Monday, May 21, 2007

Ten Writing Beliefs

Copyright (c) FreeFoto.comOver at Velcro City Tourist Board, Paul has posted an interesting article on writing tips. All writers are interested, to an extent, in codifying the principles of their craft (though some will claim that it breaks the spell to talk about it; I'm sure even these are aware of certain and persistent shaping forces in their fiction). Learning to write is an ongoing process, and, as part of this, I'll try to think up ten of my own. There is risk that this will be described as 'intellectualising'; if that's what you think this is, you haven't seen something sufficiently intellectual. I think I'd like to call these 'beliefs' because they aren't necessarily what I would impose or teach. These are just honest statements about what I've learned from trying to write novel-length fiction (which I've been doing for about twelve years).

(1) Every story, scene, paragraph and sentence must have an identity

The way a conceptual story unit (like a sentence) should work is as a crew member pulling his or her weight. Every word within a sentence must contribute to the identity of the sentence: What single thought does this sentence capture? What is its tone? Does its identity clash with the greater identity of the paragraph? If so, is this a good clash?

When you think of a good book, you probably feel something akin to a semantic thumbnail impression; a single sensation that captures what it is like to have read that book. That is the story-level identity, and it is informed by the nested identities within it.

(2) The effect of a good story should be greater than the combined effects of its components

Crikey, that's an undigestible sentence! By this, I mean that a story should operate along the Gestalt principle of 'the whole is greater than the sum of its parts'. For example, you could look at a disembodied nose, an ear, and an iris, and they mean nothing to you in isolation; but when arranged into the magnificent visage of President George Walker Bush, a new level of meaning erupts. Likewise, while the individual components of story - perhaps at the level of the sentence - may lack meaning or be plain ordinary, at the higher levels of story, where they are combined, they can appear extraordinary. Thou art more lovely and more temperate is so-so, and the word 'temperate' here borders on ugly. But placed within the structure of Sonnet 18 by You Know Who, some form of magic is conjured.

(3) The principles of story structure are to be applied in reverse

George: "But Joseph Campbell was quite specific: At the beginning of the second act, introduce the green Muppet."

This one is quite controversial because (i) stories do appear to have structures and (ii) bad stories appear to have structural problems. It seems straightforward to conclude that the application of certain structural concerns (a la The writer's journey or Story) will provide support just as sound engineering principles can ensure a building will not topple. I don't think these structures can be applied ahead of time (i.e. while the shape is being drafted) because they arise, I think, from an interaction of character, conflict, momentum, etc. They are superstructures that appear only when the jobs of lower levels are complete. Since I'm not trying to tell anyone how to write (and wouldn't even if I could write brilliantly myself), I won't fill this paragraph with loads of caveats, but here's one: This principle will be useful if you use an iterative approach to your fiction (what used to be called 'drafting'). It's possible that you do your writing in your head and only sit down when you've got an effectively finished product. In that case, the story-level superstructure might already be at work. A story begins with an inking of its identity; not a track with hurdles it must jump.

(4) A story is a place

Infocom's text adventure, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: 'I don't know the word 'shove the atomic vector plotter up the game designer's arse'. Do you mean 'hang the gown on the hook'?'

When you write, you cross a border into a new land. If you don't do this, you won't be able to write. You might need things to help you pass. The visa of a good piece of music or a photograph or a smell. When you are fully in the land of the story, you can appreciate its identity and make appropriate decisions about its construction. When you aren't, your decisions might be wrong.

(5) Writing is an unconscious process

Britta: 'Shhh. Ian's writing'

As a psychologist with a cognitive bent, I try to be careful about how I use the word 'unconscious'. Here, I do not intend to invoke Freudian or otherwise psychodynamic (mis)conceptions. I'm talking specifically of processes that occur below one's conscious threshold. The saccade of an eyeball to an interesting object is an unconscious process; as is basic reading. I believe that creating a world - i.e. writing a book - is one of those messy, intuitive tasks not suited to the narrow confines of the conscious 'wave crest'. Let yourself sleep on important story decisions. Feel your way through difficulties. Wait for your unconscious mind to background process a problem until the solution appears. Even the most dead-end of narratives can be rescued, because you'll be thinking about it all the time, because it's bugging you, right? If it's not bugging you...then you're not in the land of the story.

And now for some more practical beliefs.

(6) Writing is iterative

Kerouac notwithstanding, you will not be in a position to tell a story as beautifully as possible while writing the first draft because at least some of your mental resources will be employed in maintaining things like visual awareness, weather, location, the complex matrix of characters' intentions, and so on. Go back to the draft, identify its problems, then fix them until the draft is beautiful. Then wait. Then go back, find more problems, then fix them. Repeat until you are completely sick of the text, then repeat a few more times. If you still love the story after all that - even look forward to the next bout of editing - you either have (i) a story that works or (ii) a condition that needs medical attention. One interesting thing to note about editing is that, often, an edit can improve parts of the draft but make other parts worse (because of inconsistency of fact or tone). What you're performing is an evolutionary process: sure, a particular gene might be an improvement, but if it doesn't jive with all the other genes, you're a dodo.

(7) Don't use adverbs unless absolutely necessary

In my current novel, I've got about five adverbs. That's five too many.

(8) Delete words from a given sentence until the sentence breaks; then re-insert the minimum to fix it.

Self-explanatory, I feel.

(9) They are not called characters. They are called people

And they are responsible for everything that happens in a work of fiction, not you.

(10) Set the dial on your quality threshold to 11

The man from Havana - he say 'Nooooo!' And 'Pass the horse radish, sweetie - this warthog is trifle ripe'

Nothing should be 'good enough'. If it is weak, it is your job to strengthen it. Never say to yourself 'I'm only an apprentice writer, and this is acceptable'. Say to yourself 'Would Ernest Hemingway/John Updike/Martin Amis put his name underneath this paragraph?' No? Why not? Fix it. If it can't be fixed, destroy it.

Wow, that was cathartic. Mmmmm. What do other people think?

12 Comments:

Blogger redchurch said...

#1 is of greatest importance to me, as it drives everything else. It's the reason that TV writing teams will 'develop' every episode in full detail before someone writes a draft. Writing doesn't happen until the end, when every part of the story has an identity.

The downside is how it ties in with the unconcious/subconcious part. If you're working alone, you just have to magically manifest all these brilliant story moments on your own. TV writers have the luxury of a writing team to discuss and develop ideas.

8:58 PM  
Blogger Dr Ian Hocking said...

Thanks for your comment, Eric. I find that, these days, if I have a criticism of a piece of work - a TV show, novel, whatever - it often has more to do with it's identity. In other words, it doesn't have an overall vision; the director or head writer has to keep a strong sense of the story's identity and make sure the elements aren't antagonistic to it.

I'd love to write as part of a team, bet it would be great fun.

9:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, Ian. Strangely enough, reading it just led me to realise the solution for the problem that's been plaguing me for the past month with my new novel. I owe you one.

Aliya

1:00 PM  
Blogger Dr Ian Hocking said...

Hey, Aliya - thanks for stopping by. Glad to help! Let me know if you need an extra pairs of eyes for your novel...

Best
Ian

1:12 PM  
Blogger David Isaak said...

Hi Ian. I certainly dislike adverbs of the -ly variety in fiction (especially in dialogue tags), and vague intensifier adverbs (very, quite), but there are a great many "stealth" adverbs that are practically unavoidable and aren't distracting in any case.

For example, in "She still lives there," 'there' is an adverb. In "He needed to get indoors before dark," 'before dark' is an adverb. In "He never arrives on time," 'never' is an adverb.

I agree that adverbs of manner and intensifier adverbs are usually distracting and mean you don't have the right verb. But without all those little adverbs that only grammarians can identify as adverbs--place, frequency, time, and purpose adverbs--I could never write a novel. (Ooops. 'Never' is an adverb in that sentence.)

6:40 PM  
Anonymous SCG said...

A great post, Ian, thanks for sharing it. It's given me plenty to mull over.

It seems to have been a good couple of weeks for genuinely useful "how to write"-type posts!

11:30 AM  
Blogger Dr Ian Hocking said...

Thanks for your comment, David. You're quite right to say that those adverbs are fairly (oops) crucial, and I'm sure my book is full them. I guess I don't use 'adverb' to mean 'anything that modifies a verb' - which is just plain foolishness on my part. Those modifiers like 'there' and 'never' feel different because they seem to contextualise or re-direct the energy of the verb, whereas 'quickly' and 'hopefully' feel like after-the-fact fiddling...

9:18 AM  
Blogger Dr Ian Hocking said...

Thanks for your comment, Shaun. I guess if there's one thing everyone likes to do, it's dispense advice...

9:19 AM  
Blogger David Isaak said...

Hi, Ian

Yes, indeed--and I know which adverbs you dislike and why.

The question is, Why isn't there a more precise name for the intrusive little buggers?

6:07 PM  
Anonymous davidbdale said...

Merrily we roll along, using adverbs all day long. I see nothing wrong with that. Why make rules?

1:57 AM  
Blogger pomo housewife said...

Very interesting. I especially liked your comments about structure: I've some, er, 'issues' with Hollywood's love-affair with McKee and Campbell, (the recent dearth of innovative movies) and am dismayed to see the cult of Story taking hold of novelists as well. (Go see 'Adaptation': insanely clever, the way it moves from exquisite to absurd as McKee's principles are tacked onto the script.)

I also disagree about adverbs, primarily because every beginner book and magazine article I've ever read goes on about them, ad nauseam. They have their uses. Truly, madly, deeply.

Helen

1:56 AM  
Blogger Dr Ian Hocking said...

Thanks for your comment, Helen. Yes, I think it would improve a lot of stories if more attention was paid to intuition than intellect.

I remain the enemy of adverbs! (Or at least the particular subclass of adverb that gets on my nerves...)

8:35 AM  

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