Saturday, October 4, 2008

Smoke Gets in Your I's

Someone has experienced one of your stories, has either read it as text or heard you read it. The response is instantaneous: "I marvel at and am jealous of your vocabulary."

Bad news.

You know immediately that you have failed to reach that individual.

Same is true of the reader/listener who compliments you on your sense of humor, your brisk, convincing dialog, or your ability to describe a person, place or thing.

All these qualities are valuable. Vocabulary, humor, convincing dialog, and ability to describe things are important tools in the writer's toolkit. When, however, they are presented to you before anything else, they are indications that in one case, at least, the assembled dramatic DNA got away from you, and you'd better set the radar out to detect responses from others.

One robin hardly makes a spring; one reader envious of your vocabulary or your other strengths does not mean your work is an overall failure. Thinking about reader or editorial response to your work can become a endless guessing game, reinforcing not your confidence and technique but your very lack of those qualities.

If you stop to think about it for a moment, the first response you look for is, What a wonderful story! Perhaps you'll settle for, I was thoroughly convinced, or, That story moved me. Or, I've been in situations like that myself. Or, what wonderful characters and what gripping problems.

Story, baby, story. Truth to tell, if they like your story, you don't have to worry about such things as style or vocabulary or sense of humor. Think of it this way: forget about all the copies of his work sold before his death in June of 1988, in the twenty years since his death, over a hundred million of Louis L'Amour's books were sold through regular trade sources. We can only guess about the Amazon and Alibris sales. He was a story teller, a gifted one, but a stylist he was not. He burned to tell stories, figured out the best way to tell them, then told them.

One "best" way is to pick a group of individuals who want something, then set them at the acquisition process. It can be a group of editors pursuing an author for a title. It can be The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, that noir descent into greed and ambition by a writer known only as B. Traven. It can be The Little Women. It can be Dorothy Gale wanting to get back to Kansas.

Another "best" way is to pick a group of individuals who don't want something, then set them at the consequences of trying to prevent the thing they don't want from happening. In this case, the goal is to prevent something.

Yet another "best" way is to have a character discover something heretofore unknown about him/herself, then attempt to cope with the results.

Just as we must all struggle with finding our self as a person, then as a writer, we must find our own "best" way to tell a story, which is to say we must discover then define for our self which situations and elements makes the spine tingle, the hackles rise, the disbelief suspend, the commitment kick in. Then there is the risk of going public, showing or reading the work, watching carefully (but not defensively)for response, then evaluating two things: do you still like the story after the comment? and, is it possible the commentary reveals a startling discovery?

The startling discovery often handed writers on a silver platter is the comment from the reader/listener who wants to know more, more information about the characters, more information about the plot, more information about the backstory. News for you: the reader/audience who wants more information is exhibiting a symptom quite common among readers. The symptom is called suspense.

Sol Stein, the publisher, editor, writer with whom I have a long, cordial relationship, told a funny story in one of his books on writing. I think the book is How to Grow a Novel. After saying a few complimentary things about me, Sol writes of how he heard me reminding a class of a basic maxim of his, Never take the reader where the reader wants to go. Good advice, Sol writes, but he doesn't remember ever having said it and generously attributes the notion to me. My take is that we both believe it (which is true) and we respect each others judgment. I have heard Sol on numerous occasions use the W word, withhold; make the reader wait to get the information.

Some of us are driven to get all the information out right now, in a wide, sprawling spectrum of background, weather reports, and details showing social and racial castes. Others have made the choice to start with the laser approach, reminding me of the enormous sense of power I had as a kid, sweeping through the neighborhood with a prize magnifying glass from a box of Cracker-Jacks in my pocket, ready at a moment's notice to direct the sun's rays on some paper or cloth that struck me as offensive, causing said paper or cloth or plant leaf ultimately to burst into flame. To me still, these years later, the set-up of a story becomes a magnifying glass, focusing rays of attention, causing the immediate sense that any moment, things will burst into a delicious flame.

Burn, baby, burn.


lettuce said...

this reminds me of something i heard once about clothing - it might have been something about choosing colours that suit you...

the response which shows you've got it right is not "thats a gorgeous top you're wearing" but rather "you look fabulous".

same kind of point, i think?

Rowena said...

Great post. You give me some ideas for how to handle my novel that I've been struggling with. Actually, your past post on POV has also been marinating in my brain and I wonder if I have found the proper POV and tense for my story. It's such an elemental component to a story, and I always struggle with choosing the right one.

Anonymous said...

I get older I find less need to "go public" as a person, while it's easier to go public as a writer. As if my life is becoming less about me, and more about the work. I welcome the shift of focus.

Anonymous said...

Well, yes, someone saying, "Great story!" is better than "Great word choice!" But I think that some people say things like "great description" and "great character development" because they think that makes them sound like better readers. I've got to respond and I want to sound like I know what I'm talking about so ....