At Work

At Work
If you wanna be a writer you gotta be a reader.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Toward a Fictional Style

Recently a pleasant young librarian, Jan, from Illinois tracked me down via my website.  She specializes in literature for young adults, and, not surprising, is writing a novel of her own.  She was shy about asking for advice, but I could tell she was hoping for some reaction.  In a moment of Minnesota nice I made her an offer:  if she would help push my new young adult novel Saturday Night Dirt in her library and her state, I’d take a look at a sample of her fiction. Below (with her permission) is part of our conversation:

Hi Jan:  Got your chapter, and set to it on the spot.  I rewrote several pages to show you how I would write what you wrote.  Some writing teachers would be horrified at this approach, preferring to let the students gradually “see” on their own––a more inductive approach.  I tend to teach that way as well, because a deductive, top-down rewrite has a built-in “You should write like me” message.  However, I think for the right person at the right moment it’s useful to see what a pro would do with the same material.  Plus I think the overall lessons are valuable and relevant to any writer: more sentence variety, more direct prose, more “show” and less “tell," kill those adverbs (which seldom contribute much), verbs simpler and fresher and more consistently in the simple past tense, etc.
Your donnee’ (the given) of your plot is great; for you, now, it’s all about style, and below are some comments: 

1. Keep your speech tags simple and transparent.  As in "She said/remarked/offered" as opposed to "He spat defiantly/screamed with terror/insinuated evilly."


2. Always let your readers do the “joking, laughing, crying”.  That is, try to give them half or three-quarters of the emotional moment, and get them to do the rest.  The trick in fiction is to not tell the whole story, but rather get your reader involved in actually making (responding to) the story.  Most aspiring writers, and you included, want to do everything for the reader.  If you do that, they have nothing to do. Television does everything for us, including the laugh track; we just sit there and watch.  In contrast, a good film makes us think, worry, smile.  As a writer, you want your reader involved in the process—making inferences, guessing, filling in the blanks.... For example in the scene where Michael is telling “his story”, try to do more with his body language to show how painful it is, how tightly wound he is.

3.  Beware of Black Hole Words (BHW).  That is, single words which by their size and color suck up all the energy of the sentence.  For example:  "The bride came to the church abhorrently dressed for a wedding."  In contrast, try for a blended, balanced diction in order to give your sentences a smooth flow.  Allow your sentences to accumulate meaning first word to last without wild swings in word choice.  One of the best literary examples of this is the third paragraph from James Joyce's story "Araby."  It's worth a close look.

4. And a general comment:  how “edgy” do you want this to be?  Right now you have a good situation, but the scenes are soft on conflict and confrontation.  Would the two young people bond that quickly?  Haven’t both of them been “injured” in “the [fosterhome] system”?   These are damaged kids, I think, and that’s not coming through.  You need to make their wounds real, palpable.

5. Also, I’m not feeling a good sense of chapter.  Try to think in terms of the shape of chapters—where they end, where they begin.  A chapter should a rounded shape, a body of its own. 

All that discouraging stuff said(!), you’re well along in your writing.  Your novel has promise, but I think it needs to be edgier, tighter still, and stronger on imagery, all to reflect the inner lives of these kicked around kids.  Don’t be afraid of sentence fragments, either, to render their thoughts on the page. 

The nice thing is, you’ve got a full draft to work with–and revision can actually be fun as you see the sentences tighten, the paragraphs find their shape, the images sharpen.   I rewrite every page of my fiction 15-20 times before I’m done, and that’s probably the rule rather than the exception.  So make those sentences as tight as guitar strings, but don’t lose track of the larger goal: to present to a reader a good story, really well told. 

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