Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Slow Down

No matter how much thought and care I put into my craft, I keep finding more aspects of writing to master. That's good because it means I have lots of opportunities to become a better writer, but bad because, well, it's just annoying to discover that I'm not doing something as well as I could.

Right now I'm considering the way I use detail and pacing in narrative. This weekend I read Joan Silber's excellent little book, The Art of Time In Fiction. It doesn't directly address my particular issues, but after reading Silber's thoughts on fictional time and the organization thereof, I was able to better see the writerly problem I'm solving.

I tend to write almost exclusively in scenes, with few or no transitional or summary passages to connect the scenes. My narratives are very active, and the speed at which the scenes take place is pretty constant. Once in a while I will pause or hesitate, and the narrative will go into slow-motion--as it were--and focus on details. Some of this slow-motion narration is written during the first draft, but a lot of it comes out of revisions. I have a habit of reading through my drafts and indiscriminately asking myself "what more can/should I say about this?" If I can think of a way to expand a thought, I'll do it, usually by pouring details into a scene, expanding the thoughts of a character, describing something, and so on. Lingering, I think, is really what I'm doing. Imagine yourself walking down a city street, keeping a steady pace, looking at the shop windows. Once in a while something will catch your eye and you'll slow down and take a better look, or even stop on the sidewalk to stare. That's sort of what it's like to slow down in a scene and focus on details.

Anyway, my method has generally been to slow down and expand the bits of narrative that caught my eye and imagination as I went along in revisions. I really enjoy this and often come up with little moments that amuse and please me no end. And that's all great, but I haven't been using this tool with the sort of deliberateness I should have been. In other words, what I ought to do is look at my scenes and ask myself which moments/images/emotions in them are most important and in need of the reader's greater attention, and then slow down to expand those bits of the narrative. I've been adding details and increased focus more or less as it suits me, with no real method in mind. This strikes me (and my taskmaster Virgo mind) as sloppy, as poor craft. So my intention--if I can stick to it--is to watch out for the moments that require more attention and then give those narrative moments the attention they need.

It's possible that, writing by feel or instinct the way I've been doing, I've actually accomplished just what I need to accomplish, but I have doubts. It's also possible that I can't have fabulous and amusing or pleasing ideas to work into the narrative on demand. But this is the problem I've chosen to work on right now, so we'll see how it goes. Slowing down with intention, with an eye to the needs of the story and not simply as it strikes me.

So that's my craft issue as I embark on a new first draft. There are all the usual issues of voice and story, but now I'm also asking myself to concentrate on the line-by-line structure of scenes, which is not something I'm used to doing.

I'm also still trying to find a working title for the detective book. Right now I'm calling it "the detective book" but that doesn't really pop, you know?


  1. As for the content of your post, it seems like something I should think more carefully about, but when I try it feels like it's pulling me out of the right zone for writing. Maybe this is something I think about during the revision stage. I'm not sure.

  2. Maybe, Really Cool Detective Book.

    I can easily see poor pacing in other writer's work, but have a hard time seeing it in my own.

    I hate that!

    -- mw

  3. Scott, I think both of the approaches you describe are viable as far as my own reading is concerned.

    The approach to focus on scenes that require more analysis is probably something I tend to stick to more often. To me, this is more technical, and when I admire a work because of it, I'm usually admiring the work, or the thought that went into the work.

    When I read something that takes your first approach I think it provides more insight into the writer himself or herself, and that can be quite enjoyable as well, given that I think the writer is interesting and is interested in cool things. It almost feels like I'm reading an autobiography in a way.

  4. I think I do the lingering on the important already, actually, but other things suffer because of it if I pay too much attention to only that process. I almost always only talk about details that push the story forward in one way or another. It has only been in my recent work that I started doing this to great effect. Now I should focus on something that needs more work and slow down that way. :)

  5. Nevets: I know Weezer, but I can't make the connection.

    Yes, this sort of thinking pulls me out of the comfy fictive dream, too, which is why I've been avoiding it, I think. It seems less like art and more like work. Alas, I am a firm believer in the value of work!

    Mac: Maybe "The Best Detective Novel." So people can go into bookstores and ask, "Do you have The Best Detective Novel? That one by Bailey?" Yeah, I like that.

    Big Daddy: I think you're right about the emphasis being different between slowing down to emphasize story versus slowing down to emphasize coolness, or whatever the author is enjoying personally. I don't plan to stop doing the latter, but I really want to concentrate more on doing the former.

    Also, have you read Camus? I think you'd really like him. That's an off-topic comment but I've been meaning to mention it to you for about a week now.

    Michelle: It's really hard to know when something needs more emphasis, though, isn't it? I have a habit of leaning toward subtlety so much that sometimes I leave out enough clues that the reader sees what's going on. Meanwhile, let me tell you about hats...

    Also, I tend to write with an eye to dramatic irony and metaphor, so a lot of the time when I'm expanding something not directly related to the story, it's still an ironic comment on the action or character. So it's tricky. For a guy who believes so strongly in craft and process, I do a lot of work by instinct.

  6. Scott, I have read The Stranger, but it was a few years ago, and I don't remember much of it, I'm afraid. I remember liking it, and I remember a scene where a guy falls forward into the water and bubbles come up around his head. After you had talked about, I was thinking I wanted to read it again. Maybe I'll try and find a copy that has the French beside the English so that I can remind myself of how bad my French is!

  7. I don't know, Scott. I find it a little sad that you didn't think the usual way you linger is as "worthy" as something that is more deliberate. I mean, you say self-deprecating things like "please me no end" and all. My humble take is that your seemingly random selections of places to focus on have not been all that random. Something percolating at the back of you mind, or some generalizations you've formed that are still lurking in the subconscious, maybe.

    And even if they are indeed random, then they are part of the Scott-Bailyeness that gives your stories soul.

    Or maybe I'm rebelling against the structured and deliberate older me and trying to return (regress?) to the head-in-cloud, free-spiritedness of my childhood.

    In any case, I look forward to updates on your new craft focus.

  8. Re: Weezer - what with fans referring to their albums by description of the cover (the blue album, the green album, the red album) until they decided to just name their new album Hurley in anticipation that fans would dub it the Hurley album.

    I'm great with work and even with writing feeling like work, but I also can't let myself slip into college writing class mode and let my writing suffer.

    There's some kind of balance between head-down instinct and eyes-open rationality, but I've yet to figure out where that balance is.

  9. @Domey - Camus is a good read, and not limited to The Stranger. As a bonus, the more fresh Camus is in your mind the more you can understand the twisted paradoxes that influence my own writing.

  10. Yat-Yee and Nevets: I answer you simultaneously because you both seem to be implying that do work deliberately in the manner I describe is somehow to embrace an anti-art process, or as Nevets says, "to let my writing suffer."

    I think that what I propose is no different than saying, "I'm going to pay attention to the way I use dialogue tags" or any other issue of basic craft. An increased awareness of how we individually work can only be a good thing, because the more we can control our process and tools, I think, the better we can achieve our specific writing goals.

    But I do agree that making ourselves read our work critically sounds less fun than just writing in a white-hot haze of caffeine-fueled creativity. And I still plan to do plenty of that.

  11. Nevets: What on earth makes you think that being more aware of what you're doing would make your writing suffer? How would the output be inferior? I don't understand. Maybe you would suffer during the process, but that's not the same thing.

  12. Definitely not saying it's an anti-art process. I believe that my writing would probably be more artful (if that were the goal) if I did take a more painstaking approach.

    I'm not a fan of writing out in a caffeine- or alcohol-enhanced frenzy, for that matter either.

    Big on paying attention.

    That said, I know the output would suffer, because I've written that way, and the output suffers. Nothing more to it than that. It's no suffering for me. I don't mind the work. I'm an analytical person, so there's actually an appeal to it.

    But writing that way engages a different part of my brain, and the writing that comes out isn't as good.

    I suspect most of us have a different balance between instinct and deliberation, depending on our styles, our goals, and the general way we're wired.

  13. No, we must all write just like Bailey. Because I say so. What's this idea of yours that we're all distinct individuals? Madness, I say.

    The more I concentrate on my own writing, that is, the less generally applicable I find my ideas to be. Which really does surprise me. And continues to surprise me.

  14. I think it's important to work at perfecting one's craft, but some people dig too deeply into it. When I have doubts about a scene, I think about it from a readers' point of view. "Do I like this? No? Why don't I? How can I fix it?"

    Remember, you are a reader too. If YOU like it, it can't be all bad. Right?

  15. McKenzie: I guess I don't believe in "dig too deeply into it." I don't think that most of us dig deeply enough. That may not sound as fun, but what we are doing matters so it matters how we do it.


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