Saturday, February 28, 2009

Observers in an Obscure World

As writers we see the world a little differently. We watch, we observe, we record. We process and file information within loops of narrative memory. Do we do this because we spend so much time reading and writing stories? Or is this simply a part of us, a part of why we became writers in the first place?

On Thursday my wife started hemorrhaging. It was a miscarriage of a baby we didn't know we were having. It was a baby we never got to talk to, never got to see. We called him or her Francis Russell, but the baby's existence will forever be defined by absence. We never got to see Francis. Instead, we had an ambulance trip and a visit to the hospital.

My wife lost half her blood. After delays and starts, after scares and close calls, my wife had an operation and the bleeding stopped. For awhile she was a ghost, bloodless and white. Her lips were white, the most shocking white I had ever seen. A pale, pale white, a white that almost ceased to exist, as if colour itself was fading into absence. A pale white with flickers of a soft and purplish grey, a colour that existed more as a reminder than as a thing itself.

She's home now, tired and weak. But alive and getting better. My son and daughter are happy to have her, old enough to feel what's wrong but not old enough to understand it. My daughter said: "The baby was just too small to be alive." She is four and beautiful.

Yet part of what I remember is myself, the oddness of my own thoughts throughout the experience. Noticing things, remembering not as a snapshot does, to store something away for the sake of memory alone, but rather as a bit of narrative, something to be shaped and shared. I remember how the doctors and nurses talked amongst themselves, the sudden change in tension when things got bad for awhile and how that tension eased as things improved. I remembered the images, the blood, and wondered how to describe them. I wanted to shape and clarify things with words. I remember taking my wife's earrings and putting them in my bag, worrying that they might get dirty. As I followed her from an emergency room to a resuscitation room I carried the plastic bag with her clothes in it. And I carried her shoes, royal blue Adidas gazelles (I was wearing navy gazelles, as it happened). I remember sitting in a chair in the corner, trying to stay out of the way. There were wires and cords everywhere, like the webbing around a spider. Nurses would get tangled for a moment like flies. I remember how they kept asking if there was any pain (none), and if she was pregnant (we said no and we were wrong). The nurse told us the hormone levels showed the truth, that her last period was a trick, an illusion, a little magical sleight of hand. I remember sitting in a waiting room while she was in the OR. Grey's Anatomy was showing on the television. It wasn't what I wanted to see. But it was part of the story I was shaping in my head, the story I was already telling myself as I waited. As I waited to see what the ending would be.

I don't think it's a matter of caring less, or being distant, being unconnected with the present. I was very much there, the present all too inescapable. I don't think it was calming, particularly, or meditative. I think it's simply the way my brain works, imposing narratives on my own experience. It's a way to understand the world, to allow comprehension. It's about sensing and defining order within the chaos. It's about finding meaning, perhaps.

My wife, too, is a writer. After the operation I was with her in recovery as she climbed slowly out of the fugue of anesthesia. A dream and yet not a dream... and she told me it was interesting as a writer. She felt a desire to write about this odd consciousness, this remarkable sense of peace she felt. Nothing touched her. My own prior experiences of that feeling were of a vague white fog, and I reimagined those experiences as an act of empathy. I couldn't always see in that anesthetic fog, but it wasn't black, wasn't dark. It was like light shining through a thick white mist, encompassing me in a hazy cocoon. Voices would come in and out. Distance is unreliable in the fog.

And afterward, on the far side of risk and loss, we both wanted to talk about it... and more than that I think we wanted to share it, to share it as a story and make it real, an experience to be felt, to be transmitted in the words we offered. We wanted to share the story we had experienced, not just for our family, so that they might understand, but for us, to keep a bit of that understanding for ourselves and hold onto it.

A name is a word. Francis. And now that word has a story. We told it to ourselves and now it's real. And writing this is maybe a way to understand a little more. We don't write the truth... we write towards the truth. A journey in words, a reflection, a waking dream.

We're writers. All we have to do is find the words.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Writing Quirks #2 - A Parenthetical Universe

I'm a writer, I admit it. Word obsessed, check. Sentence junky, check. Grammar stickler, check. But do you have a secret? I do. I'm a rebel.

Yup, it's true. A rebel. Now, I'm not heading off to blow up the Deathstar. My rebellion is, uh, smaller in nature. And grammatical. I predict a massive following and world-wide revolution (note: "world" here actually denotes only the English-speaking components of said earthy world. Other languages can revolute on their own time). And my revolution is... just what I did in my last sentence. Did you see it? Groundbreaking! Earthshaking! Planetdestroying! Solarsystemtipping! Yes, I'm talking about parentheses. Or "brackets", if you prefer. Or should that be (brackets)?

Did it again!

Yes, I'm a rebel and I'm proud of it. I cast down my sticklerdom (for one instance only, I admit). I refuse to use the brackets properly. (As, you see, this is how you're supposed to do it) The traditional way just looks ugly and inelegant to me. So I won't do it. It defies logic. Doesn't it seem to attach the enclosed line to the second sentence rather than the first (when really it's commenting on the prior line)? That's why I totally disregard what's right and place my sentence ending punctuation after those brackets, so that everything's properly connected.

Yes, I'm a genius. You can stop applauding now, really, you're embarassing me. Really, please. I know, I know, you're enthusiastic, you want buttons and banners and slogans for the marches...

I know, I'm mad. What about you? Any conventions make you antsy? Got any stickler stories to share?

P.S. If you're a copyeditor, um, please don't letter bomb me. I have a wife and kids! They're much cuter than me! I forced them to wear the buttons, I swear!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Enough Torn Hair for a Barbershop

I hate them. They're malevolent and insidious. They steal from me. I hate them.

Leech words. I want to grab them and squeeze 'em until they pop. I can almost feel the little buggers in my hand... slimy little leech words, full of my blood, full of my precious story energy. Stolen! I'm gonna squish 'em to pulp. I'm gonna dissect them with my metaphorical red pen and drop 'em in my metaphorical dustbin.

(Because, you know, I use a computer. No red pens. At least not very often. It's hard to read the screen after awhile)

Leech words. Yes, if I could do sound effects there would be growling here. Possibly hissing. Maybe biting. I have no dental plan, so biting might be 50-50. Verbal violence, surely.

Leech words. They are my enemy, and they seep surreptitiously into all my first drafts. They're there, they're always there. Words that undercut my own lines and meanings, undercut my story. Leech words, draining necessary blood from my own writing. Lifeblood, bright and vivid.

I can't seem to avoid them. Every time I think I have... I'm wrong. They're there. Always there. "Almost" is there, and "maybe." And "sort" brought a friend in "of" so that together they can form the ghastly "sort of". Oh, and "slight" and his cousin "slightly"... how do they always sneak in? And then there's "kind of" and "seems", and "might be" and "mostly" (who masquerades as a grand and valuable world as if to belie his smallness). Oh yes, I hate them.

I hate how they almost turn a sentence into something that mostly prevaricates, sort of deadening the impact of the line in a way that maybe harms the intent despite the fact that the words might seem slightly invisible to the eye, as if they might be okay in the end, a kind of language that's almost as natural as breathing.

(Oh, it itched to write that... like I could feel their little pucker-mouths clamping down and beginning to suck)

Oh yes, I hate them. I'm on the twelfth draft of a book and still I find them... lingering, hiding in the crevices, blinking up at me with false innocence. I pull my hair. Pull it right out until tangled tufts form little drifts on the floor around my computer.

I tell myself it's a good fight. A just fight. Truth, Justice and the Novelist's way. I keep fighting, and honorably. But if the Geneva Convention looks away for just a moment...

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Rhythm and Flow

What is it that makes a piece of writing great to you?

Obviously, character and story are central. But after that? For me one of the most important things is rhythm. It's a hard thing to qualify or quantify in prose, but to me it's one of the most important aspects of writing.

I read something awhile ago about Virginia Woolf, where she talked about how hard she found writing to be... until she realized it was all about rhythm and it became easy. Now, I don't know about easy... but finding the flow in the words is key to me in finding excellence.

I try to feel that flow, the way the sight and sound of words braid together to form a rhythm. One word to the next, and the next, and the next...

Knowing when it's on can be tricky. Knowing when it's off can be obvious. You know when you read a clunky sentence. You may not know what's wrong, but you can feel the wrongness. You can feel the trip on the tongue. And it's not just about sentences.

Have you ever read stories where you feel bumped along? And yet if you examine each sentence they all seem to work? First sentence: yes, it works. Second sentence: yes, it works. Third sentence: yes, it works. Fourth sentence: yes, it works. But sometimes the question is not whether the sentence works, but whether the paragraph does...

I see writing, sometimes, where it seems as if the writer has forgotten that the sentences are interrelated, that they play off each other like the various instruments in an orchestra. Together they create an effect larger than themselves. They can't just play the right notes... they have to play them in time and in tune with the others.

Writing, to me, is the same way. It has its own rhythms, its own musicality. It's all layered, the pieces all balanced against each other. I like that interconnectedness, when the structuring of the words themselves carries you along through the story, when the sentences push you forward because there is no other way to go but that. There is no room for pause in a seamless dream.

So, what does rhythm in writing mean to you? How do you recognize it? And what are some of the other things that make you say "this is great writing"?

Monday, February 9, 2009

No Such Thing as a Writing Sin?

The url below will take you to a short story:

Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta.

It was the Best American Short Story Winner 1991 and O.Henry Prize winner, originally published in Squandering the Blue, (a short story collection):

It contains a hulla bunch of passive constructions, and telling (actual example: 'she was angry'). This story would probably have got critted off the page by any crit group.

This fascinates me.

Someone said at FM recently that the rules of writing are to be learned, and carried around, but not necessarily adhered to.

A while ago I broke down three extracts from published fiction into different categories: dialogue, description, internal reflection, and action.

One of those stories was a piece of lit fic, a bestseller, written in the first person. In a three hundred word extract picked at random (I took the middle page of each book), all of the actions began with 'I...'

Yet the excerpt didn't seem repetitive. I speculated that the writing was so strong, that the situation, tension, and imagery were so much more prevalent than the sentence structure, that the reader was well and truly sucked in, and the professional author 'got away' with it.

Now, a good few months later, I think it's more than that. I think a writer needs to be bold enough to write a scene the way it needs to be written.

I believe mastery of the craft should be pursued, and that the choices we make when writing should be enlightened ones borne of knowledge of the benefits of different methods. However, I'm beginning to think that there are no writing sins for an author who knows both their craft, and how to excite the reader.

I now believe that there is a place for every technique, including passive constructions and telling. Everything, in fact.

Whaddya reckon?

Friday, February 6, 2009

Slumming (a love of film)

I've never felt any particular inclination to write a screenplay, but I still find film interesting as a writer (and viewer, of course). Because, while the medium is different, the basic task of storytelling is the same, or at least very similar. And I think if you look at the rise of film in the last century you'll see how film techniques have influenced fiction writing. The pre-eminence of "show" for one, not to mention things like jump cuts and changes in ideas about narrative pace (such as increased narrative focus on account of the short attention span of the modern reader/viewer - or the perceived short attention span, at least).

What got me thinking about this was seeing Slumdog Millionaire a couple days ago. A fine film, and interestingly constructed. How it handles time in relation to the construction of scene and story is quite fascinating, and something quite translatable to fiction I think. It's about creating a frame for a story that allows a unity between different times and storylines. The story could easily have been told in chronological order, and it would still have been fine. But much of its magic is in how the stories are braided together, how they're juxtaposed and interrelated. Tension and climax (and mystery) are heightened by the form of the narrative, by the storytelling choices. Its structure allows it a sort of integrity that it might lack otherwise, an interwined notion of the relationship between certain actions. The theme is reinforced (almost created, really) through narrative technique.

I like that about films, that I can immediately see a relation between a story's structure and its perception by a viewer. It's concrete and easily absorbed in a short movie. Flow and its relation to structure and form is quickly discerned, whereas in fiction the process is often longer, more subtle, lying a little more beneath the surface, and often you see it more clearly looking back than you do while immersed in it. Film offers (at least for me) an easier apprehension of narrative technique, and so it often spurs some interesting thoughts for my fiction writing. It's a sort of cross-pollination, really. I'm a very visual person, too, so that may be part of it. I'm stimulated by images, and so the manipulation of images through the narrative structures of film often inspires me, gets me thinking.

Perhaps I'm odd this way, I don't know, but I'm often quite creatively inspired by technique, by craft elements. I'll find something intriguing about a POV idea, or a narrative framework, or a chronological structure... and it will lead me to a character, an idea, a story. Oddly backward, perhaps, and yet this happens a lot with me. Film, with its sensory immediacy, is often a good spur. I like the idea of the camera... a director has to decide on camera angles and placement, about what might be the best way to "see" the story. These decisions thus shape the experience of that story. And the same goes for fiction. What are you going to show? And why show it? And how? These choices, these technical opportunities, often create stories for me.

One of my stories is from the POV of a television set. The simple technique of this viewpoint shaped the story for me. What, and how much, does the television see? The action, and the dramatic conflict of the story, is shaped by the nature of this viewpoint, of the angle of the "camera".

Film, to me, offers a sort of interesting visual shortcut to narrative techiniques for fiction. I like the mental cues to the framing of scene and story, as it helps me find a sort of visual identity for what I want to show the reader.

Does anyone else find this? What films or shows do you find interesting in a story sense, and how have they impacted you as a writer? Or is it other mediums, such as art or music? How do they translate into the process of story making?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Does Plot Ever Get In the Way of Your Story?

I occasionally have this problem when I write. It only crops up every now and then and it kinda gets in the way of my writing. No biggee, just a small niggling thing. It's called PLOT.

Ever have that problem?

My writing genre falls somewhere between Science Fantasy and New Weird so I guess you could say it's fairly plot driven. The challenge for me is that my process for plot development has yet to fully…congeal. I almost (emphasis on almost) always have a pretty solid storyline in mind when I start, but all too often my train of thought gets derailed along the line. I realize this is a serious impediment to me having an easy time of writing and I'm considering professional counseling. Possibly electro-shock therapy.

But first I thought I'd check and see if I'm the only one who suffers from this malady. I've heard of organic writers, full of free love (for prose!) and rigid outliners with their graphs and charts and compasses, but I don't really like either of those tactics. I kinda like to fall somewhere in the middle. Maybe that's my problem.

Anybody else? Where do you fall? Does plot ever get in the way of your story?