group. For the first several months, I was resistant. Who could possibly critique my writing but myself. Or maybe my wife, who is an accomplished writer.
Short story: I did, and I’m glad. I’m playing out the second novel to the three writing groups in which I now participate. I’d be disingenuous to say that it’s humbling. Rather, it’s exciting, and it’s great to have other eyes coming from other perspectives look at one’s writing. A writer of romance novels turns out to be a master at sentence structure. A writer of mid-grade stories helps me understand that my hero is too much a wimp. My wife makes my plots much, much better. So far, I’m halfway through Skins and Bone, and I have these references (picture) to consider in the rewrite. Hallelujah!
I knew it had to happen, but I figured I’d be reading Hemingway or Shakespeare, Steinbeck or Joyce when it did.
I’m talking about the hit-upside-the-head feeling of being a talentless drudge. I recognized it right away, because I’ve had it more often than I care to admit as a musician, listening to other guitarists play spectacular stuff that I couldn’t touch. Makes you want to go home and trash your axe.
So here I am, deep in the middle of the story arc of my second novel, Skins and Bone. The Cape Cod Writers Conference has come and gone. Lots of pearls, lots of help. Yes, they tell me, not all writing can be lyrical. Really, you just have to plug along. Write every day. Pretty soon you’ll have something you can revise. Then I pick up Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. Here are a couple of bits.
“He has a great smile, a cat’s smile. He should cough out yellow Tweety Bird feathers, the way he smiles at me.”
“You drink a little too much and try a little too hard. And you go home to a cold bed and think, That was fine. And your life is a long line of fine.”
Drat! Well, the good news is that trashing an Eberhard Faber #2 is not a big deal. Wait a minute, I write on my computer …
As I said in my last post, I have been twisted around by several helpful critiques from several people in the know. Each one makes a lot of sense. Each brings some sense of the market for which I’m writing. Trouble is, they all disagree.
I have finally hit on the way I want Hack the Yak to read. What a relief! I think I’ve integrated some of the comments, but mainly, I can quit twisting and turning. I hope.
For my first novel, Hack the Yak, I just started writing, mostly character sketches. Then wove the people together into a plot. Call it the Crash Ahead writing method. I loved writing that first draft, typos and inconsistencies included. I’d just sit down and throw myself at my characters and watch ‘em react. The plot suffered. Stuff happened in Spring that should have happened in Winter. Characters ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Subplots wrenched control away from the main plot . But, ahhh, it was fun.
Early in the novel I’m working on now, I joined two writing groups. We’ve had some discussion on the subject. I got fired up about using an outline and began assembling (electronic) index cards to sort out the plot. I just couldn’t get into the outlining business. Too much like work. But I could see that the plot would benefit. So, being a middle-of-the-road, see-both-sides-and-generally-stay-in-the-middle kind of guy, I produced a fairly detailed synopsis, then got back to what I like doing, generally following the synopsis. We’ll see how it goes.