Sunday, June 2, 2013

Quicksand For Writing Dummies

If you spend any time among emerging and wannabe writers, you are sure to hear these comments with some regularity:

1.  My reading group has been urging me for some time to write my memoir.  These people are serious readers, and they keep insisting on the value of my experiences.  I wonder where I should begin.

2.  But it really happened that way.

3.  I don't see what all the fuss is about using the omniscient point of view.

Stick around a bit longer and you'll hear assurances from those who always show and never tell. You'll also hear a petulant defense of the occasional adverb.  If you're persistent, you might also be shown places where published authors use semicolons with some frequency, while yet others are given free rein to write long sentences composed of independent clauses which have been linked by a series of "ands."

These adjunct comments are plentiful, along with the ever popular "Do I absolutely have to have an agent?" but the first three seem so egregious in comparison,  They cry out for their own deconstruction.

1.  Most reading groups are indeed serious.  Some of them take the trouble of consulting study guides provided by many publishers or by such adjuncts as Cliffs Notes, Sparknotes,and the Open Yale Course (Internet).  In many cases, these groups spend as much time with the introductory materials, often written by noted scholars, as the actual text.  They will often come to some deeper appreciation of the work under study, but they are not close to the gatekeeper approach to publishing decisions in place at many of the better publishing houses.

Recent graduates from literature and publishing programs at universities are hired to plow through the vast heaps of materials submitted.  These young apprentice- or assistant-level readers have not only read thousands of works during their university days, they read even more of the slush and mid-range submissions from literary agents.

Speaking of which, literary agents are no less rigorous with their submissions, telling their entry level employees to read only as far as they can before returning the material.

Editors and agents thus see only about eight or ten percent of the submissions; the moderate or mediocre efforts are filtered out.  Even then, the materials actually submitted have about one chance in ten of reaching an actual editorial meeting where a vote to publish is taken.

Because of the number of books being published today, the average work of fiction will sell less than a thousand copies a year, meaning if it is to earn its keep, it must remain on the back list for a year or two.  Some of the larger publishers base their computations on their need for a new title to earn out within a year.

Even if all the members of a reading group were to sign up for advance purchases, such a calculus would not make a serious dent in the publisher's decision to publish.  Thus this response to the Reading Group:  Get real.

2.  When emerging and wannabe writers find their work in editorial crosshairs in relationship to plausibility or motivation or even the need for the inclusion of a particular trope or scene, their immediate defense is, "But it really happened that way," by which they mean they are rendering into fiction something that happened in real life.  In all probability, they are doing so at the same rate of intensity as the event took place in real life.

Let's get the matter nailed down:  fiction is invented.  Fiction may draw upon real life, but it is subject to dramatic conventions, some of which go back beyond the surviving Greek dramas, others of which have evolved at a steady pace from the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries and which, were they presented today, would be the equivalent of a two- or three-hundred-year-old character appearing in a twenty-first century drama with two- or three-hundred-year-old costumes, language, and social conventions along with responses commensurate with that time,

For deconstruction purposes:  So what?  If it's a story, it has to be dramatic.  Get real.

3.  We see with some regularity on such TV platforms as American Idol the consequences of amateurs thinking they can perform on a professional level.  Some performers manage to kick some ass.  But not enough and not with consistency.

You read a novel or short story by the splendid Irish writer, William Trevor, and you can;t help thinking, Yeah, I can do that, too, because he is so skilled at what he does that he causes you to think you can achieve the same insightful results.  In your dreams.

All writing is difficult.  In its way, memoir is right up there with fiction because friends keep telling friends they've led such interesting lives, they ought to write a memoir, and other friends keep telling friends, Hey, you really are a gifted story teller, you ought to write some of this stuff down.

Both suggestions are valid.  You ought to consider writing it down, then figuring out who the narrator(s) is (are), where the story begins, how it ends, and, of course, what the characters want.

Five years ought to do it.  Maybe less if you really press at it.

The thing is, if your first work does well enough and you think you'd still like to try your hand at omniscient, you can consider you've got a leg up on getting a publishing deal, the leg you've got up being your sales figures.

True, dat.  The right sales figures are like staying on a bronc or bull at a rodeo.

But you've got to earn it first.

Those other things?  Showing and not telling?  Adverbs.  Semicolons.  Long sentences.
Write enough and maybe you'll write yourself through or out or even around them.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Hi Shelly,

I'm wondering if you've written a longer piece with your thoughts on "show don't tell", either here on this blog or elsewhere. Just curious.

Hope you are well,