Monday, 4 June 2007


Had a blinder of a writing session on Friday: Six intensive hours of writing and 2,000 not-crap words.
After a month or two of pretty unfulfilling sessions, I decided to think back to how I began, and how I managed to write 2,000 words every day.
In those days, I would sit on the sofa and write by hand on paper. No thoughts of a computer.
I found that I could more easily lose myself to the story and to my characters and their world. Furthermore, in typing up my writing, I would perform a second pass, tightening up the sentences and paragraphs, amending the odd word or description here and there.
My return to this, apart from being a great success, was something of an indication of what I've been neglecting recently.

I've been having discussions with my old buddy ricardo about clutter, which I would define as unnecessary wordage. It's all well and good writing a lot of great stuff, but that stuff suffocates and loses its lustre when buried in beautiful descriptions and events that add nothing.
In this way, we're not simply looking to keep the reader enthralled, we're looking to avoid everything that does not keep the reader enthralled. It's not what we do well that will sell our writing, it's what we don't do well that will harm our credibility.

Don't describe sunsets, advises Jack Bickham.
His point is that such descriptions destroy the pace. To take his warning literally is, I believe, a big mistake. We can and should describe things. But we must always be conscious of the peaks and the valleys in our writing, and we should remember that, if the reader is going to jump ship, he is going to do this in a valley.

I didn't have enough valleys in my new opening to Tethered Light. My world didn't quite seem to gel to me, and my characters didn't quite come alive.
I have controlled the peaks and valleys, forming a breathless ride through successive perils. I have controlled the emotional topography. But I felt fear inside when constructing my carefully positioned valleys: I was frightened of holding and squeezing the juice from them.
Having broken free from her flying beast, Penpa plummets. A line break indicates a change in time and place. I had Penpa wake in the snow, and I was eager to throw her into peril again. But this is an intimate moment for Penpa and the reader: it is a moment of bonding; a moment where I need to pull out the emotions; an opportunity to consider Penpa's loneliness and isolation, and her love for Blinky.
Sod Bickham, I thought (in a respectful way of course). I kept Penpa there, hugged by the snow. She opens her eyes and the moon regards her tenderly (oh yes, I'm not frightened of adverbs any more!). Her life would be empty without Blinky: her only companions would be the faraway sun and the different moons that pass by and the stars that look on. Dig, solvey; dig for that emptiness and that loss; explore the aching heart. Make this character real and emotional.
This valley is tagged: 'Breather for reader. Reader gets to know Penpa; reader gets to lie in the snow with her and look up at the moon with her. Reader must share her sadness. Reader must want to hug Penpa and care for her.'

I watched Sylvia at the weekend. It's the life of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, retold from Sylvia's perspective. By all accounts, it was a pretty unhappy relationship which culminated in Sylvia's suicide.
You know what was wrong with this movie? After the joyous opening fifteen minutes, there were no more happy moments. The emotional topography never peaked again and I was all but willing Sylvia to take her own life by the end.

You know something my friends? Our highs and our lows are measured by their context - by their place between and amongst other highs and lows. A high that follows a high has nowhere near the emotional effect of a high that follows a low.
We build up and we destroy.
We destroy and we build up.
What is a peak without a valley, or a valley without a peak? A plateau; a flat and uninspiring topography.
What is a world without sunsets? A place that knows no contrast.
What is the measure of happiness if there is no sadness, or the measure of a storm without a calm?


R1X said...

Don't describe sunsets! Unless they play a role in the story - I'm coming to see (still too fearful of putting into practice) that the narrative does (as you have for a long while said) need to share description in its active bosom. I just couldn't comprehend it until now, re-reading Barker from the beginning, seeing how description takes part in the activities and actions of the characters - very rarely do they stop to regard something in and of itself...

And the positive/negative switch takes us back to McKee - time to re-read him, me thinks - it is something I became mindful of having made the first pass on my screenplay - it's all pathos, nothing light-hearted. But, whereas Lost has its light-hearted dips, 24 has no room for it. There is action and tension and there are breathers with emotional reunion or exposition. Is this what we mean by a valley? Not just to change the neg to a pos, but to change tact in the otherwise relentless narrative?

esruel said...

Obviously, a writer has to be careful of what is left in and what is left out. The decision, though, has to be made every time the 'bridge' occurs, and not as a general rule to rely on throughout the tale. It does seem a rather glib statement not to describe sunsets (a catch-all reference for many things, I'm sure). The writer's subjective view of the world has to be incorporated into the story, otherwise the reader will start to imagine something else - or may wish for something that should be there, but which doesn't appear. Lack of an appropriate setting can sterilise or sanitise a narrative. How much an individual writer puts into a work identifies the writer. The 'sunset' doesn't need to be repeated constantly. But it may need to be referred to again. Each writer decides how much and when. Personal instinct will decide how much and when. This can be rejected, of course, as too haphazard a method. But it isn't, if the writer makes conscious decisions, judgements. So long as it comes from the writer, not from someone else. I keep saying it: trust yourself. Ask yourself: what do you like; what do you prefer? Not what someone else prefers. Take advice, but not direction. By this time in your writing career, it would be hugely (tut!) surprising if you haven't developed an instinct, an eye, a feeling for what should and should not be there as part of a narrative. Even more surprising that the person you ask or defer to might have exactly the same taste as yourself, and would be working toward the same pictured, envisioned, goal as yourself, too.

solv said...

Good points as ever.
We should bear in mind a few things:
Jack is addressing the new writer throughout. This isn't to say that a more mature writer can't take something from his observations, but it does suggest that his points address many of those fundamental mistakes that a new writer makes.
What we've learned over time is that such a holistic approach to one's techniques is unnecessary: we, as es observes, make learned judgements - judgements based on an experience that a new writer does not have. We should never be afraid of refining our judgements though: I am quite certain that mine have evolved beyond measure and I am equally sure that they will continue to evolve.

It's no accident that Jack picks on sunsets. He refers to what is necessary to the narrative and what is not. I can easily imagine that many authors would want to display their powerful prose through obvious imagery, such as the sunset, with little regard for such a description's place in the narrative, or for its potentially harming effect on the reader's immersion. In particular, I remember attempting to read 'The Ill-Made Mute' by Cecilia Dart-Thornton (her first novel). Early in the novel, she described a sunset with such sickly poeticisms that my interest in her writing was shattered beyond repair. Moreover, she could barely restrain herself for more than a page without spreading her buttery, self-indulgent wonder upon some inane and irrelevant fascination. Her novel, to me, represents the epitome of the author's ego - the point at which the author's enjoyment takes precedence over the reader's. I felt like a gooseberry.
Jack Bickham, as is his wont, observes a friend's Western. His friend described a sunset over two or more pages. This sunset had a powerful place in the narrative though (and this is the key)! The protagonist was preparing himself for a battle to the death with the antagonist, and the antagonist would arrive once the sun had set. In this way, you can see how the sunset becomes synonymous with anticipation. (In this example, the sunset plays the same important and chilling role as the siren in Silent Hill.)

Yes, we do need to immerse the reader, and this means relating a gamut of sensory experiences. But, if these experiences are not cleverly designed such that they drive the narrative forwards, they should only be related at a time where the pace might comfortably slow.

@Ricardo: I'm deep in thought. The closest representation I can think of for the emotional topography is McKee's value charge swaps. These might be different to Bickham's valleys and peaks, depending on your views on boredom as an emotion. To visually represent any form of emotional topography is a nightmarish challenge. Here, I tend to use a 'paper plate' approach, swapping the stimulae around until the flow feels right, which brings us back to es's instincts. We must remember, though, that our instincts can only be perfectly satisfied through hard work and study and experimentation! By their nature, they are the most difficult of things to capture.
@Es: The reader ALWAYS imagines things that aren't there, as we've demonstrated lately. This is essential because it precludes the need for us to explain that our protagonist has two arms and two legs and two eyes and seven hundred and thirty six hairs on their head, or that the robot is man-sized and man-shaped. We are simply guiding the reader, steering the course of their imaginings with our brilliantly devised narrative. However, this is also our burden as we must prevent the reader's imaginings from visiting places that we do not wish them to visit - places that would make a mockery of our vision.

esruel said...

Good points, as ever, solvey!
I've always believed that the reader defaults to their own preconceived vision if something isn't there to override that - e.g. description: doesn't have six arms, so must have two. I wonder whether 'imagine' could be replaced by 'accepts their own default'. We have caused the reader to imagine, but because we have missed something out (the sunset example, for example!) then the reader is forced to imagine their own ideas, which hitherto were unexplored and are usually defaults, not imaginings.
I've always believed, too, that instincts are the result of hard work and study. It's generally a subconscious process, but experimentation will help. However, you only need to follow them, not capture them. And they can easily be overridden by others' thoughts, so research has to be guarded if you don't want to harm something which has taken years to develop within yourself. As I say, take advice, but be wary of direction. That sounded like a bit of direction, too! ;-)