Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: March 2008

Self-Measurement Through Writing

A couple weeks ago, Kyell was talking about how to measure your improvement as a writer. One of the things he recommends is going back through your old work from time to time, as you should be constantly acquiring better skills to evaluate your work.

This post on BLDGBLOG, which is usually about architecture, talks about measuring your progress through life by reading the same book every few years, or visiting the same building every few years. Oddly, I was just talking about this yesterday, how I remember the Circus Circus casino in Las Vegas as a big, glamorous place. I have a very vivid memory of standing right by the pit, because as a seven-year-old I wasn’t allowed to go down in where the slot machines were. But Circus Circus was (and remains) one of the more kid-friendly casinos on the Strip. Returning there a few years ago, it seemed shabby to me, dirty and old, not as glamorous as it had been.

The problem with buildings is that they change while we are changing, so unlike a novel, it’s not a fixed mark. Where Geoff of BLDGBLOG recommends going back and reading the same novel every few years, I think writers can go one better. You should go back and re-read when you can*, but you should also go back and examine your own work, to measure your growth as a person (what was important to you then? what were you writing about?) and as a writer (how have you matured? what mistakes did you make then?).

*My favorite books for re-reading, over the course of my life, are Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising” series, though currently my favorites are probably the Harry Potter books, because I’ve been re-reading them every time a new one comes out and they hold up surprisingly well. But “The Dark Is Rising” has been on my bookshelf since 1976-77ish, and I’ve re-read them every few years. And I did not go see the movie.

I admit I don’t spend a lot of time going back and re-reading my own work. Maybe in a couple years I’ll revisit “Common and Precious,” though I’m already embarrassed at some of the language errors I’ve come across just doing readings…

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Review: Reading Like A Writer

Reading Like A Writer, by Francine Prose
8/10, A useful analysis of writing with excerpts from some of the greats

One of the best parts of “Reading Like A Writer” is the examples she brings in from writers she esteems. In a few cases, I was left scratching my head, but most of the writing really is superb. I’m a firm believer in teaching by example, and so, apparently, is Prose. She picks passages from books and shows us what she loves about them, breaking the book into sections as basic as word choice and sentence structure and moving on to more complicated sections like dialogue and gesture.

I found the word choice and sentence structure sections rather slow. I appreciate the wonder of a well-crafted sentence, but I believe you can get by with those painstakingly constructed sentences at key points in your book: the beginning and the end, most notably (I agonized over the last sentence of “Common and Precious” for a week, and in the end, it’s still not as good as I would like it), but also at breaks in the story, chapter beginnings and endings, and at key emotional moments. If you agonize over every sentence in your novel, you will take a decade to write it. For some people, that’s fine; my writing is not that good, so I have to rely more heavily on story and character.

She writes about constructing paragraphs, which is a useful if somewhat dry section, and then gets into the meat of the book: story, character, and flow, the things that give a book texture and life. Don’t get me wrong: you need the foundation to be able to move on the wallpaper and decor. That doesn’t make the foundation any less dry. It was the later parts of the book that inspired me to re-examine my own writing, and to want to read some of the authors she excerpted (most notably Gertrude Stein).

This is a melange of an instructional manual for writers and an homage to great writers. The short excerpts give the reader the feeling that they, too, can do this with just a little extra work. After all, it’s laid out so clearly here, and in short, digestible bites. That kind of confidence is invaluable for a writer, and is one of the best points of this book. Once you close the last page, it remains with you.

R.I.P A.C.C.

Safe travels to Sir Arthur C. Clarke, wherever the next stage of his journey takes him.

Sean Murphy over at Wyrdsmiths says it best: “He will be remembered fondly, and re-read often.”

On Characters in Fiction

Via Nancy Nall:

“My experience with fiction is very limited — one screenplay, some abortive stories here and there — but the wonderful thing about it is, it’s a conjurer’s trick. You create your characters out of clay, breathe over them and make them live, and then they turn around, kick you in the kneecap, and start doing what they want. You can try to stop them, but doing so will retard your story. Your responsibility, as a writer, is to tell their story, and they will tell you what it is. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it; it’s the closest your average modern person will ever get to voodoo possession.”

Speaking just for myself, this is one of the things that keeps me writing fiction, that makes me cranky when I’m not writing, that gives me a rush when I complete a story. It’s that act of creation, of bringing characters to life and watching them grow, that odd feeling that they are almost independent of you (there’s a post coming in the future about the concept that writers “channel” their stories rather than creating them, the subject of a discussion with the award-nominated Ryan Campbell this weekend), watching them have triumphs and failures, loves and losses, lessons learned and lessons ignored. It’s why, even though “Moby Dick” is a huge, ponderous tome that most people haven’t gotten through, or have forgotten large chunks of it if they have, its beginning is one of the most famous in literature, because it introduces a character and a mystery and the tone of the novel all in three words.

And if you don’t know them, go look them up. :)

Award Nomination!

Hey, Common and Precious got nominated for an award! The Ursa Major Awards celebrate the best in fiction with anthropomorphic themes, and I’m on this year’s ballot! It’s a small award, but a cool one, so if you helped nominate, thanks! The voting is open to anyone, so now if you’d like to drop in and cast your vote for my novel, that’d be super cool! Also, my journal “New Fables” got nominated for best “fanzine,” so while you’re there, drop a vote in that category as well if you like. :)

Let me know when you’re nominated for something and I’ll vote for you too. :)

Clarity in Language

Blogs are supposed to be places where you get unfiltered, undiluted information. Of course, it comes with a bias, and the problem is not that that bias exists, but that it causes people to write–and read–without clarity in order to make a point. For example, this piece from last week’s “Right Wing Nut House”:

The Republicans, also seeking to get control of the primary process, took away half the delegates from Florida, Michigan, South Carolina, Wyoming, and New Hampshire – also as a result of their violations of primary scheduling rules. They also allowed full participation by all candidates in those primaries.

As a result, while there was some grumbling and even some legal challenges, the primaries went forward on the Republican side with little or no backlash.

It’s that last sentence that I want to call out. It’s easy to read it, especially if it’s one of ten blogs you’re looking at to get your morning news, and say “yeah, there was no backlash on the Republican side.” But if you examine it more closely…well, grumbling by itself might fall under “little backlash.” But “legal challenges”? Isn’t that a fairly large backlash? It’s not been well-publicized, but still, you could rewrite that sentence factually as: “As a result, while there was some backlash, the primaries went forward on the Republican side with little or no backlash.”

Doesn’t sound quite as informative, does it? More accurate would be for the author to have written: “As a result, while there was some grumbling and even some legal challenges, the primaries went forward on the Republican side with much less backlash than the Democrats are now experiencing.”

I don’t mean this to be a political post, or to call out the accuracy of the facts. I just hate unclear writing, especially when it is trying to influence people’s attitudes.

Gesture and Detail: An Exercise

I just finished Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, which started slow but got really good later on (full review forthcoming). Anyway, she has a chapter each on gestures and details, the upshot of which is that if you’re going to write a gesture a person makes into your manuscript, or a detail of a place or person, you should make every effort to make that a unique, distinguishing feature of that person or place.

For example, rather than:

“Is that so?” Joe took a drink of wine.

… think about why Joe would drink wine, what it reveals about him that he drank it at that moment, or in what way he takes the drink that can tell us how he’s feeling. Like:

“Is that so?” Joe raised the glass to his lips, his eyes never leaving hers as he sipped.

So my exercise to myself is to try to look around each day and notice one person’s gesture and/or one detail about a person or place, something unique and individual, and note it in my notebook. Part of being a writer is being a reader, not just of books but of the world around you.