Saturday, April 12, 2008

Q & A, Part 2

Continuing with Eamon's questions--his last, in fact--from a couple days ago:

Q) What useful things have you learned about creative writing in general from writing this book?
(from someone looking to be inspired/learn new things for his own book)

A)
Though I've learned much from writing this book, I've also gleaned much from other sources. Below are a few things I've gathered along the journey.

I copyedited manuscripts for a publisher. My job was to find spelling, punctuation, usage, and subject/verb agreement errors--all the boring stuff--but I also found paragraphs that should be rearranged, or sentences that were awkwardly structured or misplaced. Once phrases or entire sentences were given new homes, the writing flowed. It read well.

LESSON ONE: The boring stuff matters. Who cares how creative your stories are if you can't tell them coherently?

I also edit manuscripts writers are preparing to send to agents or editors. Some writers have already been published, but for most this is their first manuscript to be sent out into the world. They want "the works" when it comes to editing/critiquing. From reading these manuscripts, I've often learned what not to do in my own writing.

LESSON TWO: Read someone else's manuscript. Sometimes we are blind to our own words, and need the mirror of others to see our mistakes.

LESSON THREE: The adage "show, don't tell" is valid. Sometimes, we need to tell the reader some information because we need to condense time or space on the page, and move on to the next scene. However, those times should be rare. Never miss an opportunity to dramatize the story, make it come to life. Don't report dialogue; let us hear it. Don't tell us how characters feel; show emotion in their actions, words, expressions, silences.

For more along this line, check out Rebecca Miller's blog for a discussion of Scene vs. Narrative.

LESSON FOUR: Silence is golden. Sometimes, we writers fall so in love with our own words that we disgorge them onto the page with abandon, without consideration to whether or not they belong there. If we subject the reader to long passages of poetic prose describing the countryside, he may give up on the story altogether, or he may skip ahead to the good stuff, to where something is actually happening. Interweave description with action. Learn when to shut up.

Learn what to leave out. There is power in a character's pause, in the implied words he never says, in the actions she almost takes. Go ahead, and lead the reader toward a certain conclusion, but also leave something to the reader's imagination; it will often be more powerful than any words we might use to fill the gap.

LESSON FIVE: Daydreaming is an active pursuit. To the untrained eye, you're lollygagging. You're sitting and staring at the ceiling, out the window, into oblivion. You're watching paint dry. No. Your mind is active. In your mind, warriors are scaling cliffs, serial killers are stalking their next victims, a lover is desperately trying to capture the girl's attention, the gunfight is about to commence. Writers need time apart and alone in which to daydream. That's part of telling the story.

LESSON SIX: Patience is also an active pursuit. Sometimes, the words won't arrive when we need them. Sometimes characters dig in their heels, stick out their chins, and refuse to cooperate. They say things that raise our eyebrows or do things that startle the rest of the fictional populace. When this happens, don't scrap the work. Stop. Reflect. Consider the alternatives. Go with it--see where this leads. Go backward--see if you took a wrong turn. Most often, I see where the new road takes me, and I am rarely sorry.

Sometimes, you realize you've taken on a task bigger than you expected. (Ahem. That's what happened to me with this current project). It expands like some sort of alien goo. How are you going to tell a story that's so big you stagger under its weight?

You can only do what you can do. You start. Perhaps you produce a timeline so that you know what happens next, who enters the story and where. Perhaps you outline the plot--as a whole, or chapter by chapter, or scene by scene. Perhaps you just wing it (my most-used strategy), and you write about this group of characters and their problems and desires, then you bring in other groups or events, and so on, and weave the tangled threads as you go. Perhaps you adopt an eclectic approach: seat-of-the-pants mixed with a little outlining here and there, and sometimes a timeline to help orient yourself.

However you approach it, don't give up. I've been with the basic kernel of this story for about twelve years, wrote other stuff and tinkered with this one, but didn't get serious for a long time because it was hard work. The story, however, wouldn't let me go. January 1, 2008, the first manuscript in the cycle was completed, and now I'm three-fourths of the way through the second one. Patience is an active verb.

LESSON SEVEN: Be true to the story.

Don't let others write it for you. Sometimes, we ask for the opinions of other writers, and their version of an edit or a critique is to rewrite the story in their image. Help is one thing; control is another. A good editor will hunker down inside your story, get a feel for it, try to look at the story's world through your eyes, then help you tell that story and reveal that world as best as possible. He won't take over and turn the tale into something it was never intended to be.

Go ahead, have a theme, but don't turn your fiction into a pulpit. This goes back to Lessons Three and Four: "Show, don't tell" and "Silence is golden." You may want to dramatize a family breaking apart, or a person being lured into an abusive relationship, or maybe you're going for a broader effect, such as nations at war, the politics of poverty, and so on. Perhaps you have experienced something similar, and the idea about which you write is a personal thing. You have strong feelings about it, or strong beliefs. Tell us a story, but don't tell us what to think, believe, or feel. A reader's imagination, personal experiences, and beliefs will do that job. He may disagree. That's okay. But, if you do your job well, he may keep reading until the end. What more can a storyteller ask?

Lastly, don't let others tell you it can't be done, it won't sell, you'll never finish, it's no good, whatever. If you--the author--believe in your story, if it grabs you by the collar and drags you to the finish, then it must be written, even if it won't sell or it's not good. You need to ask yourself why you're writing it in the first place. Perhaps it's not intended for the world. Perhaps it's the thing you must write before you can write something else. Many bestselling authors have years of work hidden in a filing cabinet or a cardboard box, piles of pages, thousands of words, that the world will never see. Those are the training manuscripts. Don't be afraid to write a few.

6 comments:

The Texican said...

Very Good. Is it published? If not, why not? Byline would probably publish it. Have you rescued hero man with the tornado yet. I'm waiting.

KEANAN BRAND said...

Well, Byline wouldn't want it, but I might try for a few short stories.

As for hero man and the tornado, no, didn't go with the tornado. Had enough of those lately. Went a little mundane with the rescue, but it's true to the story's events. (Not gonna tell ya how. You'll just have to wait till it's finished.)

Eaglewing said...

Great stuff, and lessons to remember. I definitely agree with #4. Sometimes a paragraph to describe a grass field is important, but most of the time I'll just scan past it when I'm reading. Could be me though, as I prefer leaner stories.

And I love #5 too. Sometimes I might be just lying on the floor staring at the ceiling, but characters are having some great conversations in my head.

Oh, and #1 is important too. I was helping a friend with a grammar homework assignment (part of a medical lab course for some weird reason), and did an edit job on a short story. And boy, does that boring stuff matter when it's not there.

Eamon said...

Keanan.
Really interesting and useful post. Thanks.

'The boring stuff matters' - absolutely. This is the nuts and bolts that keeps it all together. I really think from my experience it is worth buying a book or two to study this (and it increases your confidence as well in approaching the subject of writing in general).

'Read someone else's manuscript. Sometimes we are blind to our own words, and need the mirror of others to see our mistakes' - absolutely. And even the best writers admit to making fairly straight-foward mistakes.

'The adage "show, don't tell" is valid.' this is golden. Learn this and things will change dramatically.

'story, make it come to life' fundamental (and really enjoyable as a writer to experience - perhaps what writing is really all about).

'Don't report dialogue; let us hear it. Don't tell us how characters feel; show emotion in their actions, words, expressions, silences' - absolutely

'Interweave description with action' - yes

'Learn what to leave out' - y.

'Patience is also an active pursuit' - yes (and perseverance)

'Perhaps you outline the plot--as a whole, or chapter by chapter, or scene by scene. Perhaps you just wing it (my most-used strategy), and you write about this group of characters and their problems and desires, then you bring in other groups or events, and so on, and weave the tangled threads as you go. Perhaps you adopt an eclectic approach: seat-of-the-pants mixed with a little outlining here and there, and sometimes a timeline to help orient yourself'
- even the best writers have very different approaches. The important thing is what works for you (and what you enjoy doing).

'don't give up' yes!

'Don't let others write it for you' - at the end of the day why do we write. We write, surely, just because we enjoy doing it. And we enjoy doing it because it is something that only we can do (because we are all different / unique). And writing helps to clear out the brain of stuff, and put things into order. Getting someone else to write it, goes against all of this.

'Tell us a story, but don't tell us what to think, believe, or feel' - yes

'Lastly, don't let others tell you it can't be done, it won't sell, you'll never finish, it's no good, whatever. If you--the author--believe in your story, if it grabs you by the collar and drags you to the finish, then it must be written, even if it won't sell or it's not good'
- absolutely. The main point of writing it to enjoy NOT to get published (of course if you do get published and can make a living out of it to focus on writing - then GREAT - but the reality is that the minority not the majority achieve that - but even the professional writer has to enjoy what they do, otherwise they will be underachieving ..).
And if you do want to get published then you stand a much greater chance of getting published if you wrote to enjoy doing it as opposed to being just focused on getting published ..

'You need to ask yourself why you're writing it in the first place' - exactly!

Eamon said...

(by the way apologies for my grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes in last post - bit under the kosh at the moment to check them ..)

KEANAN BRAND said...

Glad this post is of use to y'all. If there's something I enjoy more than writing, it's helping other writers, so I'm glad to be of service.