Wednesday, September 30, 2015

My Love/Hate Relationship with Writing Guides Continues

How are you with museums? Avoid them? Love them? I happen to love the idea of museums very much, and I do enjoy going to them and wish I went more often. But I have a definite time limit where they’re concerned. Maybe an hour-and-half to two hours, that’s it. I go in with all receptors primed but by the end of that time frame, I usually hit a wall, when I can’t see/read/hear any more. Just can’t take it in. Sensory overload, I guess. I have a similar threshold where socializing is concerned, but that’s beside the point.
I was an English major in college, which means that I read and wrote about fiction. As opposed to a creative writing degree, which seems to have its own benefits. I learned to write by reading. From time to time, I do like to pick up a book about writing, in the interests of gathering information. I’d like to think I’ll remain open to learning, no matter how curmudgeonly and resolute in my ways I become. This week, I read Into the Woods by John Yorke. I’ve no idea how this book came to be on my shelf; I’m assuming I read about it someplace. It’s a writing guide aimed towards screenwriters and most of the references are film ones, but that was okay with me because a good amount of my personal references are film ones as well. The original subtitle of Yorke’s book was A Five-Act Journey into Story, and I can only assume the publisher issued the alternate subtitle How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them after it became clear that a) the book was appealing to writers of things other than scripts and b) there is some division between the 3-act camp and 5-act camp, and no reason to alienate either one from buying the book.

So. I have to share that the cover, as you can see, couldn’t be more awful. I mean, I get that we’re in textbook mode here, but aside from the look of it, it also has a strangely plastic feel and the black ends up with scratches, marks and smears. It’s the book equivalent of those black pants you never wear because they attract every piece of lint and hair in the room. My favorite Amazon review of the book, titled “A five act journey into utter tedium!” agrees with me on this point: “Oh, and the paperback has a horrible plain black cover that is faintly repellent to the touch.” Very true.
If you’re starting to think that the rambling nature of this review is an early indicator of my engagement style with writing guides, you’d be right. Now, what was I saying? Oh, yes, the actual text. I started out as I do in museums, totally engaged, neurons firing. I had a pen and was underlining things. Here are a few I like:
“What an archetypal story does is introduce you to a central character—the protagonist—and invite you to identify with them; effectively they become your avatar in the drama.”
(I like that bit about the avatar.)
“Niceness tends to kill characters. Much more interesting are the rough edges, the darkness.”
“Three-dimensional characters have both a want and a need, and they are not necessarily the same thing.”
There were more, but you’ll have to get the book. Yorke talks about early forms of story, and how the overall structure has generally stayed the same over centuries. There are refreshers on Aristotle and Campbell, which I liked. He differentiates between the three-act structure and the five-act structure (spoiler: they’re sort of the same!), and gives examples along the way. I will say that some examples seemed more shoehorned into the structure than others; it started to seem like a diagram you could argue anything into. But I enjoyed the early sections, the more historical and theoretical parts.
The middle section of the book really gets down to details. The chapters had names like Exposition, Subtext, and Character Individuation. If I had been at a museum, this would have been when I started to think about lunch/dinner/nap. There were charts and figures.
By the last section, the charts became more complex and I was fully in skim mode. There were lengthy breakdowns of particular films, and long examples of dialogue. There are all sorts of people in the world, and I’m sure some would really enjoy the specifics given, the many, many pages of Notes at the end. But I was already out that museum door.
Was the book a loss? Definitely not! I took away some new knowledge, some reminders of things I’ve read before, and several things to think about. I still hope to keep learning new things about writing as I go along, and it’s never a bad idea to break up your routine. I’ll keep this book on my shelf and perhaps refer back to a few sections. After I finished, I had an overwhelming urge to pick up something written by one of my idols, and I can’t help but think that in the end, it will be more inspirational. That’s the way I learned to write, after all, and it would seem I can’t really be retrained.

Monday, September 14, 2015

White Space

Remember that Bob Seger classic, Against the Wind? It’s all about youth and “living to run and running to live,” existing in the moment, not worrying about paying or how much you owe, “breaking all of the rules that would bend.” But then Mr. Seger has to grow up, doesn’t he? He finds himself “further and further from his home,” “searching for shelter” against that wind he used to love so much. And then, this pivotal verse:
Well those drifters days are past me now
I've got so much more to think about
Deadlines and commitments
What to leave in, what to leave out
and it occurs to me that this is just like writing and then, later, editing your work. Right? No worries when you’re writing. Just get the thing out, everyone will tell you. Break rules, don’t worry about it. Lose yourself in that heady wind of creativity.
Editing is a bit different, isn’t it? It’s your grown-up self, making some tough decisions. Maybe you have a deadline; maybe you’ve got commitments to yourself, your outline, your intentions. It’s all about deciding what to leave in and especially, what to leave out.
It’s been likened to sculpting, to whittling away until you have only the best bits left. Ernest Hemingway famously called this process “The Theory of Omission.” He talked about an iceberg and the underwater, supporting parts that often should remain hidden.
In a recent New Yorker, John McPhee put it like this:
Be that as it might not be, Ernest Hemingway’s Theory of Omission seems to me to be saying to writers, “Back off. Let the reader do the creating.” To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images—such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader. In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out.
You can read the rest of the essay here, and it's well worth your while.
It was a timely read for me, as I’ve been doing the grown-up work of editing lately. It’s a puzzle of sorts, deciding how much to show and how much to keep close to the vest. From the other side, as a reader, I’m often annoyed when a writer tells too much, doesn’t trust my ability to figure things out, doesn’t allow me the pleasure of filling in certain blanks. That elbow room that McPhee talks about, the “white space.” And that’s, basically, what’s on a page anyway, isn’t it? Some sort of balance between black and white, and it’s our job to make it a balance that feels right.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Editing: Time Travel, Telekinesis and Leaning

I’ve been editing something this week. Not a close, line by line edit; I’ve already done that to this particular thing recently. This was the kind of edit where you try to step back and see it as a whole. Structurally, looking at construction and flow. But you still have to read it, right? For me, the way to do it is to read quickly, with maybe half your attention, not allowing yourself to get sucked into the celebration of a particular word, line or feeling. And at the end, start again at the beginning. Round and round. The effect is not unlike one of those fair rides. (Also, both will make you sick if you do it for too long.)
In this dizzying process, I’ve noticed a few things about my characters.
1.      They have the ability to speed up time. The scene starts and they have, perhaps, opened a bottle of wine. A few sentences later, they’re ready for a second glass. There was no talk of gulping or chugging and yet, inexplicably, they’ve finished. I think this happens because the writing of the scene takes so long it seems like they should be done. Either that, or writing makes you want to drink.
2.      They can telekinetically move objects through space. One of my characters took her sweater off when she arrived at a house party, then had the sweater later, then somehow lost it again by the end of the night and the host had to retrieve it. Why she was so obsessed with that stupid sweater is another whole issue.
3.       They say “Oh” a lot. And “well,” and “all right” (although I still think it should be “alright”). Don’t get me wrong—I think real people say these things in conversation all the time (also: “okay,” “you know,” and “literally,”) but that doesn’t mean anyone wants to see them in a book.
4.      They lean a lot. This is usually when they’re talking to someone. They lean on countertops and across tables to make a point. They lean against walls and cars, and sometimes, they lean into another person when they’re feeling romantic. I started to wonder about all of this leaning, and whether I had a bunch of fatigued characters on my hands.
To be honest, I felt myself wanting to lean against something by the time I was finished. It’s exhausting, trying to get these people in line. And now that I’m done, I feel like you do after that spinning ride at the fair—exhilarated, disoriented, and ready for a corn dog.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka