This article may be aimed primarily at screenwriters, but it’s great advice for fiction writers as well. “As human beings we are created with unique and differentiating perspectives; characters should be created with that same concept in mind.” Etc. (NB for the copyeditors among you: If you’re anything like me, you’ll wish you got your hands on this before it was posted, but read it anyway. Please.)
“You’d think that basing a novel on real-life people and real-life events would be easier than making it all up from scratch — but it isn’t. Strange but true, the fact that you knew at least some of these people makes it harder, not easier. You’ve got to bring them to life for the reader. To do this you might have to rearrange, fudge, or add details. You might have to make up some new characters. And that’s OK: this is fiction, after all. If you want to turn it into a novel, you’ve got to make effective use of the novelist’s tools: plot, characterization, point of view, narrative, dialogue, and all the rest of it.”
This past summer a client asked me to critique the current draft of his novel in progress. It was based on the life of a lifelong friend who died some time ago. The first-person narrator was clearly based on the author himself.
I opened my critique with the paragraph above. “But that’s how it happened!” is a common cry among novice writers. It’s not a bad place to start, but it’s never enough.
An early clue that this manuscript hadn’t jelled yet was the dialogue. It sprawled. My first question for dialogue, my own or any other writer’s, is “Would you sit still for this if it were played out onstage or onscreen?” Most of this dialogue would have had audience members nodding off or walking out. How long will you watch minor characters chat on and on about their daily routines without ever making an observation that’s important to the story?
Sometimes, however, these endless conversations yielded valuable nuggets, an insight into character or a memory of a past event. You know the writer’s mantra “Show, don’t tell”? Some telling is fine and necessary in any work of fiction or nonfiction, but some of what these characters were telling could be more effectively shown in a scene.
This is what early drafts do: give you clues about what needs to be developed further in the next draft. I do a lot of freewriting in early drafts, often letting characters talk on and on or ponder what they’re going to do next. Often it takes a while to get to the revelation or epiphany that reveals character and/or moves the plot. It’s your job as the writer to wait for it, recognize it, then prune all the verbiage away from it so your readers will see it too.
When characters don’t drive a story’s plot, the writer has to do it, often by conjuring a new character or an unexpected event out of the blue. New characters show up, of course, and unexpected events happen, but in this case the story was completely dependent on them: unbelievable successes, terrible accidents, a treacherous colleague, and a series of women too good to be true. Quite possibly all these things happened and all these people existed in real life, but unless they’re integrated into the story they come across as plot devices introduced to make up for the lack of momentum in the story.
Sitting in the center of this particular story is the main character’s mother. She’s horrible. We see her being horrible, everyone agrees she’s horrible; she’s so horrible that I couldn’t stop wondering how she got to be so horrible. We see her being cruel to her son, but we rarely see him or his best friend trying to come to terms with her cruelty. The horrible mother’s husband is suspiciously saintly, and so is her older sister . . .
Then, near the end of the ms., one character drops the bombshell that saintly husband and saintly older sister were having a long-term affair while the boys were growing up. Whoa! Saintly husband, it seems, had wanted to marry saintly older sister in the first place, but for implausible reasons had married the horrible mother instead. Now there’s a development that could help sustain a plot and deepen our understanding of all the main characters.
And here is the big challenge for writers who want to turn events they participated in or witnessed and people they knew into convincing fiction or memoir: You’ve got to achieve enough distance from the characters to see things from their various perspectives. That goes double for the character with your own name or the fictionalized version of you. This can be scary: What if heroes aren’t as heroic and the villains not as villainous as they seemed when you were living the story the first time round?
If you’re driven to put all that work into writing draft after draft of a story, it may be because the story just won’t let you rest till you come to the heart of it. Writing the story will change you. You’ll probably see things and consider possibilities that you didn’t before. We write to understand the story, and ourselves, better. “But that’s how it happened” is just the beginning.
Jonathon Owen’s Arrant Pedantry blog is always great reading for writers, editors, and other word people, but this one might be especially interesting to writers of dialogue. It discusses the difference between direct speech, when you come right out and say something (“What time is it?”), and indirect speech, when you do it indirectly (“Do you know what time it is?”). The expected answer to “Do you know what time it is?” is not “Yes” or “No” — though you can be sure that one of your wiseass friends will occasionally respond with one or the other!
Indirect speech acts are often used to be polite or to save face. In the case of asking a child or subordinate to do something when they really don’t have a choice, it’s a way of downplaying the power imbalance in the relationship. By pretending to give someone a choice, we acknowledge that we’re imposing our will on them, which can make them feel better about having to do it. So while it’s easy to get annoyed at someone for implying that you have a choice when you really don’t, this reaction deliberately misses the point of indirectness, which is to lubricate social interaction.
How one character phrases something is often as important as what he or she is saying. How other characters hear and respond to it can show a lot about those characters.
Source: “Politeness and Pragmatics,” illocution | Arrant Pedantry
Almost three years ago, in “Details, Details,” I noted, “Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, poetry or plays, details help bring your stories to life. (They can also weigh your story down. We can talk about that some other time.)”
“Some other time” has finally arrived, and strange but true, this is a book I’m reading for pleasure, not a manuscript I’m critiquing or editing. After its publication in 2008, it become a New York Times best-seller and an Oprah Book Club selection. All of which suggests that it was pretty well edited and very well liked, or at least that a lot of people bought it.
I’m actually liking it myself: I’m about two-thirds of the way through and I plan to keep going. But still — the details!
At first I was impressed. Truth to tell, I still am. A rain-washed street, the noises each stair in an old farmhouse makes as a boy walks down them, an old tractor engine rumbling to life — all these and many more sights and sounds are exquisitely observed and vividly described.
Especially impressive to me is the detail devoted to the raising and training of dogs. I know enough about dogs and dog training to recognize the author’s expertise. The title character is my novel in progress is a dog; his behavior and training play a significant role in the story. My own treatment of the subject suddenly seemed pale and rushed by comparison. Maybe I should put in more details?
At some point, though, the exquisitely observed and vividly described objects and interactions began to slow me down. Even the parts about dogs. Get on with it, I’d think. I can visualize in detail the peeling paint and the rusty latch — what’s happening on the other side of the door?
With an ebook or an old-fashioned print book, I could have skimmed past the in-depth descriptions and gotten on with the story, but I’m listening to this novel on CDs as I run errands in my car. With an audiobook you can’t skip ahead with any precision. So I listen even when I’m itching to fast-forward.
I wondered if the author was also a poet. In poetry image and detail are in the foreground. They’re meant to be savored. They’re important in fiction and memoir too, but if you spend too much time savoring the imagery and detail in a 580-page (or 18-CD) novel, you’ll never get through it. As far as I can tell, this author isn’t also a poet.
Interestingly enough, despite his minute attention to small details, the author skates right over some of the big ones, like how does a 14-year-old who’s never been away from home manage to survive for weeks in the very deep forest?
Naturally, being an editor by trade, I wonder what I would have said if this book had come to me as an unpublished manuscript for critiquing. I would have been impressed as hell by the writing, but I’m pretty sure I would have flagged numerous places where the narrative bogged down or where stitches got dropped and weren’t picked up again. Obviously the book did spectacularly well in its current form — and, as usual, I don’t know what it looked like, or how long it was, when it was first submitted to agent or publisher.
I intend to keep reading, or listening, to the end, so neither the wealth of detail nor the dropped stitches nor the long meandering detour away from (what I think is) the main narrative has stopped me. The importance of dogs to the story is a big motivator for me, and I’m intrigued by the brief glimpses of magical-realist techniques in the author’s style. When I finish, I’ll read some reviews and comments to see what other readers had to say.
The book, by the way, is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski.
There’s enough good advice in this excerpt that I’m seriously thinking of buying the book. I love revising and find it satisfying, but I often don’t know how to explain what I’m doing, or what needs doing, or how I know what to do. Maybe this will help.
Nonfiction author Dinty Moore shares some tips and tricks on how to look through a draft and make important revisions painlessly.
Punctuation seems to me one of the few human inventions without bad side-effects, and I am so fond of all the little dots and curls that I once taught a whole writing course devoted to them.
— Ursula K. Le Guin
I was tempted to post that quote all by its own self because (1) I agree with it, and (2) Ursula K. Le Guin wrote it, but reading Le Guin reminds me continually to pay attention to context, and I’m continually railing at online memes that encourage us to do the opposite.
So, context: The quote comes in “Examples of Dignity: Thoughts on the Work of José Saramago,” in her most recent nonfiction collection, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2016).
Saramago, the 1998 Nobel laureate in literature, was not a big fan of punctuation. Writes Le Guin: “So a Saramago page, one dense thicket from top to bottom with only commas to indicate the path, was hard going for me, and I was inclined to resent it.”
After a couple of attempts, I bailed on Joyce’s Ulysses for similar reasons. Saramago had been commended to Le Guin not only by his reputation but by a friend whose opinion she trusted, so she didn’t stop with resentment. If she was going to persevere through this difficult book, Blindness, she had to trust the author, her guide, and “the only way to find out if he deserved such trust was to read his other books. So I did.”
This worked. “I returned to Blindness and began it again from the beginning,” she writes, “by now used to the thicket and confident that wherever Saramago took me, however hard the going, it would be worth it.”
She doesn’t learn to love Saramago’s ways with punctuation: she “learned to accept them, but without enthusiasm.” She also notes that she has little difficulty when she reads his work aloud, “probably because it slows me down.”
All of which reminds me of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s much-quoted (and -misquoted) lines:
You write with ease to show your breeding,
But easy writing’s curst hard reading.
It doesn’t seem that Saramago wrote with particular ease, and “breeding” in Sheridan’s sense he certainly did not have, but — point taken. At the same time there are editors out there who think any irregularity that slows the reader down is anathema, and readers who want to barrel through one book after another without engaging with any of them or remembering them later.
I like Le Guin’s approach. She’s willing to put out considerable effort if she trusts her guide.
Me too — but I did give up on Ulysses, although I’d liked some of Joyce’s other work. The trouble was that too many other guides were clamoring for my attention.
Why (Y?) doesn’t “you” begin with U? Why isn’t it spelled “U”? U and I — how symmetrical, how perfect. Twitterspeak finally got it right.
You is the second person. I’m talking to you. You’re the one I’m talking to. You are being talked to by me.
You is the second person. (You are the second person?) The second-person point of view is rare in fiction, unlike the first and third persons (people?), which are all over the place.
I’ve copyedited two novels in second person, both by the same author: Zoran Drvenkar. The first, Sorry, was the first second-person novel I’d ever read and it blew me away. It’s a thriller and as the story coalesced and came clearer I felt pinned to the wall (if you’ve read the book you’ll understand why I shouldn’t have said that) and blinded by headlights at the same time.
Would it have been so riveting in third person or first? I don’t think so.
Drvenkar’s second novel was titled, oddly enough, You. It was good, fascinating, but not as riveting as Sorry, possibly because this time I was wary and less willing to be riveted.
You know, I’d never seriously considered writing in second person before I started this blog post, but now I’m thinking some second-person freewriting exercises might be useful for the novel in progress.
This is Wolfie‘s very first paragraph in second person:
You dash toward the leftmost swing while your friend Hayden dawdles along behind, scoping out the playground action as she walks. Several other swings are free, but the one on the end is yours. By the time Hayden catches up, you have freed your thick nearly black hair from its red scrunchie and are shaking it loose.
Hah. I could get into this.
There’s a verb for you.
By writing the writer spins a thread of written words from some mysterious place in her brain.
Your writing will teach you what you need to know.
Maybe what you most need to know is whether you’re a writer or not, a real writer. Writers wonder about this a lot, especially writers who don’t make a living writing or aspire to make a living or even part of a living from writing. Also writers who can’t point to books — ideally several books — that have their name on the cover, or a sheaf of clippings with their byline at the top.
Writers are ingenious at coming up with reasons they’re not real writers. Do nurses and carpenters and cooks and teachers keep coming up with reasons that they’re not real nurses and carpenters, cooks and teachers?
I blogged about this a while back, in “What Makes a Real Writer?” I don’t have a whole lot to add to that, and once again I’d refer all worried writers everywhere to Marge Piercy’s classic poem “For the Young Who Want To.”
For me the key is, was, and always will be “The real writer is one / who really writes.” But read the whole thing anyway.
These days I’m not all that worried about whether I’m a writer or not. Whatever else I am, I’m someone who can write well, who has writing in her toolkit, well honed and ready for action. I see myriad ways out there that this particular skill can be useful, from telling stories to reporting or analyzing news to blogging to trying to keep political discussions on social media reasonably focused and civil.
Writing is important, whether you call yourself a writer or not.
It’s a rare writer who can do all the things that writers collectively can do, but it’s an equally rare writer who can do only one thing.
Another Piercy classic is “To Be of Use.” You can probably infer the gist from the title alone, but again — read the whole thing. Here’s the stanza that grabbed me by both hands this time through:
In the world these days we’ve got fires to put out and fires to keep going and fires to rekindle from scratch. Writing can do all these things.
Writers may write in solitude, but there’s nearly always at least one other person in the room. Maybe we see them. Maybe we don’t. Maybe we see them but try to ignore their existence. Maybe they’re in our own head.
Editors are test readers of writing that hasn’t gone out into the world yet. Our job is to help prepare the writing for its debut. We’re hired because we’re adept in the ways of spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, structure, and so on, but on the other hand we’re supposed to be professionally stupid: if the writing isn’t clear enough, if gaps and inconsistencies exist in the sentences and paragraphs we’re reading, we aren’t supposed to fill them in from what we already know. The writing is supposed to do the work.
This is fine as far as it goes, but sometimes editors forget that despite our expertise and the fact that we’re getting paid, we can’t speak for all readers. If an editor tells you that “readers won’t like it if you . . .” listen carefully but keep the salt handy: you may need it. Editors should be able to explain our reservations about a word or a plot twist or a character’s motivation without hiding behind an anonymous, unverifiable mass of readers.
Readers can and often do take very different things away from the same passage, the same poem, the same essay, the same story. At my very first writers’ workshop (the 1984 Feminist Women’s Writing Workshop, Aurora, New York), day after day I listened as 18 of us disagreed, often passionately, about whether a line “worked” and whether a character’s action made sense or not and whether a particular description was effective or not. It was thrilling to see readers so engaged with each other’s work, but also a little unsettling: no matter how capable and careful we writers are with our writing, we can’t control how “readers” are going to read it.
This is a big reason I advise writers to find or create themselves a writers’ group — and to develop the skill and courage to give other writers their honest readings of a work in progress. This may be the greatest gift one writer can give another.
I just came to “Teasing Myself Out of Thought” in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2016), and what do you know, it articulates eloquently and clearly some of what I’m feeling my way toward here.
“Most writing is indeed a means to an end,” she writes — but not all of it. Not her own stories and poems. They’re not trying to get a point across: “What the story or the poem means to you — its ‘message’ to you — may be entirely different from what it means to me.”
She compares “a well-made piece of writing” to “a well-made clay pot”: the pot is put to different uses and filled with different things by people who didn’t make it. What she’s suggesting, I think (maybe because I agree with her), is that readers participate actively in the creation of what the story or poem means. Readers are “free to use the work in ways the author never intended. Think of how we read Sophocles or Euripides.” What readers and playgoers have discovered in the Greek tragedies has evolved considerably over the last 3,000 years, and it’s a good guess that Sophocles and Euripides didn’t embed all those things in their works.
“A story or poem,” writes Le Guin, “may reveal truths to me as I write it. I don’t put them there. I find them in the story as I work.”
If this reminds you of “J Is for Journey,” it does me too. And notice where that particular blog post started.
And finally this: “What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do.”
That’s a pretty amazing and generous statement, and one editors might consider occasionally, especially when we’re editing works that aren’t simply means to an end.
Move on to “literature,” however, and fault lines begin to emerge:
3 a (1) : writings in prose or verse; especially : writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest
The American Heritage Dictionary definition of “literary” progresses from 1., “Of, relating to, or dealing with literature: literary criticism,” to 4a, “Appropriate to literature rather than everyday speech or writing,” and finally 4b, “Bookish; pedantic.”
For “literature” AHD moves briskly from the inclusive — “1. The body of written works of a language, period, or culture” — to something less generous: “2. Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value.”
In other words, value judgments lurk not far below the surface of both “literary” and “literature,” and it’s not hard to see how they stir up uneasiness and outright opposition. In some quarters “literary” suggests not only bookish and pedantic, but pretentious, snobbish, affected, esoteric, incomprehensible . . .
As a longtime reader of fantasy and science fiction, I’m particularly intrigued by the way “literary” is used to characterize anything that doesn’t fit into a genre. This leads to grand generalizations, judgments, and arguments that generate plenty of heat but not much light. What it misses is that genres are primarily marketing categories developed by publishers in order to treat books as products. Categorize a novel and it’s easier to promote and sell. Writers aren’t stupid: if they want to sell, they’ll write what the publishers are buying.
Genres have been around long enough at this point that they’re embedded in readers’ heads. Audiences have developed for particular genres, subgenres, and sub-subgenres, and self-publishers who want to sell ignore this at their financial peril.
Writers who want to sell will often write to the specs of a particular genre, at least until (if they’re lucky) they develop enough of a following that their byline becomes the brand. Unfortunately, the byline brand can become as restrictive as a genre category, which is why some well-known writers who want to strike off in a different direction do so under a pseudonym.
Without market pressures, though, writing often doesn’t fit neatly into categories. A while back, in “Genres and Dump Dogs,” I wrote this:
Literary genres are like breeds — of relatively recent development, especially the notion that there are clear lines between them and everything has to fit into one category. “Literature” is more like those village dogs of indeterminate breed: it adapts to the climate and food sources available, and maybe it looks a little like this, a little like that, but you can’t say for sure that it’s a beagle or a foxhound (or a mystery or a romance). When you’re trying to tell a story, you scavenge and steal from whatever’s in the vicinity and if it works you keep it.
If “literary” came to mean “willing to scavenge and steal from whatever’s in the vicinity, all in the interest of the work,” that would be OK with me. The sky, or maybe the ocean, is the limit.