Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Patience is a Craft

So what is the craft of writing? It encompasses many elements stated in many ways. What I’m going to try to do is to state a few of those I think I do well, and a few I don’t do so well ... yet. This post won’t be complete, obviously, as volumes have been written on each element. I own most of them.

First thing is to set the scene, and I think I do that pretty well when I take the time to walk through and experience it in my imagination. Night is best to do this. I just put on some music to establish an appropriate mood, close my eyes and envision a castle, a bar, a jungle, whatever and write what I see, hear, touch, taste, smell as concisely as possible.

That’s the ideal.

Where I go wrong is when I don’t spend as much time in the location as I should. What I try to do then is overwrite it. This leaf blew to a spot just beside the third largest of the seventeen bulges of the root system of the oak tree, that dandelion set two inches from the dividing line between the Carson’s Victorian house with all of the shutters in place, and the ... you get the idea. When I spend enough time in my location, I can pull out its essence and throw it out there in a few sentences that hopefully resonate. And it only takes a few sentences, because most times only a couple of the senses are engaged at a time. More importantly, though, I’m not necessarily trying to get the reader to see the exact image I’m seeing. I’m trying to get her or him to see something similar that makes sense.

THAT’S what I have to always keep in mind. Use the reader’s imagination. Tap into that amazing, wonderful resource. I got this notion from the Australian author Bryce Courtenay who recommended this very thing, but in different words. He said that in a romance, do we really want to give our hero blonde hair and blue eyes? What about women who swoon over brown haired men with those wonderful chocolate browns? What about the red haired, green eyes lovers? If we just capture the essence of the man, the readers imaginations will fill in the details that s/he wants and be totally enthralled.

Of course, he also said that in a mystery, we may need to indicate that someone has blonde hair and blue eyes. So the level of description depends on the type of story. Need to know basis.

The next element I think I do pretty well is dialogue. I do this using a touch of schizophrenia I acquired from my acting days. In a two person scene, I take on both parts and speak the dialogue out loud. If it makes sense and sounds like the character I’m trying to create, then I go with it. Again, I close my eyes and try to get a sense of who these characters are and what idiosyncrasies I can exploit. Because each of us has his or her own speech patterns. Unique speech patterns, when blended with body language. Like a character might wipe his or her forehead before delivering bad news. Or a character might have a particular speech quirk. He or she might start, then pause after a couple of words, then start again when delivering bad news.

Where I get in trouble with dialogue is when I get lazy and make the characters sound like me, or, worse yet, the narrator. I’ve been known to do both. When this happens, the characters come off flat and one dimensional. There are many great creators of dialogue, but the best I’ve ever read for making speech patterns unique to the characters is Dickens. As the Harry Potter novels moved on, I thought J. K. Rowling really came into her own using dialogue to distinguish characters. Great dialogue just enhances a great story and gives it depth and breadth and character.

My biggest challenge for improvement is organizing the plot and subplots into a logical upward movement to the climax. With all of the detail, I literally can’t see the forest of the trees. Forest? What’s that? Story? What’s that? I can only see this Jerry and Christine scene. Or the one between Shirley and Croft. And that’s it. My challenge was to get into a plane and fly over and look down. Ah! Forest! So that’s what it looks like!

I did this by taking letter size legal paper and dividing it into four columns, one for each of my viewpoint characters. Starting with the prologue, I put a one sentence description of the scene in the column for that viewpoint character. The next scene goes on the next line under that character and so on. I was amazed by what I saw. Oh, wow! So poorly structured. The beginning was fine. The ending was fine. But the subplots went up and down like a boat in a confused sea all the way to that ending. I needed a build of each of the subplots to a where the climaxes occurred fairly close together. Like one huge wave breaking on shore. Like fireworks. The flight to the sky (build), the explosion (climax), the fade away (dénouement).

I’m slowly getting a handle on story structure, and am focusing on this in draft thirteen. On this, I can’t get in a hurry which would be my nature. Get to the writing! Go for it! NO! I have to outline from start to finish. The emotion and character is there. I have to cultivate the patience to outline. Once I finish this, I have so many other wonderful stories to tell.

Yes, I can summarize the solutions to my challenges in one word.


Patience is a craft.

Continuing on with the outline, and am excited about it. Come back Sunday August 1st and see how I did.

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