Archive for January, 2015
Have you noticed? Books are subtle.
Books—and I’m speaking here mostly of novels—don’t come with fireworks. They don’t come with bands or loud music or spectacular displays or shouting pitchmen. Granted, a few may be launched by someone giving a fiery speech, especially a political tell-all book by an author with a story to tell or an ax to grind. In the vast majority of cases, novels are launched with only an announcement and perhaps a short, subdued speech by the author.
But it’s within the book I want to concentrate. Books are more like symphony orchestras. You attend a concert by your favorite symphony and they perform and that’s it. There’s no fireworks display, no yelling, no screaming fans. The music can get loud, sure, but it’s a controlled, unchaotic loudness. It’s written into the music. You rely on the composer to decide what’s loud and what’s soft. Like Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. The conductor bows at the end of the concert, and you file out. All you need to know about the music is contained within. (I did once attend the Santa Fe Opera to see La Boheme, I believe, where they shot off one rocket, but that was all. They could do it because the Santa Fe Opera is outdoors.)
So it is with a novel. Most novels start slowly and build. But it’s a controlled build, it takes you along smoothly and carefully, and gives you the information you need to digest the plot. It doesn’t yell at you. It isn’t a riotous, turbulent display of loud noise and flashing lights and lasers and mirrors. You don’t have a drummer behind you with an exaggerated sense of his/her importance. The book is an entity all to itself. All you need to know is built right into the book. You don’t need outside or extraneous fireworks to digest the story. A book is not spectacular; it quietly goes about its business delivering the message one word at a time. You don’t read a book, you curl up with it.
As I write this, someone in an apartment nearby is playing rock music loud enough to be heard through the walls and floor or ceiling of my apartment. I feel sorry for someone who has to get his/her stimulation by been bombarded by loud music. Turn off the stereo or TV and read a book.
I went to see the movie “Wild” a few weeks ago and enjoyed it a lot. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it highly. Two Oscar nominations have come from this film, one for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, Reese Witherspoon, and one for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, Laura Dern. The movie is based on a book by Cheryl Strayed about how she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from southern California to northern Washington state in an effort to revitalize and recharge her life after the death of her mother, a disastrous marriage, and some destructive life choices she made. Before I saw the movie, I’d heard about the basic plot line, and had some routine expectations about the movie before I ever entered the theater.
It pays not to make too many assumptions.
I expected the movie to start near the beginning of Cheryl’s life and run in a closely chronological order up through the hike, and end at or near the end of the trail. It didn’t. The movie started as she was preparing for the hike, and the important incidents that led up to her decision to make the hike in the first place were interspersed at intervals throughout the entire movie. In a writer’s parlance, this is known as “avoiding an info dump.”
An info dump is when a writer gives a lot of information about a character, or the character’s background, or about a situation, or perhaps even an item of scenery all at once in one big lump. It’s just a lot of information that stalls the story, adds little or nothing to the plot, and turns the reader off. What the hell, the reader may ask, is this doing here? I could care less about how many buttons are on his overcoat. So often the details in an info dump are unimportant to the plot, and could be eliminated entirely. That doesn’t mean all info dump information is unnecessary, however. Many times some of those details really are essential to the story line. The real problem with an info dump is that the reader can’t tell which details are essential and which are not, and so tends to dismiss them all. So, the dumping of all of them in one place can really screw up an otherwise good story. This is what the movie did not do.
Cheryl’s early life (that is, before the hike) was placed in vignettes scattered throughout the movie, not concentrated in any one place, so that the major action in the movie remained fixed on the hike itself. It wasn’t what I expected, but I was glad to see it was well done. And writers can (and should) take a message from this. Make no mistake, the background of a character is almost always important to the story, certainly. As readers, we want to know what a person did to get himself or herself in this difficult situation. Background tells us that. But having it all dumped in our figurative laps all at once is disconcerting and frustrating. It should come in small spoonfuls as the narrative progresses. We want to stay focused on the action. Don’t knock us out of the story. Talk to Cheryl.
I got to thinking today (always a bad sign) about how I would start a class on writing. That is, suppose I had to teach a class on writing to total novices, what would I say at the very beginning of the first class. Now, being an unpublished writer of science fiction, the thought of me teaching a class on writing is laughable at best, but in my mind I can ignore the fact that I probably don’t have the faintest idea of what I’m talking about and go on to the class itself. So, where to start?
I’d start by saying that writing is one form of communication. Granted, that’s not very profound, but it is a necessary beginning. Every writer is trying to communicate an idea. He/She’s trying to say something. Writers are the type of people who put ideas down on paper or on a computer screen so that others can read it. A very simple idea.
But what we sometimes lose sight of is the necessity of making sure our ideas get through. It’s a writer’s job to make sure that the idea gets through into the mind of the reader. It’s the writer’s job to be clear in his expression of the idea he/she’s trying to make. It doesn’t matter if a writer is writing poetry, fiction, essay, memoir, or whatnot, it’s the idea at the center of the writing that is the important thing. If you, as a writer, aren’t making your idea clear, then you are a total, miserable, abject, tragic failure as a writer.
Writing is a two-way street, to use a well-known cliché. In addition to the writer, someone has to read the words, in other words, a reader has to exist to complete the picture. There are always two (2) people involved in writing. Writing without a reader is just chicken-scratching and is totally meaningless. The idea, the concept within that writing, has to get through absolutely.
I suppose this concept applies most strongly to poetry. I’ve read a lot of poetry that communicates a good idea, but I’ve also read some poetry, experimental mostly, in which the concept, the reason for the poem, is just lost. At least on me. But this basic tenant also applies to all forms of writing, and we all need to be sure we’re communicating a good idea, a good concept, with our writing.
Revision. For a writer, what is it and what’s involved?
If you’re a writer, like I’m (unsuccessfully so far) trying to be, revision, in most cases, will occupy the greatest segment of your time in writing. Writing is largely revision, the sages say. Revision is the process of rewriting your work, be it anything from very short story to a huge novel. But what’s really involved? Let’s look at the different stages of a story.
First you write down the basics of the story. That’s a rough draft or preliminary draft. That can be the hardest part; though it’s really the simplest part because you just put down the story in a rough or haphazard manner. You may have produced a first draft during National Novel Writing Month, where you tried to produce a minimum fifty-thousand word draft during the month of November, or maybe you sat at the computer and hacked out a rough draft over a nine year period putting down one sentence or paragraph a day. What matters is that you got it all down in a crude form, and now it needs revision. (The chances that you got it down perfectly the first time and it doesn’t need revision are so infinitesimally small we won’t even consider that.) Depending on the first draft, several things come into play here.
First, in my estimation, the novel needs to read smoothly. This is the simple act of reading through the draft to make sure that a reader’s eye doesn’t get caught in odd word transitions, in non sequitur, or in missed commas or periods, and so forth. In other words, each sentence has to communicate a single, simple thought. During this first revision I also look for inconsistencies. If I said a person’s hair was brown in one chapter, did I repeat that in another chapter, or did I inadvertently change it to blonde? Time factors are important. If an important event occurred on Sunday, is the next day Monday? And so forth. These are the basics and have to be right and proper or you can kiss all other revisions good-bye.
Now comes the second revision. For me at least, this is the most important. Here I tackle the more subjective parts of the story. I look for broader topics such as motivation, consistency in action and dialogue, background of the characters and how it influences their later life, interaction between characters, etc. I may also look for deliberate changes in a character, that is, when a character changes under the influence of the pressures of the story line, did I get it right. If I have an automobile crash and someone is killed, how does that affect the survivors? These broad topics are more difficult to look for and find, but they’re much more important to the overall plot. In most cases, one read-through of a manuscript isn’t going to find all these inconsistencies. Here I also look for violations of the rules of writing. Am I telling too much, or should a certain section be rewritten to show more about a character? Did I put in enough sensory detail? Or too much? This second revision may take a long time, months (for a short story) or years (for a novel) and may involve reading through it many, many times. I’ve even been known to revise portions of a novel ten or more years after I started it. This second revision can take time—lots of time—and you, as an author have to get it right. You have to know your characters intimately and get them to behave in a manner that befits the story. Characters may be weird, odd, manipulative, blood-sucking, paranoid, or what have you, but the reader has to be able to understand what you’re trying to say. That’s the important thing. Are you communicating what you want to say? Revision is the key here. Do it over and over until you get it right.
Okay, I wrote this blog post. Now I have to revise it.