Whether a piece of fiction ‘works,’ as we sometimes put it, depends both on the storytelling and on the line by line writing. In some ways, it’s problematic to view them as separate issues: if I decide a writer’s dialog lacks sophistication, for example, I might as easily talk to them about characterization as about their writing style. It all overlaps: I might find myself talking about why a story’s protagonist is so passive, for example, and then think, “Well, their behavior is caused by the rules of their setting… maybe I should address that.” And on we go.
Even so, it is often easier to try to talk about one story element at a time, and this coming week in my Novel Writing II workshop, the focus is on prose. With that in mind, I had been trying, earlier this week, to come up with a sort of hierarchy to impose on the question. You know the kind of thing I mean: “Beginner,” at the bottom. “Professional Quality” in the middle. “Incandescent” at the top. With stages in between.
That proved beyond me, and I’m not sure it’s possible, but what I have done is think through a number of positive qualities that I look for in prose, things I think I might usefully employ to explain where a writer might focus their attention:
First, I kept Professional Quality: What this would mean, strictly in teaching terms, was that the line by line writing is smooth enough that were I an editor and if the piece in question worked as a story, I’d buy it. I think it’s important for a writer to know if they’re at or above this line.
(The rest are in no particular order).
Graceful: What I mean by graceful is that each event or action flows into the next, without there being a lot of clunky stage directions. Things like a whole pile of “S/he looked at him and said ___.” Glaring back at her, he replied, “____.” In a similar vein, grace would also mean characters move physically about the setting in an easy fashion. We don’t need to see them get up, get coffee, go to job if the story starts at job. The boring bits are gently shuffled offstage and we find ourselves comfortably entering each scene at an interesting moment.
Smooth: The general phrasing is good and the word choices have specificity. Strong verbs are chosen in place of adverbs, passive verb constructions, and said bookisms.
Clear: Simply put, I know what’s happening.
Sensual: Evokes the senses. I can imagine the scene; ideally, I feel like I’m there.
Sophisticated: For me, this means there’s starting to be some play with language, turns of phrase that at once capture ideas and images clearly and yet do it in surprising ways. The language illuminates things I’ve never considered before.
Maturity: This one feels as though it’s still a little dicey. It refers, essentially, to the emotional content of the story. I’m trying to get at the sense we get that the author understands that life is complicated, even when a particular character in his or her spotlight is maybe a bit simple-minded. I’m thinking about how it’s obvious Jane Austen doesn’t have the same good opinion of Mister Collins as she does of Elizabeth Bennett.
Transparent: By transparent, I mean nothing about the writing snags my attention, for good or ill: even if it might be low on beauty or style, it immerses me in the story; it doesn’t get in my way. I’m not noticing errors or clunky transitions. I’m just reading.
Grammatical: Either the piece is written in accordance with the rules of English grammar–not in a complete, perfect, uptight way, but in a way that doesn’t impact its transparency–or the author’s language is ungrammatical in a way that’s deliberate, appropriate and has some kind of consistency.
Balanced: There is a pleasantly readable mix of narrative, dialog, description, action. The prose isn’t all one thing.
Variable: The writer has slow and fast-paced passages. Their sentences are sometimes short and simple, sometimes long and complex. The characters don’t all speak identically. The writer can do a number of different things with relative ease.
Aesthetically pleasing : The writing in and of itself has some aesthetic impact. Obviously what one person considers beautiful may not resonate with another reader, but the sentences are put together in a powerful way–they sound good read aloud, they have strong rhythms. This is prose with the capacity to surprise, to bring a laugh, to provoke.
Confident: This one, again, seems hard to quantify. The writer can convey the setting or other information in a way that makes us believe it. They can tell us what their POV character is experiencing without always prefacing it with something like: “He saw.” If they leave a question dangling, it is done in a way that reassures readers this is intentional, and answers are coming, rather than a mistake. There’s no sense of hesitation or apology.
Streamlined: Here, I’m looking for a way to say “Not Wordy.” The need for explanation or repetition is minimized because there’s clarity–you know what’s happening the first time something’s said–and it makes sense. The flow carries the reader along, without wearing them out.
Individual: The writer is developing or has developed a voice that’s unique to them and their work. There are many who say you can’t teach voice. I don’t know if this is always true, but for the most part I prefer to stick to urging my students to get their prose up to that professional level and then build up more and more confidence. My hope is that someone who’s steadily improving on the above will in time start to take chances… and their voice will develop as they do so.
So here’s my question: assuming the above definitions were nice and clear, and maybe came with examples, how useful would it be to get a crit that said something like:
You are getting close to pro quality here, and there’s good balance between narrative, dialog, etc., but the areas where your writing isn’t transparent fall in the areas of grace and confidence. You have your characters eyeballing each other a lot, for example: you use “he scowled at X” to ensure we know who’s speaking to whom, and when you describe the Whoozification process, I can’t tell if that’s really how it works or if the character just thinks so.
The workshop practice of having all the readers speak their piece while the author of a story or book fragment is required to listen quietly is generally accepted. I’ve seen this rule in play at Clarion and Turkey City and literary workshops too, and have heard others refer to them as “Milford” rules. I’m not sure I’ve workshopped anywhere that didn’t have this as a guideline.
Most of us seem to agree that when it’s your writing in the spotlight, the best use of your time is to just pay attention to the crits. Any energy you might spend defending what you were trying to achieve, or explaining things that weren’t clear, or catching the group up on the real life events that inspired your story (“It’s not hard to believe–it’s how it happened!”) is energy that’s better spent on a rewrite.
Where I see more mud and less agreement is in the area of a reader suggesting fixes for a given piece’s problems. There are those who are dead against this: any suggestion from you, the argument goes, is an attempt to rewrite someone else’s story. The answer you’re offering won’t be the right one. If they take your advice, the writer will screw up their story.
How much you get into actively suggesting in a peer workshop may depend on its culture and rules, on how far along the participants are in their writing career, and how well they know each other. I know plenty of people for whom a statement like, “The characterization in this could use some beefing up” would be plenty of feedback. Speaking very generally, though, and as someone who teaches people who are newer to writing, I do believe there are ways to offer concrete suggested fixes without rewriting the author’s work.
In my UCLA courses, where I get to set the rules, I allow writers to suggest specific changes to each other, with the understanding that “Do this to Element X!” is just a different way of highlighting whatever issue you had with that story element. Sometimes it’s clearer, I think, to demonstrate what you think isn’t working when you take a hypothetical bang at fixing it yourself.
So that’s how I go about it–“If you do X,” I’ll say, “then this and that might happen, and maybe we’ll understand why he killed the music teacher.” Sometimes X will be a broad, obviously unworkable suggestion, because the ‘maybe we’ll understand’ is the key to the message.
I suppose I could bend myself into rhetorical pretzels trying to explain how and why I don’t understand or agree with a given writing choice, but often a quick example of how to go about tackling the problem seems to me to be both appropriate and as elegant a way as any to get the idea across.
How about all of you? I’m open to other opinions on this, as always.
In the meantime, here’s a shot from Maplewood Flats that I think is both pretty and soothing:
Last Saturday Kelly and I climbed out of bed at the appalling-to-most hour of five in the morning and vroomed via rental car to Seattle for the Locus Awards. It was a leisurely drive; we stopped at the Rustic Cafe in Fairhaven because I remembered they had tasty, small biscotti. Wireless, too! Alas, the coffee was only so-so. We hit a Fred Meyer for Luna Bars and still reached the hotel, a Marriott of some order or another, in time for the first panel at ten.
This was my first Locus Awards, and I gather they used to be quite small affairs, but what they have evolved into lately is a delightfully intimate little one-day con. The vibe was World Fantasy-esque, very pleasant and low key, with lots of shop talk. The first panel was about research and had Connie Willis, Walter John Williams, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Nancy Kress on it; the second was called “Ten Mistakes a Writer Should Not Make” and featured editors Gardner Dozois, Eileen Gunn, Beth Meacham and Jeremy Lassen. Both were moderated by Gary K. Wolfe, who reviews for the mag (as I myself did at one time, actually. It seems like a long time ago, now.)
Ursula K. Le Guin, pondering research:
There was an autograph session and then the awards banquet itself. I always enjoy it when Connie Willis hosts, and she was hilarious as usual… except, of course, when talking about Charles Brown being gone. This was the first awards ceremony since he’s died; it hadn’t sunk in, really. Ouch.
I saw so many people. Some I’ve known for years, some I know slightly (and now know better) and, of course, people I consider friends whom I’ve only ever met online. I tried to tell calendula-witch I was sure we’d hung out, only to realize I had seen her pic, many times, on Jay’s blog. I got to have a nice long convo with Michael Bishop, who reprinted my “Cooking Creole” last year in Passing for Human; we’d met before, but only glancingly. I hereby nominate him for the Best Smile in the History of Ever Award:
There was some precious stolen time with Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge, and a few minutes with Eileen Gunn. I got to tell Nancy Kress, who I’ve long admired, what it’s like to teach “To Cuddle Amy” in my UCLA class “Creating Universes, Building Worlds.”
Two big highlights were meeting some of the folks from this year’s Clarion West class, who were in attendance after a week with Michael. They’re keen, bright-eyed, engaged, visibly bonded and entirely adorable! Second, Kelly and I lured Maureen McHugh out to a slow, pleasant and thoroughly delicious meal at Serafina.
Maureen is close to Snuffy. I’ve read her blog, off and on, for years. I reviewed Mission Child for SciFi, back when it first came out in hardcover, and we’ve Tweeted at each other once or twice. When we invited her out my thoughts, essentially, were: Look! Fellow writer! Who knows Snuffy and seems really nice! And then we were sitting by Lake Union, taking in the sun and the boats while waiting for the restaurant to open, and it sank in: by the holy Bleeding Elvis, I am out for dinner with the author of China Mountain Zhang! I’m so a fan of hers! Even though I was too tired and hungry to make sense of the Serafina menu, or to count to four on my fingers, I knew bits of trivia about her life and family, and babbled worshipfully about the dirt on the Mission Child planet. (No, seriously. Extremely cool dirt.) And she didn’t even run screaming into the day yelling, “Eeek, stalker!”
We get to hang with our gods in this subculture; it’s so gratifying.
As of today, I have two slots left for students in Novel Writing II: Writing a Novel The Professional Way, the new (to me) novel workshop course I am teaching via the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program this summer. ‘Fun slavedriver’ is how one former student has described me, and the class does promise to be a fair amount of work–everyone in it will write fifty pages of a novel as well as workshopping those of a few of their classmates.
The official start date for class is July 14th, but my classroom should be open July 12th; people will get acquainted with the discussion forums, introduce themselves to each other, and talk a little about the books they are going to work on before writing and critting begins in earnest.