Friday, February 22, 2013

The Little Words Can Throw You Too

I've been pondering since Claudia's last post, this idea of interrupted reading, of writing that throws the reader out of the story. We often talk about that as a flaw in the writing. But in this post (and my next couple) I'm trying to get a handle on throwing out that, in some writing at least, is just right.

Sometimes I'm reading a story and the writing is so _______, I just can't go on. And rather than the negative adjective that your brain may have supplied there, I'm thinking about when the writing is so beautiful or lyrical that I just need to stop and read the line again. Or when an author has chosen the absolutely perfect word to capture a feeling that is very hard to describe in words.

My most recent experience of the later example comes from Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed, which I was reading when Claudia's blog went live.

Shevek has just landed on Urras, the lush planet from which his species evolved. Only he has never set foot on it. (Four? Six?) generations ago a dissident group of Urrasti emigrated to Urras's desert moon, Anarres. There has been next to no communication between the two civilizations since that time.  He is surrounded by photographers. Le Guin writes:

"The men around him urged him forward. He was bourne off to the waiting limousine, eminently photographic to the last because of his height, his long hair, and the strange look of grief and recognition on his face."

The strange look of grief and recognition.

Reading these words I was instantly there with Shevek, perhaps I was Shevek just a little bit. Here I am, standing for the first time on the planet from which my deepest ancestors evolved. I have the eyes I do, the skin, the perceptions, my entire body and likely a good portion of my mind, all of these are the way they are because my species came to be, here. Right here. And I have been separated from my body's truest home my entire life. I am for the first time smelling the trees, feeling the winds, seeing the colors of the sky, being embraced by the world that made me the sort of being I am.

Grief. Recognition.

With just those two words, Le Guin captured for me the ephemeral of coming home to a place that one does not know.

Grief. Recognition.

And I cannot read on, because I want to sit with that complicated emotional state awhile. And layered in that state is something more, is awe. My appreciation of Le Guin's ability to do this to me. How not only has she nailed it in two words, she's also given the sentence a meter that moves you to those two words and punctuates them. And again I just need some time.

And as I savor the moment, more layers stack up. Recognition. Grief. Recognition of writing at its best. Grief that I am nowhere even close to that ability.


Friday, February 8, 2013

The Great Word Debate

All of us over at the Scribblerati watering hole get along remarkably well. I think this is the biggest reason why we've kept our group so small... adding another personality into the mix would risk endangering our sanguine dynamic.

Not to say we don't disagree on things. If we didn't bring diverse points of view to the table, we wouldn't be much of a critique group - we'd have to rename ourselves "Preaching to the Choir," or "You Guys are the Best" (said with a drunken slur).

The one disagreement that keeps coming up again and again is the Great Word Debate. I like me some big words. Not ridiculously out-of-place, big-for-the-sake-of-being-snooty words - but words that either are A) Very specific and therefore exactly right for the moment, B) Fit rhythmically into the sentence, or C) are charming and funny. Some other members of the group, however, disagree with the use of unusual words in writing. They quote Stephen King, who noted that (paraphrasing here) any word that stops the reader in his or her tracks should be removed, as it gets in the way of the story. I quip back that I'm less on team Stephen King, and more on team Stephen Fry - a man who uses a heck of a lot more outré words than I.

For example, in my book, Ursula Evermore and the Case of the Man Who Wasn't, I use the following words: circumnavigate, parsimonious, collywobbles, and uxoricide.  Mark, in particular, has objected to every one of these words, and more. At most, I have one of these per chapter, and probably less often then that.

My arguments:
A) Many people do know these words. I know them, after all - and it won't stop the flow of the story for these people.
B) If the reader doesn't know the words - then they can either look them up, or try and glean their meanings from the surrounding text. After all, in this modern age, the answer is often only a right click or a touch away. This is how I learn new words - I read them in a story, book or article, and I look them up. Heck, several years ago I learned the word 'sartorial' from Entertainment Weekly - hardly a highbrow publication.

Mark's side:
A) He's right, there are many people who will come across a so-called 10 dollar word, and because of frustration, or thinking the author is being pretentious, will put down the book.
B) Sometimes you're just in the mood to read something with a good story and characters, and you don't want to have a dictionary by your side.
C) People who abuse the thesaurus are annoying.

Jon, for his part, argues point A more often than anything -the fact that my word choices are going to cost me readers. Eventually, after several years of back and forth on this - the argument becoming more and more heated each time - we had to decide to agree to disagree. And the truth is this - the type of person who will want to read Mark's awesome post-apocalyptic vampire book is more likely to be akin to Mark in his or her preferences, and the person who will want to read my time travel 1920s British murder mystery is more likely to be akin to me.

But it brings up the question - what kind of reader are you? Are you on Team King, or Team Fry - or on a different team altogether? Do you like to encounter unknown words in your fiction, or do you prefer your story to flow, uninterrupted?

Weigh in now... !!


Friday, February 1, 2013

Truthiness in Writing

As a teenager I occasionally watched the TV show, The Dukes of Hazard. Please don’t hate me for it. It was 1979 and good TV hadn’t been invented yet.

To me, all the episodes of ‘Dukes kind of blend together, with lots of formulaic moments. Uncle Jesse spouting some sort of country wisdom, Daisy Duke in her ‘ahem’ “Daisy Dukes,” and almost without fail, the Duke-boys’ car, the General Lee, jumping yet another ravine or washed out bridge, driving on unharmed, safe on the other side of the jump. But it was that moment, as the General Lee landed and drove on, that I was always thrown out of the episode, thinking: No one could walk away—let alone drive away—from that car jump. It would end more like this. (Apparently 150 General Lees were destroyed over the lifespan of that show.)
How the General Lee would look after landing a few of those jumps
Similarly, in the movie Independence Day, earth scientists program an Apple computer (in a few hours) to deliver a virus to an alien computer that will shut down all their space ships and literally save the day.
Meanwhile from my Mac I send out a .docx file (instead of a .doc file) to my friend on another Mac computer. He can’t open my file. It's not compatible enough. Game over man.

And, in the recent movie The Hobbit (pt 1--which I actually did enjoy), there is a scene under the mountain where the dwarves go through an action sequence that defies gravity and all probability as they run from a mob of hundreds of goblins and then fall thousands of feet down a cliff riding a rickety pile of wood, only to land safely and unharmed. They get up, the unexpected journey continues….
I leave to pee. No character is in any immanent danger. Jr. Mints at the concession stand are in order, too. No need to hurry back. When I return, the dwarves will be putting together an Ikea dresser. If they can survive that fall, they'll survive everything else they encounter, too.

So what I’m trying to say here is that when believability, or maybe even truth, is violated in a story, you as the reader/viewer find yourself questioning what just happened and are no longer following the story.

The opposite can also sometimes happen in writing, too. Sometimes it’s the real things that lose people’s interest, or take them out of the story.

A few months back I was working on a short horror story called “Trotline.” Part of the story is about vampires. Part of it is a series of flashbacks about a teenager working fishing trotline for extra money with his father. One of the comments that I got back in my critiques surprised me. In summary: “No one would do all this work to sell fish for 50¢ a pound. Not in Minnesota!” But as it turns out, that aspect of the story was very autobiographical for me. One year as a teen I did work a trotline and sold the fish for pennies on the pound—in Minnesota (it was fun with lots of cool moments, but really made no money at all). So the part of my story that was true, that I had lived through—wasn’t believable—and it didn’t jive with what seems real in today’s world. But yet, it did happen. I lived it. When I finally rewrite my short story (it’s in my editing stack) I’ll listen to that critique—and I will be rewriting some of the “real” details to further fictionalize this actual part of the story. Then maybe it will fit in and feel “real” and not trip my readers. The one improbably element of my short story that no one questioned? Vampires.

In the fall of 2011 I attended a novel writing conference at the Loft. The keynote speaker, Pam Houston, talked a lot about truth in writing. She writes short stories, essays and memoir. She told a very funny story of how once while working for a magazine as a travel writer, she wrote and sold a travel piece about canoeing in France. In one segment of the story she told of flirting with another canoe full of Italian men on a beautiful stretch of river. The “fact checker” (do such jobs still exist in 2013?) for the magazine phoned her, questioning some of the details of the article. Pam admitted she had embellished some of it—but the magazine liked it and published her article. In particular the magazine fact-checker said that they loved the part in her article where Pam flirted with the hunky, Italians. The truth, the real truth, she admitted, was that she’d made up the whole story. The weather in France that time of year was rainy and dreadful. She’d never set foot in a canoe during her entire trip—and despite how well she’d written them, there were never any hunky Italian guys to flirt with.

At the end of her presentation (and I hope I’m quoting correctly) Pam Houston said that when she wrote memoir, she believed about 82% of what she wrote was real or the “truth.” When writing fictional stories she believed that about 82% of what she wrote was the “truth.”

What is real in your work that nobody will believe?

What is fictional in your work that no one will question?

Wishing you real writing—or better yet unreal writing.


Note: for more on reality in writing, please keep scrolling to see Lisa’s excellent piece below!