Let’s Not Put Story Before Character 

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.)

As human beings we are created with unique and differentiating perspectives, characters should be created with that same concept in mind.

Source: Let’s Not Put Story Before Character – ART + marketing

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But That’s How It Happened!

“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.

N Is for Narrative

Like many other word people, the cataclysmic 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign and its ongoing aftermath got me wondering whether my particular skills as a writer and editor could be useful and, if so, how. Clarity and accuracy seemed way down low on the country’s priority list.

Then in late January, I found Theodora Goss’s blog post “The Politics of Narrative Patterns.” It began like this:

There are all sorts of reasons the American election went the way it did, but I think one of them, and perhaps quite an important one, was the way in which our thinking is determined by narrative patterns. What do I mean by narrative patterns? I mean that in narratives, in stories, there are underlying patterns we are familiar with. They recur from story to story: stories are often variations on these patterns. When we encounter these patterns, we feel fulfilled, comfortable — we recognize them, we like to read about them. We like variation, but only a certain amount of variation. Too much variation makes us feel unsatisfied, as though somehow the story is written “wrong.”

After discussing some narrative patterns popular in our culture, Goss notes that male characters have more archetypal options than female characters. Right, thought I, thinking of the path-breaking work writers of f/sf (fantasy and science fiction, hands-down my #1 go-to choice for fiction) have been doing since the 1970s and earlier to expand the possibilities for female characters.

Then Goss ties this to presidential elections, past and present. “People did not get so excited by Barack Obama, when he first ran, because of his policies,” she writes. “No, he was the young hero who had overcome adversity and triumphed.”

And Donald Trump? “He fit another narrative pattern: the stranger who rides into town and imposes order, bringing justice to the frontier. . . . It did not hurt him that he was not morally pure, because we do not expect the gunslinger to be morally pure — no, that’s reserved for heroes.”

Immediately it dawned on me that the wise old man in the race, the Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and maybe Walter Cronkite character, was clearly Bernie Sanders. Wise old(er) men have loomed large in my fantasy life since I was a kid, but I never “felt the Bern.” The more I researched his record, the less impressed I was. But I had such a hard time conveying my reservations to my many, many Sanders-supporting friends that I finally stopped trying.

When a narrative pattern takes hold, facts take a back seat. This applies to writing as well as politics: novels that capture the public imagination and become runaway best-sellers seldom do it on their literary merits alone. Don’t tell me the gatekeepers of the publishing world, the agents, editors, publishers, reviewers, et al., are impervious to the power of narrative patterns!

What about women? asks Theodora Goss. Plucky girls are OK, but what happens when they grow up? “We only have two patterns for older women who want political power. One is the Virgin Queen, like Elizabeth I: a woman is fit to wield power if she is willing to give up other aspects of being a woman, such as marital relationships or children.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t  fit this pattern. “What was left?” Goss asks. “The Wicked Queen. We know what she does — she seizes power (illegitimately) for her own gain, to satisfy her own ambition. She kills people or has them killed (this too was a criticism lodged against Clinton). And the Wicked Queen cannot be allowed to gain power — she must be defeated. All of our stories have told us that, from childhood on.”

Walk around that for a while. It resonates.

It also brings me round to the question of what can we word people do in this world where it seems our skills are only valued if we put them in the service of spin, obfuscation, manipulation, and outright lying.

It brought Theodora Goss around to a similar place. At first she thought (feared?) that writing had no use and maybe she should have gone into another line of work. “But now I think that one of our most important tasks is telling stories, and I am a storyteller. I am a perpetuator and creator of narrative patterns. That means I have an obligation to be aware of the patterns, to wield them in ways that are good, and true, and useful. And I can create new patterns.”

That’s the key: the old patterns won’t lose their power with the wave of a pen, but they can be undermined and transformed, and new patterns can be created. I saw it happening in f/sf, where women went from being add-ons and sidekicks to having their own adventures.

Well into the 1960s, lesbian characters in pulp fiction had basically two options: go straight or die. Cracks began to appear in the pattern before the end of the ’50s, and over the following decades, thanks in large part to lesbian and feminist writers, presses, and readers, new patterns were created. In many quarters these days “go straight or die” is an anachronism.

Note my inclusion of “readers” here. The culture’s narrative patterns are very strong, and the gatekeepers, often citing “market forces,” have a vested interest in perpetuating them. Books that break or undermine the dominant patterns are unsettling, and plenty of people don’t like being unsettled. It wasn’t a commercial press that broke the back of the “go straight or die” lesbian stereotype: it was Daughters., Inc., the small lesbian press that in 1973 published Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. The novel’s “underground” popularity caught the attention of mainstream publishers, and Rubyfruit Jungle went on to become a mass-market best-seller — and a cultural icon for a lot of us.

Narrative patterns are deeply rooted in all our heads. They’re our default settings when we read, when we write, when we choose among political candidates. They’re powerful for sure, but they aren’t invincible. Words, our words, can change them, one story at a time.

 

When Chitchat Takes the Wheel

Dialogue is a challenge. It’s got to sound real, but it can’t be too real because in real life people often go on at great length without saying much of anything. If your characters go on at great length without moving the plot forward in some way, your readers will zone out. (For some tips about writing dialogue, see “4 Ways to Write Better Dialogue” and “Monologue About Dialogue.“)

I recently critiqued two first-novel manuscripts. Both were rich with promising material, and both bogged down in endless stretches of what I can only call chitchat: the protagonist talking with friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances about things that had nothing to do with plot or subplot.

What to do when you come upon long rambling dialogue while revising your own work or critiquing someone else’s? Here’s an idea: Ask what the writer is avoiding. (The writer, need I say, can be you.)

In one of the manuscripts I was working on, the chitchat was occasionally interrupted by passionate monologues by different characters (rarely the protagonist). These monologues had plenty to do with the plot, but they read like position papers, not fiction.

Travvy tries to persuade a tractor to move.

Travvy carries on a one-sided dialogue with an offstage tractor.

These monologues did serve an important purpose, however: they made it clear that the characters disagreed with each other strenuously and eloquently on issues that were not only important in themselves but closely related to major themes in the novel. I knew that this material could fuel riveting, even dramatic dialogue — if only the writer would let the characters engage with each other.

It wasn’t hard to see why this writer was reluctant to do this. Both she and her protagonist are dealing with explosive issues that people have a hard time talking about without blowing up.

Writing takes courage. Often when we set out on a journey we don’t know how much will be asked of us. If we did know, we might not take the first step. But as we travel, we become braver, more willing to open closed doors and break new trail. Revision works the same way: in revision, we develop not only the skill but the courage to grapple with the questions we’re asking of ourselves and our characters.

In the other manuscript I was critiquing, the same symptom — endless chitchat on topics peripheral to the novel — had a different cause. The protagonist remembered nothing of her traumatic childhood and early adolescence, and she was so ashamed of her later adolescence and young womanhood that she wouldn’t talk about it even to her husband and closest friends. This gave her little to talk about besides chitchat.

Worse, because her repressive upbringing was key to the plot, it made her a sitting duck for the villain, who wasn’t hampered by amnesia or reticence.

Survivors of violent and traumatic events often repress memories of those events, but though it’s possible that someone might have no memories of her first 15 years, it’s certainly not inevitable. Most important, it wasn’t an interesting choice for this particular character in this particular novel. Interesting choices open up possibilities. This particular choice closed them off.

I suggested that this writer give her protagonist increased access to her own past and the willingness to share some of the grim details with those she trusts. At the very least, it will give the protagonist something to talk about, and greatly cut down on the chitchat.

Today’s Lesson: What’s Missing

I’m about to launch into draft #3 of my novel in progress. There’s a silence, an absence, an unknown, at the very heart of it, and dealing with that unknown is my biggest and scariest challenge. This essay, from Brevity‘s Nonfiction Blog, deals with omission in nonfiction, but it got me thinking about how to do what I’m trying to do. P.S. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, the question can be a handy way to introduce a possibility when you or one of your characters doesn’t know what’s going on.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Two recently released creative nonfiction anthologies, Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers (Excelsior Editions, 2016) and I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program (University of Chicago Press, 2015) offer a stunning array of  contemporary creative nonfiction writing, and coincidentally both offer candid interviews with the writers about inspirations, challenges faced, and decisions to fully realize these works. Such frank conversations can lead to teachable moments in the classroom. In this two-part blog post, Jeanette Luise Eberhardy and Debbie Hagan not only examine these anthologies, but also lessons to be learned.

z cnPart One By Jeanette Luise Eberhardy

When I teach creative nonfiction writing to art students, they are most interested in two skills: omission and perhapsing. The skill of omission, examined by John McPhee in an essay in the New Yorker (2015), asks the writer to carefully consider what details…

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Sturgis’s Law #7

ink blot 2Last spring I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #7:

It’s hard to see the whole when you’re up too close, and easy to see unity when you’re too far away.

Notice how some people will make sweeping generalizations about huge groups of people they know very little about, then call you on every generalization you make about their people?

That’s what Sturgis’s Law #7 is about. This is a presidential election year in the United States — lucky you if you haven’t noticed — and generalizations are running amok. Generalizations are often made about groups of people the generalizer doesn’t particularly like. Conservatives generalize about liberals, liberals about conservatives, Democrats about Trump supporters, Sanders supporters about Clinton supporters, gun control advocates about gun owners . . .

When anyone generalizes about “Americans,” all 320 million of us, I look around my town of fewer than 3,000 souls and realize I’d have a hard time making a generalization about us, other than “we all live in West Tisbury.”

Sturgis’s Law #7 has several applications for writers and editors. Here’s one: You’ve got a grand idea for a story or novel or essay. You map it out in your head. Then you sit down to write it — and you immediately realize how little you know about the details necessary to create images in the reader’s mind.

Here’s another: You’re so fascinated by the research you’re doing for your project that you lose sight of, and maybe interest in, the project itself.

And here’s yet another, this time from the editorial side: When I’m copyediting — reading line by line watching for typos, pronouns with unclear referents, sentences that swallow their own tails — I probably won’t notice that a compelling scene in chapter 4 really needs to come earlier. But if I’m critiquing, considering the work as a whole, I’ll probably skip over the typos or even miss them completely. In fact, if I’m too conscious of typos, it’s either because I’m not paying enough attention to the big picture or because the typos are so numerous they’re distracting me from my job.

Many editors specialize in either “big picture” structural editing or sentence-by-sentence language editing, but even those who do both won’t try to do both at the same time. Wise writers do likewise. When you start revising, don’t obsess about typos and subject-verb agreement. Deal with those when the work’s structure is solid. If you share your near-final drafts with volunteer readers, make it clear that you want them to read, not proofread — unless one of them is a crackerjack speller, in which case you may want to let him or her have at it.

In traditional publishing, a manuscript passed through several editors on its way to becoming a book. Once the structure was sound, the focus moved on to the paragraphs and sentences, then to the words, and finally the proofreader went hunting for the details that had eluded everyone else. The result probably wasn’t error-free, but it came pretty close.

Such attentiveness, however, is time-consuming and expensive, beyond the reach of most self-publishers and many small and not-so-small presses. Still, it’s possible to get excellent results by keeping Sturgis’s Law #7 in mind. Both distance vision and tight focus are important, but don’t expect yourself or your editor to catch everything on one pass through your manuscript.

***********

Serendipitously, I just came across this passage in The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth Century’s Preeminent Writers, edited by George Plimpton (New York: Random House, 1999). It’s full of pithy comments by all sorts of writers on all sorts of writing-related subjects. It’s also out of print, alas. I got it on interlibrary loan. Anyway, this bit from novelist Michael Crichton illustrates what Sturgis’s Law #7 is about:

In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room, and you have to assume the ship’s exterior. What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say, Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.

The Charles W. Morgan, restored 19th century whaling ship, seen from the dock. Vineyard Haven, Mass., June 2014.

The Charles W. Morgan, restored 19th century whaling ship, seen from the dock. Vineyard Haven, Mass., June 2014.

Backstory Happens

Standard advice for fiction writers usually includes “Start in the middle.” Good advice, for the most part, but how do you work in all the important stuff that’s happened before the story starts, the backstory?

Backstory often gets a bad rap. It’s associated with info dumps, superfluous prologues, and abrupt jumps back in time.

But backstory is crucial, not just the backstory for the situation but the backstory of each character. (Come to think of it, these overlap so heavily that they might almost be the same thing.) Lately I’ve become a huge fan of Sally Wainwright, the British screenwriter who’s largely responsible for such series as Last Tango in Halifax, Scott and Bailey, and Happy Valley. She’s created some of the most three-dimensional, complex, recognizable characters I’ve ever seen on small screen or large — or in novels, for that matter.

A big reason is that Wainwright’s characters have pasts. Where they’ve come from helps shape who they are, yes, but their histories also help drive the plot. Unexpected events in the present trigger memories of the past; those memories affect how they respond to the events. Their friends and co-workers see them in a different, perhaps surprising light.

Most of us have memories that we would rather keep in the closet, safe from prying eyes — including our own. When events force them into the open, we have plot.

In “Notes and More Notes” I wrote that for me “writing is a journey of discovery. If I know in advance what I’m going to discover, why make the trip? I’m just a sightseer gazing through the windows of a tour bus.”

In Wolfie, the novel in progress, much of what I’m discovering is about backstory. I already knew that protagonist Shannon fled her violently alcoholic family as a teenager. Now, in the late stages (I hope) of draft #2, I, along with Shannon, am learning what happened after she left, thanks to an unexpected phone call from Shannon’s estranged younger sister. As a result, draft #3 is going to have a plot thread that’s completely absent from the first three-quarters of draft #2.

This might drive a careful planner nuts. Planners often want to know a character’s history cold before they get down to writing. What happens when unruly backstory starts to erupt out of the carefully planned tale?  Maybe it doesn’t happen. Maybe serendipity doesn’t bother to knock where it knows it won’t be welcome.

If I were on deadline, if I had to deliver a final draft to a publisher by, say, the end of April, I probably wouldn’t hear the knocking. Or maybe I’d scream so loud at the intrusion that serendipity would cower in the shadows and hesitate to come back. This is part of why I’ve never aspired to write for a living, though I wouldn’t turn down fame, fortune, and/or more time if they came knocking.

But I’m not on deadline, and for the moment I’m grateful. I knew almost at once that this particular plot thread was meant to be in the novel. It fits. It’s been exerting a sort of gravitational pull on Shannon all her adult life, but for a long time Shannon wasn’t dealing with it so I didn’t have a clue. Other events flushed it out of hiding.

Backstory happens if you let it happen. Your characters will help you with this. They’ll say or do something that makes you wonder: Where did that come from? And in a few moments you have the kernel of an earlier incident that will become part of the character’s backstory.

These incidents may loom large in the character’s memory long after everyone else in the vicinity has forgotten them. When I was 13, I was told by another kid in my church choir that I always sang off-key. No one else ever told me that, and I didn’t even like this kid, but I was so afraid she was right that I stopped singing for almost 20 years. Most of us have had experiences like that. So have our characters. In our heads we’re often arguing with people who passed out of our lives years or even decades earlier. Listen.

 

Notes and More Notes

These days the how-to-write gurus like to divide writers into planners and pantsers. Planners, it’s said, outline everything in advance, then stick to the outline. Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They don’t know how the story is going to end until they get there. They make it up as they go along.

Either/or doesn’t work for me. Meticulous outlines make sense for some, but for me they suck the point out of writing. Writing is a journey of discovery. If I know in advance what I’m going to discover, why make the trip? I’m just a sightseer gazing through the windows of a tour bus.

Nevertheless, a story needs forward motion. To maintain forward motion, some sort of structure is required; otherwise you’ve got waves breaking on the shoreline, getting no higher than the high-water mark before they fall back, momentum spent. Last year I set a project aside because it had a surfeit of subplots, characters galore — and no forward motion whatsoever. I kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing did. What it lacked was structure.

Think of structure as the frame of a building or a road through previously untracked wilderness. Either way, your job is to build it. My first novel, The Mud of the Place, started with a character and a problem. I wrote it scene by scene. But though I never made an outline, I scribbled notes here there and everywhere. Years after I finished the final draft, I was still finding yellow pads with notes on them: notes about characters, notes about plot, notes about how I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

I’m doing the same thing with Wolfie, the novel in progress. Ideas and insights and solutions to plot problems often come to me while I’m walking or kneading bread or falling asleep, but to really explore and develop them I have to keep my hand moving across the page. This time I’m keeping the notes in one place, and in chronological order. When I’m stuck or drifting or just need a jump start, I dip back into them. My old ideas keep giving me new ideas.

Here’s a sample of what they look like and what I use them for.

In early November I was trying to corral some emerging themes, subplots, and images. I was auditioning names for one character (Javier? Rafael? Rafe? Ralph?) and social media handles for another (for the moment she’s settled on Quinta Wolf). Note also the ink scribbles at the top and the liquid splotch (probably tea, maybe beer) at right. The red notes were added later.

20141107 notes

Here the author is trying to figure out what the hell happens next. She does this a lot.

20141121 notes 1

Toward the bottom of the same page, the pen offers an answer — and starts speculating about a possible plot development further down the road. I haven’t got there yet, so I don’t know how it’s going to play out. Note the scribbles. Note taking often involves scribbles.

20141121 notes 2

By late February, I had started draft 2, even though I hadn’t finished draft 1. My main plot threads were clear and becoming clearer. I had to build them a trellis to climb on. On March 24, I listed the characters driving each of the threads. “The Wall” is a mural that protagonist Shannon is painting on her living room wall. It has, as these supposedly inanimate objects sometimes do, taken on a life of its own. Amira wandered in from the set-aside novel, where she plays a major role. Her role in Wolfie isn’t settled yet, but it’s definitely important.

At the bottom of the page I’m brainstorming names for my villain. He started off as Bruce McManus, which didn’t feel right. “Bruce” has stuck, but “McManus” is gone. I didn’t want a name with obvious ethnic associations. I did want a name that suggested that what this guy does, though terrible, can be and often is done by ordinary, unexceptional men. His surname is now Smith.

20150324 notes

Here — not even three weeks ago! — I’m looking ahead to what follows a key scene (“selectmen’s meeting”). The scene itself is being lifted wholesale from draft 1, but when I first wrote it I hadn’t thought much about what its repercussions and aftershocks might look like. I’m also working out some character motivation: “Why is Shannon getting uneasy?” She is uneasy, and with good reason, but neither she nor I are quite sure why. The tricky thing is that it can’t be too obvious. One of the questions that’s driving this novel for me is “What do you do when you suspect something is very wrong, but you can’t be sure and the stakes are too high to allow for mistakes?” The jury’s still out on that one.

20150628 notes

And finally, here’s the sketch for a plot break-through scene. Bruce, an outwardly rational lawyer who weighs the consequences of (almost) everything he contemplates doing, has to make a move that isn’t all that well thought out. He has to be, in other words, on the brink of panic. What would do it? Well, if he realized that Shannon, whom his 11-year-old stepdaughter, Glory, idolizes, knows Amira, who counseled Glory four years earlier when she was in trouble at school, that would do it. How to bring that about? I mulled that over on several walks, then a possibility popped into my head. On July 8, I sketched it out and decided, Yeah, that’ll work. Let’s try it.

20150708 notes

Clichés, Ruts & Envelopes

A creative writing teacher at San Jose State used to say about clichés: “Avoid them like the plague.” Then he’d laugh at his own joke. The class laughed along with him, but I always thought clichés got a bum rap. Because, often, they’re dead-on. But the aptness of the clichéd saying is overshadowed by the nature of the saying as a cliché.

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Yes, I thought when I encountered this passage, in part because the cliché Hosseini’s narrator, Amir, was considering is one I find useful: the elephant in the living room, the huge hulking truth that dominates a situation even though, and because, no one in the vicinity acknowledges its existence. When I first heard it, the image was being used to describe the experience of living with an alcoholic. Not only did it ring true to my own experience, it made me think harder about it. Clichés do not make you stop and think. Quite the contrary: they enable you to blow past something without thinking too hard.

My yes was full of admiration, because Hosseini deftly manages to bring the clichéd image back to life by walking around it with a thoughtful eye. So readers will do likewise — or at least this reader did.

Cliché, interestingly enough, comes from the print trade. Originally, says Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, it meant “a stereotype or electrotype; especially :  a single stamp of which a number are joined to form a plate for printing a whole sheet of stamps at once.” It’s come, not surprisingly, to mean a phrase, expression, image, theme, or plot whose power has been diminished by overuse.

But as Hosseini’s narrator reminds us, the phrase must have started off useful. Would have been overused otherwise?

Many clichés are phrases that have fallen into ruts. Several words fuse into one: we hear “liketheplague,” not “like the plague,” and how many of us have firsthand experience with plagues anyway? When phrases come adrift from their original, literal meanings, spelling errors frequently result. If you remember that the “rein” in “free rein” is attached to a horse’s bridle, you won’t write of giving “free reign” to your creativity. Likewise the “bridle” in “unbridled passion” — though “unbridaled passion” might come in handy if you know what you’re doing.

And no, you don’t have to have to have firsthand experience with horses to understand where these phrases come from. My experience with elephants is negligible, and I’ve never seen one in a living room, but could I imagine the elephant as representing a huge hulking entity that no one knows how to deal with? Yeah. No problem.

Related to clichés and ruts are what I call “envelope words.” In order to discuss complex situations, concepts, and ideas, we generalize. We have to. Discussions would bog down pretty quickly if we had to describe each concept in detail every time we introduced it. But generalizations quickly become envelopes, and envelopes are opaque: we can’t see what’s in them, and the complexity of all the myriad pieces within is easily forgotten. We mistake the word or words written on the outside of the envelope for the envelope’s contents.

Here’s where knowing your audience(s) becomes important. If your intended audience can be expected to know what’s in the envelope, you don’t have to explain in detail what a given word or concept means. But the more diverse your intended audience — by sex, race, class, generation, culture, religion, place of residence, or any other factor — the less you can take for granted.

Which brings me around to the novel I quoted from at the beginning of this post. Most of The Kite Runner takes place in Afghanistan. When scenes take place in Pakistan or California, Afghanistan is never far away. Thanks to its tragic and bloody recent history, Afghanistan is much in the news. Many of us have stuffed all the visual images and stories into an envelope and labeled it “Afghanistan.”

But as with most news coverage, those stories and images are heavy on war and politics. When war comes to The Kite Runner, readers have already been introduced to life on the ground, to an array of vividly evoked characters and the messy complexities of their intertwined lives. The “Afghanistan” envelope starts to bulge in the middle and maybe split at the seams.

Good writing can do that. It can show readers overused words and concepts in different lights, from different angles. It can reveal the gaps in what we thought we knew. Often it deepens our understanding of the general by focusing on the particular.

 

Word Count: Zero

If you’re currently in the throes of NaNoWriMo, you might want to put off reading this post till the middle of next month. If you aren’t, or if you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, read on.

OTOH, if you are in the throes of NaNoWriMo, what are you doing here in the first place? Maybe you should stick around.

Here’s the shocking truth: I didn’t write any words this morning. Well, OK, I scribbled some words on pages of notes that had already been scribbled on, but really — I didn’t write any words this morning.

My chair

I’ve blogged about how I don’t measure my progress or a day’s success by the number of words I’ve written. This is true. All the same, writing no words is a little scary, especially when I want to have a few pages to take to my writers’ group meeting on Sunday night. Right now I’ve got nothing.

What I did this morning was sit in my writing chair for an hour and a quarter. To my right, three candles were burning. (Usually it’s just two. This morning I needed all three.) To my left, eight pens were at the ready. My laptop was on the floor, still asleep.

A few days ago, Wolfie, my novel in progress, came to a crossroad. Shannon, my protagonist, had just made a big decision — the one it took lots of red ink to get to. She had no idea what happened next.

Neither did I. This was a problem.

Since I’ve got some experience in community theater, when writing fiction I tend to see myself as the stage manager. My characters move around on the stage. I write down what they do and say. Once in a while, I need to prompt one actor, or summon another who’s lollygagging backstage. Then they take over and I go back to transcribing.

Not this time. This time they were standing around waiting for me to tell them what to do.

I have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen. What I didn’t know was how to get my cast of characters moving in a direction that would bring it — or something like it — to pass. I was staring at a big logjam on the river. Nothing was moving.

Little heap of wood

Little heap of wood

I sat in my chair, reread my notes, scribbled some words here and there.

The logjam in my head morphed into a big pile of cut and split logs, like the ones the wood guy would dump in my yard during the years I was heating with a wood stove.

Being a writer and thus wise in the ways of procrastination, I got it. Anne Lamott nailed it in her classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. How do you accomplish a huge project whose boundaries you can’t see, whose completion you can’t imagine? Bird by bird. Word by word. Or, in my case, log by log.

Once I realized that I had to start somewhere, it didn’t really matter where I started. Pick a log, any log.

Turned out I’d known all along what log to start with. After the events that had transpired in the previous twenty-four hours (novel time), the next move was clearly Shannon’s. Well, now it was clearly Shannon’s move. I’d known all along that Shannon had to make a couple of phone calls, but the Internal Editor assured me that this wasn’t enough. How could a couple of phone calls break up that humongous logjam?

Travvy on a mission

Travvy on a mission

By this time it was 8:30 a.m. Time to get out of the chair and go walking with Travvy, my canine companion, on whom Wolfie is based. As I pulled on my socks and hiking shoes, donned vest and cap, and put Travvy’s walking harness on, Shannon was making her phone calls — and lo, the rest of her day lay like a path in front of me, leading toward the plotwise thicket that I knew was up ahead.

Word count: zero, but a breakthrough day nonetheless.

Counting words obviously works for some writers, at least some of the time. For me, the secret is usually to sit down for at least an hour and don’t fidget. I’m writing even if I’m not writing, as long as I’m not balancing my checkbook, answering email, playing on Facebook, or brushing the dog.

Go to the chair. Sit. Rustle papers, scribble words, focus on the work. If the path doesn’t open up today, do the same thing tomorrow.

 

20141121 woodpile 1