I have been corresponding these past couple of days with an aspiring writer who followed the Harry Turtledove interview to my teaching page, and saw that I sometimes take students for one on one mentoring. He’s newly out of university and hasn’t written seriously before; he’s been researching how one goes about developing a novel, but is afraid of diving in, writing 50K, and ending up with something that can’t be turned into publishable work. That’s the part that’s really stopping him, the What if I spend six or twelve months of my life writing this thing, and it turns out it can’t be polished to a professional level?
These are the economics of art: especially when you’re new, you do it on spec, for love. You put in the time and you don’t know if it will ever pay. You have to hope the process is in some way gratifying, that the artistic growth feels good, that there are discoveries that pay for the lost time, sleep, and social opportunities.
So I’ve told him that some first-timers write salable books, some write fixable drafts, and some write books that may have been really good learning experiences, but otherwise oughtn’t to see the light of day. And I’ve asked him if he’s afraid he won’t enjoy the process of writing something he may well have to trunk. It seems like a good place to start. What do you all think?
A few days ago I drafted up a post about how I thought I’d start posting word counts for the current project: at that point, I was up to 20725, which meant I’d written 1200ish words over the long weekend. I have about another chapter in hand but not all of it has been typed; I’ll report again soon.
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 at least once in each of my Novel Writing workshops at UCLA, I shine the spotlight 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.
About this post: I post writing-related advice and other information for students, fans and anyone who’s interested in the process of fiction-writing on my site. A few of you who enjoy these essays have, very kindly, asked if I have a donate button or something similar. I don’t, but you can always support my writing and teaching by buying books and stories, like this one.
Kelly and I made a little change to our pre-work walk this morning, taking 8th Avenue past the new community garden where some friends of ours have a plot. I’ve been able to see the installation happening as I’ve gone to and fro–between one thing and another, I pass the Broadway/Commercial intersection four to six times a day–but hadn’t gotten a good look. What’s there is attractive and thoughtfully laid out. The central area holds raised garden beds made of cedar, already pre-planted with veggies and herbs. Ground-level flower and berry gardens encircle these beds, and the backdrop is the Grandview Cut. The plants were donated by a local nursery, all the cedar chips are new and fragrant, and the whole thing radiates a newness and warmth that’s very pleasing. We are thinking we’ll do the walk past a lot in the next little while.
Afterward, I made my way to Cafe Calabria and had a bash at the current fiction project, that slice of a novel I mentioned before, for the grant application. I was searching for one more scene to add into it, looking for something that had a bit of literary grit and referred back to the stuff I’ve put in the proposal, which is about shifting landscapes of privilege and the labeling, within large families, of different individuals as insiders and outsiders. On Wednesday I was sitting in the cafe scraping after that scene, whatever it was. I didn’t really expect to find the right answer, because I hadn’t slept the night before. But the idea came, to my surprise, and I scribbled some notes on it without getting started–trying to write on no sleep is never a good idea for me. Yesterday I drafted the first half, and today I wrapped it up. I have a piece I’m happy with now, and I have until fall to polish it until it shines.
I am delighted to have reached this point. If I’m not swamped by other commitments (some of which I’m chasing very actively), I will write a draft of the whole book in November, just as I did WINTERGIRLS and DAUGHTERS OF ZEUS.
Here’s a snippet from earlier the draft:
Sarah Varney’s address was a residential hotel, one that, from the look of it, was home to a good chunk of the city’s addict population. Its windows were black with grime, its awning greasy and tattered, with loose aluminium ribs inhabited by motheaten, feebly peeping pigeons. The sidewalk leading to the reinforced revolving door was glazed in bird droppings; it was impossible not to track them in.
The door spun them out into a lobby that smelled of Lysol and urine. A diminutive Asian crone eyeballed them through a cage of greasy bulletproof glass.
This feels very much as if it’s at a finished-for-now point, and given that we’re headed to Seattle for the LOCUS Awards tomorrow, I will probably skip actual fiction-writing for the whole of the weekend. By Monday, I’ll need to have decided what to work on next. I have another proposal I’d be delighted to work on, but I’m waiting on some notes; I have a drafted squid story that could use some attention, and a horror novel, SEE HOW THEY RUN, that I want to revise at some point in the near. I have a pile of books I need to read for various research stuff, and one I want to review.
Non-fic stuff on the go includes three last lectures for Novel Writing II and assorted admin stuff, two guest blog posts to write, a review, some things I want to talk and post about in this space, critiques for a couple of my one on one students, fine-tuning of a website I’m developing for my choir, and more work on the alyxdellamonica.com page.
On a more recreational note, I need to review everything I learned in last year’s Italian class before my next one begins in about ten days time and one of my Jonathan Coulton albums has vanished from my iPod.
I accept students for online and face-to-face mentoring on an individual basis as often as my schedule permits. If you have a project that might benefit from an in-depth analysis, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.