Shaping dreams

Posted on June 21, 2011 by

First: Clarion Write-a-Thon Word Count: 1,417 out of 20,000. (More info here).

“And I do not play this instrument as well as I should like, but I have always thought that to be my fault, because I would not take the time to practice…” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Some of my students have accused me, obliquely, of being too picky. “I see lots of books where writers do this,” they say, when they get an MS back from me and in addition to the structural critique I’ve marked twenty eye bookisms, a bunch of passive verb constructions and noted that one of their perfectly good phrases has been around since Shakespeare, and that while it does the job maybe there’s a way that suits their characters better…

They’re right, to some extent. Part of what I do as a teacher is point out the strengths and the flaws in a person’s writing… even when that writing starts to be of publishable quality. I know new writers want to learn what it takes to sell their fiction, of course, but I hope they also want to just plain be better. There’s a lot of room between just barely salable and outstanding. I have yet to stop finding fault, even with my best students, even as I praise ’em to the skies.

Storytelling is engaging readers in a dream. You are taking them from the here and now and enveloping them in another world. The novel as a work of art offers its audiences the chance to be at once themselves and another person, just as dreams do, as fantasies do.

The thing about dreams is that some are shallow. Think of a night when your sleep was easily broken, by the slightest noise. The dreams of light sleep are the ones that most fleeting, that they’re the ones that vanish like vapor when your eyes open.

Such dreams are just fine. You might say they’re just barely publishable. But I think what most of us want, as writers, is to create deep absorption–compelling, vivid, engaging on a visceral, emotional level, and impossible to forget. It’s a lofty goal, but what I hope people are going for in this racket… not immediately, but eventually, if they’re very good and very hardworking and very lucky, is to be life-altering.

There are a couple ways to instill deep dreaming. One is to have a story so suspenseful that the reader simply can’t put it down–we’ve all devoured books whose line-by-line writing is shaky, because we got hooked; we had to know. Stieg Larsen’s The Girl Who books were like this, for me. This cartoon, My Lost Weekend in the Meyer, says the same about the Twilight saga.

So: be suspenseful. Check! The other way to deepen the dream of a given narrative, once the basic story’s working, is to up the quality of the prose. To have undertow within the words themselves, to be compelling, seductive, to beguile and even drown. We each have our own way of pulling this off, and when it happens, it’s a powerful thing. Heck, there are stories where it’s a superpower in its own right: seizing or changing someone’s sleeping world.

So yes, I’m picky… because I think it’s a skill worth developing.

Response to Shaping dreams

  1. Pingback: Students who teach, teachers who stude… | A.M. Dellamonica
%d bloggers like this: