AJ Ferguson

Sep 202016
 

Writing Better Dialogue – Part 1
What’s Left Unsaid

When I’m looking to freshen up dialogue, there are certain movies I return to. One of them is Sexy Beast. While It’s a good film overall, the dialogue makes this flick sizzle. Sexy Beast’s most memorable scenes occur between a sociopathic gangster named, Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) and a retired safe cracker, Gal Dove (Ray Winstone). I’ll be examining one of these scenes, but before we get into it, the screenplay itself merits a few words.

The original screenplay, by Louis Mellis and David Scinto, sparkles under scrutiny. In fact, Ben Kingsley’s stated that the cast delivered every exclamation and expletive as it appears in the script without improvisation. Having compared the film to the script, I found Kingsley’s claims to be slightly exaggerated – but only slightly. Changes were made but are so minor they hardly count.

So what’s this movie about?

A Synopsis of the Plot:

After nine years in prison, ex-safecracker Gal Dove leaves London and retires in rural Spain with his wife Deedee. Gal and Deedee are deeply in love and enjoying life in their remote villa when Gal’s past life as a criminal catches up with him. A ruthless gangster named Don Logan arrives determined to convince Gal to take part in a big job. Although he’s terrified of Don and the people he represents, Gal doesn’t want to risk returning to jail, losing Deedee, or being sucked back into the game. So Gal stubbornly, but politely, refuses to take the job. This leads to a ferocious battle of wills between Don and Gal. Ultimately, Gal’s forced to take the job in order to protect Deedee, but his participation doesn’t happen quite the way Don has it worked out.

Scene One: Confrontation at the Villa

Some Context – A few days prior, Gal learns that Don Logan is flying over to discuss a job.  Merely hearing Logan’s name is enough to visibly rattle Gal.  Jackie and Aitch, two friends who also have criminal ties in London, pick Don up at the airport and drive him to Gal and Deedee’s villa. After a tense and awkward attempt at small talk, Aitch takes Jackie and Deedee out to dinner leaving Don and Gal alone to discuss business. Continue reading »

May 142016
 

Do you want to write better dialogue? If so, there are a number of ways to go about it. One is to read and re-read books containing dialogue-driven scenes you admire – if you’re a writer then I assume you’re already voracious reader – another is to watch and deconstruct films which contain the kind of exchanges you want to evoke in you’re writing. I advocate for doing both as deconstructing my favorite moments in fiction and film helped me write dialogue effectively.

While there’s no substitute for reading great fiction, watching movies is useful for entirely different reasons. Because movies allow you to hear the way language sounds when it’s delivered by professionals trained to use language for maximum effect. Watching and active listening allows you to dial in on the way vocabulary, syntax, diction, and tone are deployed in a scene to effectively evoke a character that’s attempting to convince, plead with, seduce, flatter, interrogate, or intimidate others.

And thanks to the internet, watching your favorite movie clips is often free. Additionally, having the clip playing on a screen on your desk allows you to watch and re-watch a scene in order to break it down into its composite elements.

Just one word of caution – be selective in the films you choose to study.

“The bad artists imitate, the great artists steal,” says Pablo Picasso. So, personally, I aim to steal from the best. After all, why take the time and effort to lift costume jewels when a bit of effort will yield real gems? Don’t get me wrong. I read and watch my fair share of garbage. But while I indulge in all kinds of gratuitous reading, TV, and movies, I don’t waste time actively studying scenes which lack challenging material.

Does this kind of exercise really work?

I can only state with certainty that it works for me. Often I’ll come away from deconstructing a scene with tricks, strategies, and ideas I’m able to deploy immediately in my own writing. Other times, I know and understand how an effect was achieved but will have little use for it in a current project. I’m okay with this because I’d prefer to have more tools at hand than less. And, just as reading great sentences will certainly improve one’s writing, I believe listening to and internalizing great dialogue can only help me in the quest to write better scenes of my own.

So how’s this done?

In my next post, I’ll demonstrate how I break a scene down and extract the reasons I think it works. In later posts, I’ll look at a number of other lessons films can teach writers and list ‘writerly’ movies that I repeatedly return to in order to hone my craft.

May 192015
 

As mentioned in an earlier post, there are books worth reading, and then are books worth looking into. This is fairly common in regards to short story collections, and books of non-fiction, but novels that fall into this category are a rare breed – an anomaly. For my money, Underworld by Don DeLillo is a good example of such an anomaly.

Underworld opens with one of the most compelling and ambitious chapters I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, I found the rest of the novel to be a bore. The good news is the opening chapter can now be purchased as a stand-alone novella, which I’ll talk about shortly.

The novel opens with the deciding game of the 1951 pennant race between the Giants and the Dodgers. DeLillo’s ability to capture a multitude of voices and the spectacle of this event is nothing short of genius. In addition to a number of working-class perspectives, some of the other characters inhabited and heard from include: Jackie Gleeson, J. Edgar Hoover, Russ Hodges, and Frank Sinatra.

In Underworld, this chapter is titled “The Triumph of Death.” And while the explicit focus is the Giants Dodgers game and the fabled ‘shot heard round the world,’ a number of subtexts and events run through the piece that gesture to a much grander scope of history unfolding around this crowd of 35,000 people so intently focused on the ballgame. The character used to deliver these larger implications is J. Edgar Hoover, who is far more fascinated by an image of Bruegel’s painting, which happens to fall into his lap, than he is the ballgame.

There’s so much going on in this story, I find something different and new each time I read it. And that’s the touchstone of great fiction.

The ballgame, which occurred on October 3rd, 1951 serves as ‘the event,’ which informs the rest of the novel, affects a number of characters, and provides an often invisible point of connection. I could say more. I could be much more specific and accurate with details, but I’m not going to be. This reductive, thumbnail sketch of the story’s concept is more interesting than the rest of the novel’s characters and events.

Luckily, you can purchase this chapter as it first appeared, as a stand-alone novella titled, “Pafko at the Wall.” First published in Harper’s Magazine, the story can be gotten on the cheap as an e-book or hardcover.

I have no idea if DeLillo was working on Underworld before “Pafko at the Wall” was published or if he was prompted to do so by the success of the novella. My gut feeling is the latter of the two is what occurred, but I haven’t seriously researched the subject. What I do know is this: I consider the chapter/novella to be an amazing pieces of fiction, one to be sought out and consumed.

I wouldn’t bother reading the novel unless I was having trouble falling asleep.

Mar 192015
 

Mr. Elphinston talked of a new book that was much admired, and asked Dr. Johnson if he had read it. Johnson: “I have looked into it.” “What,” said Elphinston, have you not read it through?” Johnson, offended at being thus pressed, and so obliged to his own cursory mode of reading, answered tartly, “No, Sir; do you read books through?” ~ Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson

Life’s too short to read fiction that sucks. I’ve little patience for it, and each time I add a novel to my ‘must read’ list, my patience grows that much shorter. Once it becomes obvious there’s little, if anything, to be gained from reading a novel or collection, it gets tossed aside.

But there are books worth ‘looking into,’ even if you only read sections of them. Making this call is easy when it comes to nonfiction or short-story collections. But when it comes to novels, the idea becomes somewhat contentious. Why? Because, generally speaking, a novel is presented as a unified story. Many readers who fail to read a novel in its entirety feel as if they’ve failed somehow.

Bullshit.

There’s no point in reading something ‘just because.’ Of course, if that’s your thing, then more power to you. But there are plenty of readers who’d rather take their time with what’s great than read tepid prose while half asleep for ‘street cred.’

That said, it’s equally important not to be discouraged from seeking out gems in a sea of mediocrity. So I’m working on a series of posts about novels and short story collections that contain brilliant writing and compelling moments that stuck with me, yet I find severely lacking when evaluated as a whole. Some of these titles are books I endured to to the bitter end. Others – not so much.

Why do this? Certainly not because I have anything against the authors. I make it a point to separate a specific work from a body of work and do my best not to allow one to affect the other. Nabokov, in an interview, said something very similar, and I’ve been gloating ever since.

No, I’m doing this for a variety of reasons, which, I hope will become apparent as time goes on.

Anyway, as an example of a book worth looking into, I have the perfect candidate, Don DeLillo’s, Underworld.

I’ll be posting more examples as I remember or discover them.

Feb 222015
 

Is feedback on writing similar to comments made by judges on the show “Chopped?” I’d say they’re strikingly similar, and writers can learn a lot about themselves by watching contestants react to criticism.

I thrive off feedback, good, bad, indifferent – I want to know what a reader thinks. Every decision I make when writing a story has an intended effect on the reader’s experience. Structure, syntax, dialogue patterns, the list goes on, and all of these elements are calculated choices. The fastest way to learning if I succeeded is to hear directly from a reader as to what their reaction was to the story, and then decide to whether I’m going to make adjustments in revision or not.

So when it comes to fiction, reader feedback is something I value quite highly with the best readers going over my work like they’re a stranger and telling me where they found themselves drifting or confused. In other words, where would they have put the book down. Why? Because if you waste the time of a random stranger who picks up your work, they’ll toss it aside and move on to someone else’s. The best chance you’ve got to capture and keep an audience is to figure out any flaws or missteps before they read it. Good readers provide you with a kind of pre-audience that’s kind enough to provide comments before you send the work out.

Look, we’re all very busy. And with free time in such short supply, I’ve come to treasure those who make the time to read my drafts, then follow up with feedback that’s both honest and specific about what’s working for them, what isn’t, and why.

In short, my best readers give me positive, negative, and ‘neutral’ positions in plain language without preamble. These relationships have taken years to cultivate, and the reason I receive feedback of this quality is because my readers know that I won’t mistake criticism of my writing as criticism of me.

If you think getting an informed, honest opinion is easy – you’re wrong. Many readers use silence as disapproval or simply smile and say everything was grand. But I can understand why some folks are reluctant to be honest – much less frank – given how writers can be complete babies about receiving feedback.

When I was attending workshops, I resented immature writers and their shitty, toxic attitudes because they undermined my chances of getting the straight dope. Those days are long gone, but the petulance of those who aim to be writers still irks me, and I wonder this: if people felt free to ‘think out loud’ about criticism, and then asked to reflect on their reactions, could you then have a constructive conversation on the topic?

I think so, and I’ve thought of a device for getting writers to speak their minds, and then discuss a common default mode to be defensive when critiqued. – The device is the TV show, “Chopped.”

This exercise would work well in a fiction-writing workshop. It’s easy enough to pull up an episode of “Chopped” on the Food Network website, and watch it during class. Because listening to viewer’s discussing their perception of the judges is an object lesson in how we, as a culture, come by our defensiveness and provide a way for professionals to consider their own reactions.

A nutshell explanation for anyone unfamiliar with the show: “Chopped” is a reality TV show featuring four chefs competing for a ten-thousand dollar prize. There are three rounds, appetizer, entrée, and dessert. Each competitor has to create each course by combining three to four key ingredients, none of which may be excluded from the dish. Now, here’s the catch, the contestants have no idea what the ingredients will be until they open their ‘mystery baskets.’ After twenty or thirty minutes, the buzzer sounds, and contestants must immediately step away from their stations.

Upon completion of the round, each chef presents their dish to a panel of three well-known chefs or restaurateur judges. After hearing the judge’s comments and answering questions, the contestants wait out of earshot as the judges deliberate. The contestants then return to hear which dish has been ‘chopped.’

The feedback given by judges often comes in the standard ‘sandwich’ format. And while the judges are preforming to add to the manufactured drama, their reasons for liking or disliking a dish are concrete and – if listened to – will help contestants reach the next round. Among other things, judges look at presentation, complexity of flavor, and the successful incorporation/synthesis of all ingredients into the prepared dish.

The opinions of a judge are just as subjective as anyone else. What a judge possesses is the ability to articulate opinions that are well-informed from training and experience.

The show is done with all the usual drama of reality TV, with overly-dramatic music and close-in camera shots of contestant’s faces as they listen to the judges critique their efforts. The positive comments either acknowledged with a nod or, ‘thank you’ while – as you might imagine – negative comments or recommendations are met with a wide variety of reactions.

Chefs often look hurt, shocked angered, or confused. There’s eye rolling, smirks, and often a forced grin which threatens to become bared teeth. –And, of course, the viewer sees approximately ten close-ups out of what’s likely to be hundreds the produces have to choose from when editing.

I would just add that the more professional chefs who compete are composed, polite, and therefore get less camera time until the final rounds. – They tend to win the contest more often as well.

Yes, I am aware this is Reality TV and I understand ‘the game’ of it. I have a larger point to make here.

Essentially, when the judges comment, you’re hearing what a diner might say if you could eavesdrop on their table. Only most diners wouldn’t be nearly as specific nor be able to articulate why/how something was ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Also, paying diners can and will say personal things if they are angry. (Just like a paying audience would say things about you or your book.)

So returning to my hypothetical classroom:

I’m a fan of “Chopped.” It’s kind of like the minor league version of “Iron Chef” with most the contestants going down in flames within one or two rounds. So I wouldn’t be feigning interest when picking the likely winner in the beginning, and then figuring out who will blow the round within the first few minutes. Of course, the producers tend to select one person they know the audience will despise, and someone else with a hardship story. And they throw in all kinds of curve balls to chefs who are usually quite specialized. (Ever notice that during the dessert round, there’s ALWAYS at least one contestant reaching for the mascarpone cheese? It’s like the duct tape of dessert making or something.) For me, half the fun of watching the show is watching it with people who are tuned into the narrative moves the producers make in casting and editing, then riff off them.

Once the dishes have been presented for judgement, the real sniping begins. I’d encourage students to criticize the ‘meanness’ of the judges by being outspoken and preforming just a bit myself. I’d get them to ‘buy into’ the narrative they were just so carefully deconstructing. It’s likely to work because many of us fall into the trap of not seeing other people’s reactions as a mirror of our own.

Shit I’ve heard people say while watching ‘Chopped”: ‘ You can just tell she hates female contestants’ – ‘That guy is always critical of spicing. He probably finds curry bland.’ – ‘Can you believe she didn’t have one single positive thing to say?’—‘I wonder how well he’d do if given spam and octopus to work with?’

Discussing these reactions and comments with writers directly after watching the shows would be effective as everyone’s gripes, mine included, would be ‘top of mind.’

Now, of course, some of observations may be true, and being human, I can’t say something similar hasn’t crossed my mind or come out of my mouth. That said, I think those of us who write are best served by working to stay open and receive feedback with the best face possible. If you’ve offered your work up to be scrutinized, then listen – I mean really listen – to what a reader has to say, and then process their perceptions like a professional. In other words, suck it up, take notes, be polite, then figure out if the reader’s opinion is worth acting on later.

If you genuinely wish to hear feedback to improve your work, the most valuable comments you can hope for are both honest and well-informed. Such comments should be acknowledged with grace or the best professional mask one can muster. Why? Because a listener’s negative reaction can shut the person talking down in a heartbeat. –And this warrants repeating: unless, someone makes a personal attack, they are not criticizing you as an artist but whatever they’ve been kind enough to read.

I regularly encourage those who read for me to scrutinize each piece like a complete stranger. Because a stranger will not cut me slack. They opened the book, there’s my story, and judgement begins on the first sentence they happen to read. If I fail with nine out of ten readers, then I’m wasting my time. But if I manage to delight, interest, and entertain them – chances are they’ll recommend my work to a friend.

Then and only then, will I have one less stranger and one more reader.

Jun 112013
 

Summer provides me with time to write. Once the semester ends, I go into overdrive working on personal projects. Of course, I’d like to be productive all year; however, I’m still learning how to reserve  enough time and energy for my own work while classes are in full swing. Frankly, I’m not sure that will ever happen. Regardless, summer’s here, and I have a nice list of projects lined up. Two of those projects included updating this blog and sprucing up the website.

That didn’t happen for a full month.

Sherman Alexei counsels writers: “Every word on your blog is a word not in your book.” For the most part, I’ve taken that sentiment to heart. But I enjoy the challenge of coming up with concise posts about the craft of writing fiction, compelling literature worth reading, or a combination of the two. While posting regularly remains a goal, I’ve come to understand why many successful writers are so stingy with their time.

This is a recent development for me. But, the more time I set aside to write, the more I become aware of how minutes and hours spin away. And I’ve become a selfish bastard when it comes to time. This summer, I secured a quiet room for writing. As the room has no internet access, the only other potential distraction is my cell phone. I go to the room, and I write or read. While I’m happy to report I’m getting a more done, my work tempo still could use some fine-tuning. (Making it sustainable would be nice too.) Still, the time flies.

Time – always seems to be the enemy.

An example: I begin writing with five hours on the clock then look up stunned to find only thirty minutes remains. Invariably, I feel as though I’ve just hit my stride. Likely, some of this learning how to write more efficiently, but maybe not; maybe, I’ll always be glaring at the clock. Regardless, this feeling of time slipping away reminds me of a cranky, old Harlan Ellison.

On Letters of Note, I was amused to read Harlan Ellison’s crotchety response to a member of his fan club. Ellison is a complete prick to this young fan and begins the letter by saying:

“All a writer has is time and a portion of talent. Answering queries from readers eats away at the former, thus disallowing full use of the latter.”

Ellison then moans about how he hates to be disturbed. Amusingly, he goes on to answer the fan’s question in detail. In my humble opinion, either you can’t be bothered to respond to your mail, or you feel some obligation to do so. But if the latter is true, then do it with class. –That said, Ellison’s words haunt me: time and a portion of talent

The talent I bring to the table is not something I can control, but I need every second I can find to hone what I have. The more I write the more respect I develop for those who have truly mastered the craft. It takes time, discipline, and persistence to improve one’s work. That’s it. Those of us not born with innate genius must fall back on hard work, tenacity, and a fair bit of luck. I’m OK with that.

But, returning to the topic of responding to fans, I found two other responses on that same website related to this topic that I found interesting. (Fair warning, there are loads of terrific letters there, and you can easily burn four of five hours browsing them when you should be writing.)

Apparently, Robert Heinlein had a multiple-choice form letter he used to respond to inquisitive fans. It’s worth a read as the the choices are hilarious.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s this in-depth response from cartoonist, John Kricfalusi, who not only wrote a long letter full of encouragement and advice but even sent back some reading material!

Anyway, I’m headed out to write. While I have more to say here and the exercise of posting is helpful in a number of ways – I’m not sure I posess the time to commit to it.

After all, I have fiction to write.

Feb 242013
 

A short piece on my alma mater’s blog where I argue that writers should trust themselves enough to create really messy drafts as they’re sure to find promising moments days later:

Here’s an excerpt:

The ability to allow sloppy prose to fill the page, ignore MS word’s blood-red squiggles and green-grammar nagging is certainly an act of faith. When I first tried this method, I had strong doubts that I’d understand my early drafts, much less find anything of value in them to make the effort worthwhile. This was not the case. Instead, I found myself able to decode haphazard gibberish days, weeks, even months later. Discovering meaning in messy drafts led me to create them with abandon. Now, I write them with a feeling that’s suspiciously close-kin to confidence; where I once feared drowning in a sea of noise, I now find, on the worst of days, the lack of comprehension only reaches my waist.

Against the repeated warnings of my attorney, I’m going to argue that fiction writers not only listen to but trust the voices in their heads. Of course, for some of us this may not be the best guidance – but let’s imagine Joe Stalin adjusting the garnish of a picture-perfect omelet in the foreground (ignore the charnel house just behind him) and talk some serious shop. After all, writers who aren’t ruthless in the pursuit of crafting better fiction cannot hope to produce work that’s even remotely interesting. And, frankly – if writing a story doesn’t strain your emotions, if it doesn’t make you feel somewhat vulnerable, you’re probably not doing it right.

You can read the entire post here.

Feb 242013
 

“Style is the substance of the subject called unceasingly to the surface.” ~ Victor Hugo

Before picking up The Road, I’d never read any of Cormac McCarthy’s work and had no idea of what to expect. A few chapters in, I paused to orient myself to the world he evokes: set in a post-apocalyptic future, a father and his young son travel through civilization’s ruins while remaining true to a moral code. This is good stuff, but it’s McCarthy’s writing style, the sparse, fragmented prose of this novel, which made me into an ardent fan. Of course, style doesn’t matter if the story fails. So first, I’m going to touch on a few narrative nuts and bolts to see why it succeeds, and then I’ll fling some superlatives around regarding style.

The story’s success is remarkable given the plot’s limitations: it’s the day-to-day survival of a father and son adrift in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Keeping to major roads, they travel south toward an unknown destination; and because roads act a lot like like rivers, they attract desperate groups of people, many of whom enslave and eat other people.

Okay, more happens than that, but my point is the daily task of surviving in a bleak environment could’ve been oppressively tedious. But McCarthy makes it work by paying careful attention to the rate of revelation: scraps of information about the apocalypse are bundled with the father’s back story and doled out regularly in between crises. This backstory delivery system saves the novel from becoming a repetitive slog as the plot’s structure depends on simplistic conflict resolution: the characters need food, the characters find food, and the characters avoid/run away from cannibals, rinse & repeat. (Did I mention that nearly everybody else on the road seems to be a cannibal!? Seriously. Like, lots of scary cannibals.)

This plot structure is, of course, germane to a survival narrative, but McCarthy deserves credit for sticking to realistic speculation regarding day-to-day issues and not allowing the story to become something more exotic or cliché: like, a detour where the duo overthrow a cannibal kingdom or found a colony intended to be humanity’s last, best hope. Instead, the author stays focused to a much more ambitious story about a man determined to raise his son to be a principled human being in a desperate wasteland. The stakes are high as two individuals struggle to maintain their moral and ethical cores in an environment where principles are regarded as either liabilities or quaint relics of the past. That these characters struggle to do the right thing in the face of a hopeless future makes individual choice a central theme.

That The Road foregrounds individuality marks it as a distinctly American novel. Additionally, there are number of moments that have a Western-genre feel to them. Does it get any more American than the Western? You could easily place these two characters in a day-to-day struggle to survive Montana Badlands of the 19th century, replete with bushwacking outlaws and painted-Indian war parties, and gotten a similar story. Don’t get me wrong, the tone of Western-genre fiction doesn’t detract from the work; it’s just another aspect of the novel’s style.

Ah yes, style: we’ve finally arrived at the subject  causing all the chatter. Cormac McCarthy makes some brilliant choices in regards to syntax. That is to say, I found them brilliant. There are plenty of grammarians who hate this novel because he breaks so many rules. Specifically interesting to me – McCarthy declines to adhere to an important grammatical marker: the sentence boundary. Instead, the author deploys both the logic and organization of cumulative sentences while refusing to play by the rules dictating where they pause or end. This unconventional approach is used to good effect when working to evoke a broken world. Here’s an example:

“The kitchen door stood open and he crossed the porch and stood in the doorway. Cheap plywood paneling curling with damp. Collapsing into the room. A red formica table” (119).

Okay, so McCarthy ignores commas and uses periods instead? Yep. But also notice there are plenty of transitional words missing as well. Thinking things through, it becomes obvious one could revise this example to become a single cumulative sentence which delivers the same information with an entirely different effect. Like so:

“The kitchen standing open, he crossed the porch and stood in the doorway, observing the cheap-plywood paneling that curled with damp and collapsed into the room, a room with a red-formica table.”

Of course, there’s a ton of different ways one could rewrite the sentence. You might need to read a longer section to get a real feeling for the style, but the example above makes my point. And while I find McCarthy’s style effective, I can see why choices like this might put someone off; because when periods are used in place of commas, sentences no longer reliably exist as propositions. Instead, the period becomes a moment of pause – a crack to step over – while the reader is left to determine where the next clause fits in.

The novel would be a failure If this approach didn’t work. But it does.

By breaking down the cumulative form into discrete units, the author achieves a similar effect of evoking a detailed image. However, the choice of abandoning conventional syntax has a significant, secondary effect because the combination of sparse language and busted-up syntax clearly enhances this description of a world that’s bleak and broken. – That he made this choice is a big part of what makes this novel great.

In fiction, the difference between a good use of style and great use of style is as follows: a good use of style makes for enjoyable reading and marks a writer’s work as being unique. A great use of style fulfills all aforementioned requirements but also reflects, informs, and enhances a central theme of the work.

It’s that simple. The choice to ‘break’ the prose when evoking a broken world is ambitious: successfully pulling it off is fucking genius. So after reading The Road, I developed high expectations for McCarthy’s work, and, so far, he’s yet to disappoint. That said, I get why many readers dislike this novel. Many who attack it have ample ammunition that’s well-reasoned. But the bottom line for me is the author took a gamble, and it paid off big time. This book has a lot of popular appeal, and it’s easy to see why. Despite radical linguistic choices, The Road manages to hold a reader’s attention with an adventure while putting some heavy topics in play. That is to say, McCarthy treads the fine line between writing gratuitous fiction and writing great fiction. That he pulls it off makes this novel worth a read.

Mar 252012
 

It often seems easier to spot problems and the solutions to those problems in other peoples work. This is one of those annoying truisms that I repeat like a mantra when running fiction workshops. But I’ve been working at this writing thing for a few years now, and I expect to see the ‘big’ issues and know how to respond to them on my own. So when I have spent over a month revising a very short piece, I end up thoroughly frustrated that I should have spotted a major flaw much earlier in the process. To compound my frustration, I ‘like’ the piece as it stands, but can’t be certain of anything at this point.

I just don’t want to be “that guy.”

There are two general ‘types’ of writer that I do not wish to emulate: those who, for whatever reason, walk away from a piece convinced it is a masterpiece when it’s clearly shit, and those who dither polishing a manuscript when their efforts have ceased to accomplish anything significant that will change or improve it.

While I seem to be stuck with endless revisions, what I’m dealing with is different; or at least it seems different, from poking at polished prose. I wrote a piece for a Florida-themed flash contest where submissions were constrained to 305 words. It was loads of fun meeting the challenge. I was forced to compress and distill language, and the result was a piece that is much more lyrical than what I usually produce. After reading an early draft at a function, someone commented that they liked the poem. At odd times, I seem to lack basic social skills, and I replied it was fiction a tad more harshly than I meant to sound. Honestly, I couldn’t tell them it wasn’t a poem with a straight face: I think that got under my skin.

The genre nomenclature game is for suckers. That said, any piece I’m working on needs to succeed on my terms. Generally speaking, my fiction contains narrative tension with clearly evident stakes. In contrast, I’m comfortable with creating poetry that sends up an image that can then interpreted by the reader to be meaningful in X, Y, and Z ways or is just resonant and effective for other reasons.

The piece I’m referring to, this annoying piece, whose shortcut icon mocks me from the desktop even as I compose this entry, has no explicit narrative tension. Last night, I spent several hours trying to add context, back-story, and characterization, but everything I write seems tacked on. The image works for me: it resonates. I think I shall affix a tiny scrap of paper to the piece and scrawl ‘poem’ on it before firing it off to be judged.

At some point in the future, I should say some things about choosing a PoV because this piece was a good lesson in the significance of that choice. But I have a poem to finish…at least I think it’s a damn poem.