Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What I'm Not Telling You

There are times when I'm so excited about writing that I can barely contain myself. Now is one of them. I fidget, I am distracted at the office, real life is a strange thing standing between me and the Important Work, et cetera. I can feel my powers as a writer growing, my awareness of new technique growing larger and I can see that my future work will be far superior to the stuff I've already written and so I want to just get on with it and write that superior work. I also--possibly because writers are essentially people who want to communicate--have a strong urge to tell everyone I know about how and why I'm so excited about writing. And then, you know, I don't say anything.

The main reason I keep mum despite my excitement is that I think the breakthroughs I'm having are too personal, too idiosyncratic, to make any sense or have any use to anyone else. Such, frankly, is increasingly the case these days whenever I feel the urge to talk about writing, which results in a weird state where the better I become as a writer, the less I find I can talk meaningfully about it.

As an example, I'll tell you about a post I had planned. One of my long-term goals is to find a way to create prose that's not only very tightly focused but is also relaxed and expansive. It will mean precisely what it says and will speak with great specificity and be full of vivid and memorable images. But at the same time it will imply a large and complete world spinning slowly on its axis and will be welcoming and comfortable for the reader. I've worked on the first half of this--the focus and the specificity and vividness--for several years now and what I've been doing has mostly been cutting extraneous stuff from my novels to leave only the essentials. My prose became pretty lean; even at its most ornate it was very deliberate writing, pointing the reader directly at what I wanted her to see and think about. You could say that I'd fallen solidly into the camp of American Modernists like Hemingway. And I like Hemingway, so that was fine for a while.

The thing is, though, after a while I began to feel that this sort of prose--which is pretty widespread especially among American writers--has a brittle kind of feel to it, a utilitarian way of presenting the world that seems sometimes to leave out most of the actual world. The actual world is vague and fuzzy and mostly only half-observed, and it constantly intrudes in the strangest ways with our plans. A tightly-woven Modernist novel doesn't allow for the hugeness and richness of the real world, and that huge richness is something I want in my books. In the real world, if you are at Grand Central Station, surrounded by pushing, anonymous crowds of people all wrapped up in their own plotlines, you can still decide to stand still and look around and see all of it, observe the color of the brunette's hat, the peeling poster on the lamp post visible through the door, the smells of coffee and less nice things, the way the light filters down from above and the fact that there is a family of pigeons roosting in a weird plaster alcove over the information desk or whatever. Even in the most busy of places, there is--if you want it--an intellectual and imaginative elbow room, an entire expansive world all around you. I wanted some of that in my stories. I didn't know how to do it, though.

I think the main barrier to achieving this expansiveness was that I was working hard on other things. I was working on character, mostly, and the varying emotional distances available through the omniscient point of view. So I was busy for a while. Now that I've learned a few lessons in character and POV, I can look around and see what else needs my attention, like prose density and setting and how density of image relates to pacing within scene. I could always do brief conversations like this, where what's said has multiple meanings and the subtext is clear to the reader:

"I'm asking you about weather but it actually means 'do you like me?'" she asked.

"I say 'the weather is beautiful' but I really mean 'you have gorgeous eyes,'" he said.

"I'll mention that there's a cloud in the shape of a swan," she said, "But it's really a way I have of expressing longing."

And so on. Obvs I won't have them saying what the meanings of their speeches are like this (though I have a story idea about people who know they're fictional characters in a story and that sort of dialogue intrigues me with its possibilities).

Anyway, for a long time I've let the dialogue do all the work but lately I've come to feel that this sort of free-floating Hemingwegian dialogue is too disconnected from the world, and I want to bring the world more into the story. So I'm lingering longer within conversations, adding in action and description. He'll see a flash of reflected light on the distant highway or whatever. I'm trying not to use much of the sort of personal actions that are so common in dialogue beats (he'll rub his cheekbone, she'll look down and find a smudge of dirt on her left shoe and rub it off on her right calf, etc.); I'm trying to enlarge the reader's attention around the central action, to see that the action is part of the larger world. So I don't just say "a light flashed on the distant highway," I have to make it visible to one of the characters. The wide world has to be directly tied to the story action. And so on.

Anyway, things like this are Major Breakthroughs for me but they seem so very minor and insignificant when I attempt to express my fascination and I can't quite believe that anyone else would be as excited as I am to think about them. So it's that sort of stuff I'm not telling you.


  1. Scott, it delights me to read that you are in such a cool place with your writing now. I also like to hear what a writer happens to be working on at any particular stage. I think I understand some of what you're talking about. What I love about Banana Yoshimoto and Yasunari Kawabata, for example, is that they make me experience a huge world even though they use few details to suggest it. That was my big obsession for a long time. Lately, I feel like I'm working and making progress on playing with reader expectations using timing and surprise. I'm working more on how the story comes out rather than what the story is. In fact, often times I feel like I'm intentionally making the story anti-climactic so that I get the challenge of making it satisfying despite what it's lacking. I have a lot of situations where things threaten to happen but then get resolved rather easily. The threat is fascinating me at the moment, and now I'm rambling.

  2. I love the idea of playing with the larger world by using the character's POV. I find this impossible to do in first drafts and often leave "filler" lines like the generic character actions you mentioned. However, in revision, I try to replace these with actions and sequences more relevant to the story and the "larger picture".

  3. I read this whole post thinking Davin had written it. Until I saw his comment. And now, whether right or wrong, I have to go read it again.

  4. Whoever wrote it, it's fascinating. (Scott)

    The idea you paint here is exciting for the reader, too. Because so much, in life really, is missed.

    But what I wonder is now if you are wedding yourself to a certain kind of character--the kind of person who sees more. Because frankly, I feel like most people I encounter In Real Life miss things, muchly.

  5. "what I wonder is now if you are wedding yourself to a certain kind of character--the kind of person who sees more"

    No, I'm not! If I'm good, the "wide world" stuff will not come in the form of observations made by characters. The observations will be made by the author and the reader.

  6. I love that you all get so geeked out about writing! Thanks for sharing - I think it's exciting to see what developments other people are experiencing, especially when it's at such a thoughtful level as here on LitLab.

  7. Davin: You and I have talked about your current suspense project, and it really interests me. I also like to set up challenges for myself by deliberately not doing things the "right" way in the formal sense. In my detective book, I've played fast and loose with the rules, but I think the narrative is solid enough that I can get away with my naughtiness. I did a little bit of your "this could be serious...no, it's not" type of threat/resolution. The idea, yes, is to get the reader to stay with you anyway and keep reading. I am annoyed that my local bookstore doesn't have any Banana Yoshimoto on the shelf. I've complained.

    Tina: I'm not really thinking in terms of POV. I almost never do anymore, because I see POV as a fluid thing. The way I think of it now if more like groups of objects, and how to group the character's present moment with larger maybe eternal or timeless moments outside the story. I also leave sort of placeholders in the first drafts and try to flesh them out in revisions. The revision process becomes more important to me with each book. I think my first drafts are all pretty similiar and they only become unique and reflective of my current ideas about narrative craft during revisions.

    j.a.: Davin, Michelle and I are all starting to sound alike. I see that as a good thing. Three heads are better than one, you know.

  8. Carrie: You are too kind!

    I'm working on a metaphor for writing as fine woodworking, but I don't quite have it yet.

  9. Three-headed dogs are pretty cool too, especially when one always lies and one always tells the truth and one always sounds like Elvis.

  10. And, j a zobair, I think it best if you give me credit for all of the cool posts on this blog, no matter who wrote them.

  11. There is no way to prove that there are actually three of us, anyway, so "Davin" might as well get all the credit. He always lies, he always tells the truth, and he always sounds like Elvis.

  12. Wow, what a beautiful post! And how exciting to be where you are right now. Thank you so much for that - I think I'm going to have to reread it later when I have more time to digest your words, but they rang true with me even the first time through. They got to me...about how I'd like to write, how I actually do try to write, and how I may improve upon that...thank you.

  13. But I *like* it when you share these thoughts - I don't feel quite so alone in my appreciation of nuances of language.

  14. I'm excited about stuff like this, but only because it means I'm connecting to you on some sort of level I can't even define because I feel exactly the same way: Such, frankly, is increasingly the case these days whenever I feel the urge to talk about writing, which results in a weird state where the better I become as a writer, the less I find I can talk meaningfully about it.

    I've been there for awhile.

    The same goes for publishing. The more I get into this little publishing world, the more I don't want to talk about it. I was gung-ho about it before, but now, well, I just don't even want to talk about it anywhere or with anyone unless I'm in a room with them and they specifically ask me about it.

    These types of things just become so personal to me that I have to keep them to myself. My prose is getting that way. Most of the time I can't even explain what I'm doing. I feel it. I know it. I just can't really talk about it, and what would be the point, anyway, besides insightful posts like this where you're dancing around all of it, but talking about it at the same time. Clever you. :)

  15. I like to make sand sculptures at the beach.

    A few years ago, I watched another sand artist create some truly amazing sculptures and he told me that wetting down the sand was one of the most important steps, so I started doing that. My sculptures held together much better afterward.

    I used to rely only on my hands to shape the sculptures. I would start with a large pile of sand, wet and pat it down, and then remove large clumps of sand until I had the right general shape. I used my fingers for detail work. My sculptures looked good, but they were all similar, with smooth surfaces and curves...no sharp angles.

    Last year I started using putty knives and paint scrapers. These tools allow clean cuts and deep grooves. I opened up a new realm of artwork, with sharp angles. I found out that I can also use the tools to create hatch marks and crosshatch patterns that create shadows on the surface of the sculpture, giving a real boost to the depth and dimension.

    But that has nothing to do with writing (or does it?)...

  16. April: No, thank you!

    Deniz: To misquote C.S. Lewis, we write to know that we are not alone. See Michelle's post from today.

    Michelle: "Most of the time I can't even explain what I'm doing. I feel it. I know it. I just can't really talk about it." That's me all over. Whenever I try to talk about it I feel like I either make no sense at all or the Big New Thing suddenly seems insignificant. Or it would take so very long to describe the tiny but important shift in my view of writing that the effort doesn't seem worth it.

    Rick: Your sand sculptures are awesome. The photos you posted on your blog this summer amazed me! Hey, is that a metaphor you're using?

  17. It's the Big Thing suddenly seeming insignificant that kills me every time.

  18. Scott- Thanks. And that was a fun metaphor, because while it was a fitting metaphor, it also stands on its own. I loves me some double entendre.

    I'll also echo Michelle's point about not being able to explain what/why/how I am creating something, I just know when it fells right. I like that better than the times when I know something isn't working but can't pinpoint why.


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