“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” — Stephen King
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners. I wish someone had told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase; they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know that it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is DO A LOT OF WORK. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you finish one piece. It’s only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take a while. You just gotta fight your way through.” — Ira Glass
Dialogue in fiction is not simply people chatting away about their day. It’s supposed to do a lot of hard work: characterize the speaker, advance the plot, convey subtext. In a writing workshop that I’m taking this fall, the instructor, author Adam Stumacher, gave us some great advice about dialogue that I wanted to share here. It comes from Junot Diaz, Stumacher told us, and it has three parts. After you’ve written a section of dialogue, take a look at what you’ve written and Continue reading
Look at this example from Jim Henry’s story, “The Flood.”
“When I got home from the gym there was a message for the other Jonathan Patrick from a guy named Willie who said he’d had a prophetic dream and absolutely had to talk to me.”
One sentence. Lots of stuff going on. Notice the use of the word “other.” The other Jonathan Patrick. Immediately you know the narrator’s name. You know there’s someone else named that, you wonder who it is. You wonder who Willie is. You also wonder what the prophetic dream was. This opening sentence is working on so many different levels, compressing time and info information a compact, intriguing sentence.
And this from James Salter’s “Foreign Shores.”
Mrs. Pence and her white shoes were gone. She had left two days before, and the room at the top of the stairs was empty, cosmetics no longer littering the dresser, the ironing board finally taken down. Only a few scattered hairpins and a dusting of talcum remained. The next day Truus came with two suitcases and splotched cheeks. It was March and cold. Christopher met her in the kitchen as if by accident. “Do you shoot people?” he asked.
From this paragraph, which is the story’s opener, we know so much. For starters, there was a “Mrs. Pence,” who is now gone. Notice the use of the word “finally.” The ironing board was finally taken down, as if it had been a point of contention during her entire stay. And then Truus arrives with two suitcases and splotched cheeks. Splotched! You have to love this word. And even though you don’t know right away who Christopher is, you understand immediately that he must be a child, because no grownup would ask such a question! Lastly, notice how much time is compressed in this short graph. We get this idea of Pence having lived there, of Truus arriving and meeting Christopher, all in 6 sentences. It’s truly amazing.
During revision, one of the things I try to ask myself is, Are the sentences working as hard as they can? Is each word doing its job? Would less be more?
Lately, writing has gotten annoying. I’ve been thinking about craft so much and covering it in blog posts that when it comes to write, I feel stuck. I feel like I’m playing golf. There are so many techniques to learn and apply when it comes to the game. There’s a way to hold the club, to stand, to swing, to putt. One must know which club to use, which way the wind is blowing, how the ground slopes. Keep your eye on the ball, keep your shoulders aligned, keep your left arm straight, keep your hips squared. Argh! How can anyone make par keeping all of those details in mind?
On Tuesday, I wrote the post, 100 Most Beautiful Words, and tried to make the case that although words are wonderful, sentences are what’s important. That night, I sat down with Douglas Bauer’s The Stuff of Fiction and read the chapter devoted entirely to the sentence. Some things Bauer said stood out for me and I wanted to share them with you. First, Bauer says that “…sentences do the most utilitarian of work: they carry the story from our imagination to the reader. They are the pack mules of literature. They are principally and finally beasts of burden.” He goes on to say that “if we understand that sentences are our tools of utility, and I think we must, we can still get real exhilaration, and I think we should, from the breadth and the capacity of their utility.” He goes on to give examples how a writer can “shape and modulate sentences” so that they convey the story with clarity and impact.
A writer’s ability to evoke emotion is the one skill that separates the greats from the mediocres. I’ve been compiling advice, articles, chapters, blogs posts and more that explain how a write can evoke emotion. So far, all of the examples, tips, and devices and I’ve read explain what to do, and I wrote about this yesterday in my post “Fiction Should Evoke Emotion.” But I think where might be equally important.
The most important thing a piece of fiction can to do is evoke emotion in the reader. This is the goal of all art, isn’t it? To evoke emotion? The question is, how do the great writers do it? I’ve been digging around on this subject quite a bit lately and I have to say, I’m not finding much. It surprises me. I’d expect to see every craft book devoting entire chapters to the topic. I would expect to see entire books devoted to it.
I’m just starting to explore the idea of emotion, so expect more entries on this topic. For now, let me just share a few resources with you that may be helpful. Continue reading
I wanted to point you to a wonderful series of writing lessons that recently appeared in the New York Times. I stumbled upon the last of eight entries written by Constance Hale, a journalist based in San Francisco. This column was devoted to the voice of the storyteller. What I liked about it is that she didn’t provide examples solely from the world of fiction. She dipped into song lyrics and nonfiction as well.
I’ve only been writing this blog for about five weeks now, give or take a few days. And in that time, I’ve noticed something a little disconcerting. People — by that, I mean “writers” — are spending too much time writing blog posts or reading other blogs — so much time that it’s distracting them from actually writing fiction. Why just yesterday morning, one blogger I follow announced that he was no longer going to maintain his blog. He was cutting back, he said, because the blog was taking up too much of his time. He wrote, “I haven’t even looked at my novel in six months and she’s getting pissed with the lack of attention.” (I won’t mention any names.)