Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


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Going Places

Michelle CameronTips on starting with a bang, from TWC Associate Director Michelle Cameron:

Picture this scene:

A man lands at an airport. The plane taxis on the ground for nearly fifteen minutes, while all around him, people are talking on their cell phones, hoping to be picked up or explaining when they’ll arrive, or just letting the family at home know they’ve arrived safely.

The plane finally taxis to the gate. People take down their luggage and wait, impatiently, in the corridor of the aircraft. Finally, the line begins to inch forward. It picks up speed. Everyone moves out of the aircraft while the flight crew bids them farewell.

The man moves quickly through the terminal, exiting at the security gate. He goes downstairs to the luggage area, a cold, sterile place. He waits for his luggage to appear…

Are you bored yet? I am, and I haven’t even had my character retrieve his luggage, find a taxi, drive though the city, check in at the hotel…

Now, consider this:

A man lands at an airport. Two hours later, in his hotel room, he lies down on the king-sized bed and calls his mistress.

Bam. In two short sentences, we’ve moved the story forward – and haven’t bored the reader (or writer) to death.

It can be difficult for writers to know how many transitional details to add to a story or novel. Sometimes a writer feels obliged to include some of the day-to-day details that, frankly, have meaning in real life but not necessarily in a piece of fiction.

Generally, it’s good to recognize when you yourself are losing interest in just such a transition. That’s usually a great clue to examine why you’re writing such a scene. There are some times when you might want to include the transitional details. For instance, if they give some insight into the character or set a scene that is going to be important for your readers, then it’s worth it. But if they don’t serve the story in any way except to get your character from place to place, consider cutting them and getting right into the action.

How? A simple transitional phrase such as “two hours later” will usually be enough for the reader to fill in the gaps. We’ve all been to airports, we know the mindless details that have to occur as you go from place to place. We’re often happy not to have to revisit them in our fiction.

The best rule of thumb is always – does your transition serve the story? If not, as they say in the movies, “cut to the chase” and get moving.

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Huh…? vs. Hmmm…

We writers love the mystery of a story’s unfolding. Half the time, honestly, we’re not quite sure where it’s going ourselves. Isn’t that part of the fun – the exploration and discovery? And isn’t that the same amazing journey we want to share with our readers?

In our attempts to invite readers into the adventure, we strive for thoroughness, complexity, grace and subtlety. But our efforts, however earnest, can sometimes leave our readers overwhelmed or confused.

Don't wake me from the fictional dream.

Don't wake me from the fictional dream.


The Data Dump
Beginning writers often feel compelled to get everything down all at once. I call it a data dump, and it’s a natural tendency. We get so filled with our vision. It’s glorious and we want to share it all. We’ve thought long and hard about our characters and their circumstances. So we write it all out furiously and are only satisfied when everything’s on the page–until we go back and realize that it’s an unsightly mass of thoughts with no tension, no nuance. Everything is just laid out – splat! – without any shape or form.

Historical novelists (and others who rely heavily on research) are particularly prone to the data dump disease, as Michelle and I discussed at our panel last Sunday at BooksNJ 2011. We tend to fall in love with every measly, obscure detail and get so caught up that we forget that most readers don’t want to know how many lice were in the midden pit in a particular chieftain’s homestead in 10th century Greenland. (Yes, I once could have quoted you exact counts, back when I was working on The Thrall’s Tale!)

No novelist wants to offer up for mass consumption a poorly masked treatise. A certain perspective is required to decide how much to give, how much to hold back, and how to layer in just the right details to give the flavor to our thoroughly researched work without making it too rich to swallow. A fiction writer’s first concern must always be characters and conflict, rich emotions and lives that are made, transformed, destroyed…. Truly, don’t we all want to be swept away?

Don’t Hold Back
The next writerly menace is to hold back too much. This is where our readers are likely to say, “Huh…?” Perhaps our character is a speechless orphan who wanders the city streets holding out his hand. Since he cannot communicate, we never know what happened to him. Still we follow because he’s fascinating, sympathetic, forlorn. We are dying for our readers to comprehend his true depth and sorrows, but we give them only in hints and grunts, heart-wrenching looks and shuffling feet. See, dear reader, those huge, hungry eyes?

By trying to be subtle, we often end up being obscure. We neglect to take advantage of opportunities to slip in tidbits of back-story, a flashback or two of the past, or something said by a passerby who can shed a little light. If we don’t give something, our readers will eventually lose interest in our carefully crafted prose. They’ll be left saying, “Huh…?” instead of “Hmmmm….” and leave us behind.

Missing Bits
Even when you don’t fall victim to either of the above extremes, there are always little things that we authors understand implicitly but that our readers are completely unaware of. It’s not their fault. They’re trusting us to tell them what they need to know. We might drop hints that are too veiled for their own good, or forget to follow up a critical off-hand comment with proper reinforcement. All of these are cases when our readers are likely to say, “Huh…?” not “Hmmmm…”

Any time we leave our readers confused, we take them out of what John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous fictional dream.” In his classic, The Art of Fiction, Gardner goes on: “In bad or unsatisfying fiction, this fictional dream is interrupted by some mistake or conscious ploy on the part of the artist. We are abruptly snapped out of the dream, forced to think of the writer or writing.”

We never want to draw our readers’ attention out of the book and we never want to draw attention to ourselves. The minute they say, “Huh…?” we’ve lost them. But a subtle or direct hint, an emotionally charged accusation, a dirty look or a crumpled photograph in the orphan’s pocket might reveal the character’s inner workings. It would leave the reader wanting to know more, and then, if we’ve done our job well, they’ll read on.

So how do you achieve the perfect balance between dump and hold? Think of sand through the small cracks between your fingers. You need to drop just enough, but not let the whole thing fall. One writer friend calls it “seeding”; another “tucking”; I often think of it as “layering” or “brush-stroking”. But one way or another, you drop in the details so discreetly that your readers hardly notice as they take it all in, organically understanding the terms and stakes, the characters and their interior complexities, the painful past and foreshadowed fate. We lay the groundwork and then carefully nurture it by giving our readers subtle reminders and more hints, building a stronger picture for them bit by bit until the moment when our story finally comes to full bloom, when everything will come together with the sense of random inevitability. We are swept away and returned. At last, the truth is revealed.


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The Power of Revision, from TWC Associate Teacher Michelle Cameron

As many of you know, The Writers Circle is expanding. It’s a thrilling leap of faith for me to take our very personal, very “hyperlocal” community and reach across time and space (OK, it’s only eleven miles…!) to add a new link to the chain.

Michelle Cameron, who has posted as a guest here before, will be teaching two free introductory workshops this Sunday, March 27, at Sages Pages in Madison, NJ. Children from 11:00 AM-12:30 PM will join Story Magic, our multidisciplinary approach to creative writing. Adults will enjoy a more staid but equally nurturing workshop from 1:00-2:30 PM. Please come by, bring your kids (or not!), and welcome Michelle into our Circle.

Meanwhile, I give Michelle the stage once again with some wonderful insights into The Power of Revision:

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I write quickly. Always have. It’s been a lifesaver, because right now, my life doesn’t give me the leisure I’d like to take with my writing.

But while I produce words swiftly and can focus in very short bursts, I do tend toward that infatuation with what I’ve just written that I think plagues all writers. I look at the freshly-minted page and fall in love. It’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s sublime. I want the world to read it, then and there.

I was reminded of this when I watched the video, Sondheim teaches ‘Later’ from A Little Night Music:


As Sondheim explains, this song describes Henrik, a sullen, adolescent young man from Scandinavia who is constantly being told “later” by everyone around him, with resulting frustration. Pay attention to the singer’s rendering of the piece. Sondheim allows him to get all the way through it the first time around. Listening to it (and granted, I am musically ill-equipped), one would think the music student had nailed it. There’s no place to go here. It’s perfect, just the way it is. Well, maybe not perfect, but good enough.

But Sondheim, the consummate artist, understands the power of revision. He has a vision of what he wants to hear and makes the performer repeat the song over and over until he achieves what he has in mind, because artistry isn’t just getting the notes right – it’s understanding the nuances that make it a living, breathing thing.

The first interruption of the second rendition of the song comes early. “It’s already too angry,” says Sondheim, wanting the student to understand how Henrik would really sing these words.

Characterization is critical to just about any song Sondheim writes. Giving the actor “someplace to go,” so his anger doesn’t stay at the same pitch throughout, is vital. He has also carefully considered the reasons why Henrik plays his mournful instrument, the cello – as opposed to any other instrument.

Sondheim then gives us a bit of insight into a fairly comprehensive cut that he made to the musical as a whole. Originally, every character was going to be carrying an instrument. “But it got too pretentious and it had to go,” he tells the audience, who laughs appreciably.

What they may not understand thoroughly, though, is the discipline it takes to make a cut of that magnitude. Take a second to ponder this. Sondheim went through the process of selecting instruments for each of the characters in A Little Night Music. It sounds as though he might even have staged it. But he was willing to cut this particular theme – akin to a writer having to write a character out of a novel, something I’ve actually done. Never mind the hours spent to make the selections. If it doesn’t ultimately serve the piece – it’s got to go.

Which brings me back to my original point. Getting the words down is only part of writing. The part that makes a writer into an artist is the ability to wait, to gain some distance, to come back to the draft with dispassion, and then to make sure that every word, character, plot device, and description all work as a cohesive whole.

It takes discipline. It means you often have to wait until “later.” But only there, in revision, is art truly possible.


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Taming the Wilderness

All of us struggle with revision. It is undoubtedly the most anguished part of the writer’s craft. Earlier this week, one of our Circle bemoaned the challenge. “I wrote the entire manuscript in a few months. Now it’s taking me weeks just to revise a single chapter.”

Believe me, I understand. I’ve felt the same frustration. But I’ve come to realize that revision is as much about another draft as it is untangling the emotional ties we have to our existing creation.

Writers make much of the daunting blank page. But I say first drafts are incredibly freeing. You can do anything you want, write anything that comes. If you can shut down that nagging inner critic for a bit, trust me, your words will flow and you will undoubtedly think they are wonderful.

But also trust me, first drafts are always – repeat ALWAYS – terrible.


It’s a childish conviction that art is “a matter of instinct—that the artist’s first impulse is most authentic,” as Allegra Goodman writes in her recent Wall Street Journal article, Inspiration Revised. The more mature recognition is that only through revision can we hone our raw instincts into something that vaguely approaches passable, never mind art.

“Even the great ones work for greatness,” Goodman writes, referring to her own youthful realization after studying Keats’ path to poetic god-hood. “What we write instinctively—the story that seems most immediate and personal—is often the most conventional.”

Yes, conventional in form, execution, language, character, pacing, and tone. But in those first impulses are the kernels of something better. The trick is to step back far enough to recognize inspiration’s flaws. From a safe emotional and creative distance, we can begin to consider dispassionately what is wrong and weigh the infinite options for improvement.


Revision is a tricky thing, though. We run the risk of strangling our best impulses and creating something wooden and flat in our effort to remake what inspiration spawned. It’s a careful balancing act to know what to change and how, who to listen to, how far to go, and when to say, “Stop, no. That really is the way I want it.”

Revision is the work of making the words flow naturally when they are anything but. But you don’t have to transform your rocky wilderness into a formal garden. We’re not trying to turn tribal dance into grand ballet. We are aiming for a place that is somewhere in between, where we finally accomplish the vision we were aiming for all along, taming the vista we had originally discovered, but leaving it still unique and perhaps just a little bit wild.


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Deconstructing the Reconstruction

Taking criticism is never easy, no matter how expert, apropos, or kind. We can feel our bodies seizing up, our hearts palpitating, our minds starting to whirl with refusals, excuses, explanations, denials. Of course, my original is perfect! They just don’t understand! But if we chose our readers wisely, usually we find they’re right. Maybe the solution isn’t exactly as they suggest, but there’s a kernel of truth in their issues and insights that we would all be wise to examine.

Orwell 1984 Draft

George Orwell's "1984", work in progress


I confronted this working on my latest revisions. My good friend Marina had given my manuscript a thorough, thoughtful once-over and we’d spent hours discussing her comments and suggestions. I spent another couple of weeks reviewing everything and organizing my thoughts. I had a plan, typed up in an orderly 17-page outline. Then I charged ahead, ready to put the plan into action.

Everything she’d suggested made absolute sense. She’d asked to know certain details about my characters, stakes, and cultural setting sooner. So often, we discover things as we go along. It’s a natural result of the exploratory writing process. But upon revision, we sometimes forget to question what the reader knows when. It just feels right to leave things where we originally conceived them. But if you’d been born with one arm sticking out of your waist instead of your shoulder – just a few inches down, really! – wouldn’t you want it moved?

I concentrated on my opening chapters, rearranging chronology and tucking in bits of back-story that had been threaded into the plot too late.
A couple of weeks later, I sent the revisions to another dear friend-reader, Karen, who’d seen earlier versions. She wasn’t a “cold reader”, which turned out to be invaluable. When she emailed me back, I sensed careful anxiety in her words: “I hate to say it, but I think the earlier version was better.”

OUCH! It had taken me a great deal of time and emotional fortitude to untangle and re-craft what I’d so carefully honed. Now would I really have to go back – AGAIN? After a little break, long enough to heal my punch-in-the-gut disappointment, I re-read what I’d done, saw exactly what Karen meant and, honestly, I agreed.

I was utterly grateful. I needed someone to be honest, and both my readers had been. The truth was somewhere in between. Some of the new version I really liked, but I had dampened the initial “magic” of my opening. How could I deconstruct my reconstruction without losing what was good, without destroying even more of what I’d already messed up?

So I took my painstaking but unsuccessful attempt, saved it in my “old versions” folder, and tried again. What I discovered was that Marina was right, but that I’d taken her too literally. Yes, there were pieces missing or that came in too late, but I didn’t need to deal with them all at once, and I didn’t need to move everything all around. My approach had to be subtler, like tying tiny, invisible threads, not applying Frankenstein-like bolts and ungainly stitches.

Another couple of weeks and I sent my new effort. Karen loved it. WHEW! Though I haven’t sent it to Marina yet. I’m trying to move on, a few more chapters before I turn to her again. Because there’s more to come. I don’t want to exhaust either of my readers. I need them fresh enough to give me a broad overview of what I’ve done, not comments on particular lines, paragraphs or even scenes. I need the whole arc….

And, yes, this is my fifth draft. I swear it’ll be my last, but don’t hold me to anything.


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A House A-Crumble

I had a dream last night that my house was crumbling. The front stairway, made of concrete, was so precarious it broke beneath my feet as I tried to mount. The porch displayed its gray, rotted wood in the cloud-light, and the front door was hanging on its hinges.

Into this wreck, I entered optimistically, skipping when the stairs collapsed, my hammer hanging from my work-pants like a decoration. I felt certain that everything around me could be spruced up to perfection. I already had a plan to center the stairs (they were dangling far off to the right) and to tear off the front railings so the porch would stand breezy, open and welcoming.

Home Repair
When I awoke, at first I panicked, thinking that this really was my house. But after a moment’s reorientation, I realized this dream house was my novel. Indeed, this dream was laced with apprehension, but also a sense of determination, empowerment and purpose. I would rebuild this crumbling chaos into something embracing and beautiful.

Yesterday I finished reviewing my editor’s manuscript notes. There’s a lot of work to do, though somehow it all feels doable. Perhaps that is the message of this dream, that even before a daunting task (one I thought I could avoid… hoped I could anyway) I am optimistic and even energized; that the goal of my efforts is worth all the sweat and dust of tearing apart and reconfiguring, dovetailing and pegging. I can see it in my mind. Now it’s just a matter of making it happen.

I expect to spend most of this week reviewing my review of my editor’s review, typing up my notes, and going through the hard-copy manuscript. I expect to add more slashes and arrows, more inserts that slip onto the back sides of pages, and more cut and paste. Really, I’m thinking of using scissors and scotch tape!

All of this, in preparation for one final push that had better NOT be just one among many.

Even for the most accomplished writers, it’s never, ever easy. And there are no guarantees in this changing world of publishing. I’m as nervous as anyone that my efforts will prove futile and I’ll never see these hard-sweated-over words in print, even digital print, anytime soon. But I have no control over any of that. In a recent webinar hosted by Digital Book World*, an editor from a major house attempted to reassure listeners, “The job of the writer really hasn’t changed. Write a good story as well as you possibly can.”

So I take my fortitude in hand like a hammer and hop-skip those crumbling stairs two at a time; and I hold my breath as I take my first swing and knock down that wall. It won’t be long before I’ve reassembled my dream house. That’s the kind of energy, determination and clarity of vision that’s required to be a writer.

* The webinar was “The Digital Author: New Challenges, Opportunities, Partners.” Sorry, access to the archives requires membership, which is not exactly cheap. But you can sign up to receive notice of upcoming events that are frequently free.