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As writers, we don’t always go sanely toward our solutions. Instead, too often, we suffer toward them. Reasoned arguments are lost to us. Our little mental slot cars that get us from Chapter One to The End have flown off their tracks.
And, suddenly, everything we know is wrong.
There may be no worse feeling for a writer than suspecting that the thing we’ve done, the thing we’ve committed to, sweated over, felt such complete confidence for, is crap. And maybe not just the passage or the page, but the whole thing.
Each of us has a critical little gremlin on our heads that speaks to us as we write, and waits to have its say when we’re not. Is its voice right or wrong? Is this our surreptitious, lurking, ever-present self defeat getting the boot in? Or is truth and awareness speaking to us as frankly as it can?
If you’ve ever twisted the water out of a washcloth—if you were the washcloth, not the twister—you can imagine how writers feel at times like this. If you’ve ever walked a maze, lost, too far in to turn around, too anxious to continue, you know that there’s no easy way back.
We want to believe that a hard-won ability that lives under the surface of us. If we sink into black water, get in over our heads, we want to believe that that a foundation of craft or talent or instinct will give us a solid place to stand; a place to catch our breaths and recover. But sometimes our feet never touch down.
Better sense tells us that, with a little distance, a little more hard work, we can recover. We can see the story’s honest faults and fix them. But unlike the place of pain that yields answers—eventually—panic makes everything impossible. We flail. We get sucked under. We lose our direction and the will to find the surface. And we drown. We get eaten, as the Radiohead lyrics say, by weird fishes.
For writers, so completely defined by the act that drives us, this is a paralyzing, terrifying place. Without the writing, there is no us. The brilliant, three-dimensional world is still and grey. We float like ghosts in the airless space, not wholly dead and nowhere near alive.
So, in the midst of such a moment, I’m turning to this confessional. And here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to shut down the page and set the work aside. I’m going to eat something. Take deep breaths. Clean the apartment. And find the faith in myself that will let me see the work’s flaws with a cool, unhateful eye and find the whatever to address them.
Those weird fishes? They’re all around. The trick is to swim with them. And not be eaten alive.
This space has been a writer’s love song. To notebooks. And tape recorders. And self-created book soundtracks. And improvisation as a path to inspiration. Now, another way to find one’s way into a scene through the labyrinth of thought.
I’ve always done this technique, in a sense; collected notes scattered over pages, assemblies that contribute to the form taking shape in my head. And today, a variation. The lightning round of coerced innovation.
The laundry list.
A little background. In this scene, the main character turns the beautiful creation that he has come to love; remakes it into something dire. Vile. Fear-making. An inescapable “sticky darkness” that will be his self-defense, his weaponized wonder. The chapter—the experience of those foul creations—is written, as they all are, from the POV characters pov. A living of a bottomless dread, of the worst of a human soul.
Enter The Laundry List. And yes, readers, this is an open book examination.
Thesaurus.com is my cheat of choice: From it, I drew a list of words that described the abhorrent, the impossible, the foul, the unbearable. Already knew what the contributing categories would be…simply set myself free in word-wonderland to gather up the grandest, most horrific gems I could find. I let them fill me up inside, until my brain was afloat in them; until my thoughts foundered near drowning. A kind of total immersion method acting, with words as prompts rather than memories.
Did it work? At this moment, I think so. I’ll know with a re-reading, the perspective of distance. I’ll let you know.
Love and kindness are easier for me to write than pain and cruelty. At least, that’s what I choose to tell myself. An end-of-relationship scene in a previous book, drawn from a memory revived, laid me flat for two days. Not this time.
In this new technique, a strangely painless source of despair-memory. Something worth going back to when we need to write from the most difficult places.
A revelation. In a voice. The Voice on the Tape.
I’ve discussed it here many times: the tiny tape recorder the writer uses to capture the fleeting muses of late nights. And in that little spool of vinyl, a learning. A question. A concern.
I sense that I have been removed from myself, scribing emotions on the page without feeling them. The quaking wonder I feel as I move into a chapter, the emotion that plays back so completely when I read what I have written…it’s been missing. The writing may be satisfying to some extent, craftsmanlike and, at times, even thrilling. But the super-saturated feeling that brings it truly to life—gone.
The texture and smell of a great meal in person and the seeing of it described disinterestedly on paper: not nearly the same thing. I feel it in the creating. I can hear it in analog, in the playback of notes…the difference between the writer immersed and the one going through the motions. I can sense the empty air in the chapter readback that should hollow me out and leave me goosebumped.
I don’t know why this has happened. I don’t know where the emotion went. I am
detached from that essential umbilical of emotional commitment, that immersion in sheltering non-reality, that gift that lets us write the world and yet stay gloriously removed from it. And here’s the question: Can we write emotional honesty—or even represent emotional development compellingly—if we do not feel it first?
Detached from the master-class-method-acting emotionality that writing is, without that investment, we are merely writing words, as felicitous as those words might be. Can any writer really create feeling without owning feeling?
This is something I’d better figure out. And fast. Writing without emotion is, for me, not writing. Life without writing is, for me, not life.
Some writerly feats cannot be taken with a leap of faith.
Mary Doria Russell recently described a process in which she laid printed sections of an in-progress work on her dining table as a way of understanding what fit, what didn’t, and where the fix might be found. That need to externalize is something this writer understands well. It’s exactly what I’m dealing with now.
As well, as lovingly, as carefully as one might carry a character, a plot, a direction in one’s head, one is, essentially, drawing portraits in the dark. When two wildly different approaches vie for supremacy in writerhead, only print (whether on-screen or in hard copy) will prove the hypotheses.
Recent problems with recent chapters demonstrated the example in the theory. What I saw—rightly or wrongly—as flat, overly talky, told-not-shown, demanded a remedy that verged on the Draconian. Rip it out. Sacrifice a few cherished babies. Find the diamonds in the dross and look for more impactful places for them to live.
This is the point of the book, 100 pages in, where the book’s pivotal understanding is revealed. It took us long enough to get here…and the moment must shout, not murmur. Thirty-six hours ago, I came upon a revelation that could change the tenor of the story; a turn so fantastical, so outlandish, that it will floodlight the tale in an entirely different way. Very very risky business, this.
This “oh my” moment changes everything. The play of emotions, the deeper symbolic meaning of the main character’s strange ability, becomes something entirely other if the change is made. I write to examine the human-ness in extra-human situations, a kind of hyper-reality. Even so, the change I’m considering could well send the story’s greater meaning wandering off into the wild in such a way that the story might lose itself forever.
Can the writer pull it off? Probably. Should she? That’s where the physical exercise of through-writing the idea comes in. Outline alone might not do it. Perhaps only the unfurling of ideas in a seeable form can show us the truth in the theory.
Einstein carried the ideas in his head. But writing them down birthed them for the world. For those of us in a decidedly less exalted place, as writers for readers, it’s the least we can do.
Is it fair? Is it right? Is it the refuge of a hack writer? Is it lazy? Or is it a legitimate crayon in the toolbox of a skilled fictionarian?
Giving the plot away.
You know what I’m talking about. You’ve seen it. The device of starting a book with an intriguing snippet of the ending.
This is a device perhaps more evident in “popular” fiction than in its more literary cousin…to suggest the fire of the finish without burning the reader in the process. To raise an image, an emotion, a plot point on the novelistic flagpole to try to get folks to salute.
We’ve seen it done well. We’ve seen it clunk clumsily on the page. But should it be there at all?
Plots can—should—develop over the course of the 300-plus pages. By the first few of those pages, we need to have the reader hooked. In doing this, the seeds of the story should be evident early, to, as Salieri said so memorably in Amadeus, “let them know when to clap.”
But how much? And how soon?
I think of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, and a line that caught me…after a fairly straightforward description of the mission of the characters we are about to know better, these four words stopped me magnificently: They meant no harm.
I had no reason at that point to believe that harm was going to be done by anybody. Despite the dire state of the main character, I had no idea that a world was going to go horribly wrong. But those four words picked me up and threw me into the book. An eye-opener for a writer.
Would I have read the work without it? Sure: It’s a wonderful thing. Did it add to the writer’s ability to turn the pages for me? Without question.
Given the fidgety attention span of today’s readers, it may not be too outlandish to hint at what’s coming, to let them know that this is a tale worth following. The things we must ask ourselves are: When? What? How much?
Executed well enough, even a cheap trick has its place.
A slow start to the day. Some very peculiar symptoms…an otherworldliness that I choose to attribute to clocking myself with the car’s hatchback the day before. Not sure which thoughts were real and which belonged to dreams—a situation not far from normal in this odd, lovely life.
The requisite preparations for the day. Sheers drawn against the brightest of the daylight. A couple of quick catnaps with cats.
And then something very strange.
At around 2:30, the room suddenly felt as if the room were superoxygenated. And my head danced in it. A door had opened.
The Muses I had been waiting a week to arrive were here. They sat on my shoulder. They made me tea. They waited in other rooms for me, proffering words when I went there. There was no place where they were not.
I still feel an odd distance from the story, standing to one side of it rather than feeling it from the inside. But yesterday the created place filled my sight. Its air, its light and darkness, were my air, my light and darkness. Three hours went away from me. Their minutes transformed into the words.
Last night, a night with the tape recorder in my hand.
Today, tonight, more of the same. Notes transcribed first…then I will turn my palms up and ask the universe in. What is not right today will be right tomorrow. What does not let me in will admit me when I least expect it.
This is what’s important. This is what I need. This is who I am.
Okay, forget it. Forget whether it is writer head that doesn’t love me or the chapter itself. Forget whether I started the book before the ethers asked me to, or I punked out under my own steam. Forget all of it.
Time for a walk.
A new chapter is an exercise in immersion. In Method acting. A session with Other and Elsewhere. See the place. Be the place. Smell it, feel the air, feel the street underfoot. Do what the character does; experience the physical place as she does. Find her reactions there.
Do that, know what you want the end impression to be (the state of the character if not the actual end of the chapter), and the thing will come.
Not so fast. Not so simple.
Commerce takes its toll. The hours to work are limited. In that long walk, one can barely get up a NYC Walker’s head of steam before sleep insists that you attend to its needs. Cats and bodies need feeding. Exercise asks politely for your time and is quietly refused.
When a good, long, vigorous pace is required, a saunter is all that is managed. One wishes to take a physical walk in the dark; better sense prevails. One wishes for a contemplative stroll down the road by the river on a cool near-Fall afternoon; the river is 900 miles away. One settles for the make-do of the moment—the ordering of notes into a chapterly progression, in the hope that some seduction, some driving enthusiasm, will emerge.
Good luck with that.
These are the days of I-wish-I-could-shut-myself-up-in-a-dark-quiet-room-for-hours. To tempt imagination with the promise of letting it out of its cage. It’s not gonna happen. Not for another couple of days, at least. I am locked in the box of my head, within the box of my 14th floor space, about to ready myself to move to the box of Commerce. One of those days in which I feel acutely the burden of what I have traded imagination for.
Now excuse me, it’s time to get ready for the office.
Writer hell. A long, frustratingly muzzy-headed day in the office. And a brain too overloaded to know when to quit. I hit the chapter. I had to.
And I figured out some problems. Maybe.
The chapter is our introduction to one main character and to a principal one. It sets the stage for an essentially urban work. It poses a philosophical argument.
This last it did in waaaaaayyyy too much detail.
I had so many great quotes that pumped the book’s external theme that I wanted to eat them all in the same scene. Big mistake to be so in love with a set of ideas that you can’t find the page underneath them. A first-rate meal is not measured by its quantity.
Enter Ming the Merciless Editor. Cut. Cut. And cut.
I do not for one moment subscribe to the cavalier editorial advice to cut by half then cut again. This is a lazy, limping platitude for those with no sense of pace or form, as useless as the Emperor’s “too many notes” criticism of Mozart in Amadeus. That said, editing does have its uses as an identifier of problems.
And luckily, I have a tool that serves me well in times of unconfident fumbling: the grey tool.
Think you don’t like something? Think you might? Not sure? Make it grey…the lighter the shade, the less committed you are to the idea. In that way, you can save what you’re unsure of—your eye will read past it—but it will still be there in its original context until you decide for sure whether it belongs there or anywhere. A literary “have your cake and eat it, too” system.
The tool was hunting at full cry last night. Words, sentences, entire paragraphs got greyed-out with merciless abandon. Next, the writer re-read around the grey and pillaged her way through the pages. Even managed to find a passage or two that wanted back in…and for that, thank you, grey.
Is the chapter better now? Yes. Is it right; does it sing? Time will tell. Perspective is the other grey gift, and time is the thing that gives it. Time heals the mistakes of tired writers. Time puts the tear of repentance into Ming the Merciless Editor’s eye. Time lets brain-drained writers hate themselves a little less; lets us live to fight another day.
The brain solves problems at 4 ayem. It does so while writers stare at the digits on the clock that have become all too familiar, lately. The problems you solve there are not always the ones you wanted to set right. And they don’t get solved the way you expect them to.
The question I’ve been facing is a huge one: how to make plausible the pivotal—but improbable—device that drives the new book’s plot.
Without this device there is no book, plain and simple. If it fails in being real, even for a moment, the book dies there. One does not have to believe that such a thing exists, or even that it might. One must only accept that it is alive in this world and that it is worthy of the story that one has raised around it.
One cannot muscle this things into a reader’s belief. One can’t create truth out of the fantastical with glowing prose. One can’t apologize for the choice. One cannot pretend that the device is anything but what it is, and try to do it well enough that the reader will want to stay for the ride.
I look to The Time Traveler’s Wife as an example: a book built upon an impossible notion—and yet, we don’t mind that it does. The improbable idea is the vehicle for greater meaning. It is the pathway to something bigger.
In the current work, I have plagued myself with questions about how this pivotal phenomenon happened; where it came from and how much needed to be explained. Was it a cop-out to just ask it to be? Did the character get hit on the head and–bam!–it appeared? (The answer is NO.) Did its simple existence push the entire story past the point of acceptance?
Tough questions that can kill a book before its born.
But Sleepless-Writer-Head works in mysterious ways. At 4 ayem, the stubborn question began to answer itself…but not in the way I expected it to do.
Sleepless-Writer-Head turned the stubborn, resistant question inside out.
Suddenly, instead of asking myself how the phenomenon happened, I found myself asking what the creation of the thing looked like…which turned into an examination of how we affect the space around us in every living moment, in ways seen and unseen…which turned into an understanding part physiological, part philosophical, part mystical. An explanation improbable, still. But an idea naked and vulnerable no longer.
4:25 ayem. The trail marker on the path to Suspension of Disbelief. The workaround. The ethers work in mysterious ways.