Technique, and Rock and Roll

by Intermittent Rain ~ April 19th, 2014

At some point — somewhere around one or two years ago — I made a conscious effort to focus less on larger elements and to pay attention to how I worked with phrases, sentences, paragraphs; the elements of writing in general as opposed to the elements of a novel or of fiction that you learn in school. My theory was that the larger inspirations could be explored and developed at any time in my writing career, and that if I could spend the time now working on my technique, then I would have that technique available to me later, to better or to properly present the grander aspects of amazing plots or irresistible characters. Over the years I have developed confidence in my fount of raw inspiration and ideas, though the execution and timeliness is sometimes inconsistent.

I was reflecting on this during my walk from the bus stop, balancing the umbrella and grande cappuccino in one hand while finishing my cigarette using the other, thinking about how writing technique compares with musical technique, and I remembered a comment from a recent issue of The New Yorker. When I arrived at the office I looked it up. Sasha Frere-Jones wrote about Annie Clark (of whom I know nothing) and her technical ability, saying:

She … eventually attended Berklee College of Music, in Boston. (Rock musicians often apologize for or qualify the fact that they attended Berklee, possibly because they believe that too much technical skill interferes with the visceral mandate of rock. …)

Berklee is highly regarded, particularly in the jazz music world. The contributions of its alumni is massive. Past students include Gary Burton, Joe Zawinul, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Steve Swallow, Al Di Meola, Quincy Jones, and the Brecker brothers from the time when I was up on such things, plus more recently Diana Krall, Donald Fagen, as well as Mellisa Etheridge and Steve Tyler.

Generally, I’m not intending to write the fiction equivalent of rock music, though I have written rock music (via MIDI) and what I consider to be low-brow fiction, so hopefully the development of my writing technique doesn’t interfere with the visceral elements of my writing, when I need it.

I’m probably too old and have outgrown those visceral qualities anyway. I can write graphic scenes, but I’m not likely to be capable of maintaining a raw edge to an entire story.

Now that I say that, of course, I may have to try.

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My technique has improved, and expanded. I’ve done exercises writing in second person, writing without quotation marks, writing using an unreliable narrator and other approaches. I’ve critiqued, been critiqued, written characters far removed from my personal experience and opposite my own values. I’ve written in a way that one critter read my work aloud to critique, telling me that my writing is like poetry (in spite of the connection between poetry and music—I’ve set poems of Stevie Smith and T.S. Eliot to music—I dislike poetry, finding it too self-absorbed and pretentious, though of course I’ve written some too) and I’ve written intentionally poorly to represent the narration of a child and another time the report of an incompetent bureaucrat. All grist for the mill. And maybe it’s time the mill can look at trying to produce some magical plots or characters.

Goodreads reading

by Intermittent Rain ~ April 5th, 2014

I’m still working on my project; reading through various titles of a Goodreads list.

My object is to sample recommendations from various genres with minimal bias or preparation. Since I’m reading only e-books downloaded from the library I don’t see the summary notes on the inside jacket, the glowing reviews, or more about the author. Just a cover, the title, and the author’s name.

Blog posts in the category

Reading e-books is different than reading physical books. With a physical book you automatically have an idea how far you have progressed because you can feel more pages read or more pages yet to read, whereas with an e-book you have to consciously check your progress to see if you’ve made it half way yet. The cover of a physical book, with the title and the author’s name, is much larger so that each time you pick it up you are reminded of what you are reading, but with an e-book, the picture is so small that I pay so little attention that often I don’t remember the cover or the title or the author  after I’m done.

But when the title is Play With Me (With Me In Seattle), by Kristen Proby, and the cover is a hot young couple, the woman’s leg—naked below the hem of her shorts—lifted to the guy’s hip and pinned there by the guy, all eyes closed, wet in the rain, … well, even I can figure out what genre we’re in.

The prologue surprised me. From a purely line editing-sentence variety-paragraph construction-writing consistency perspective, the romances that I’ve read so far in my quest have been anywhere from awful to poorly written. This one is not. The grammar is good, the sentence variety good, everything flows well. Eventually, though, I start gagging: on the descriptions, “keenly aware of Will’s eyes on me, running up and down my body …”, on the clichés “I’m a charge nurse at Seattle Children’s Hospital in the cancer unit …” and eventually on the plot—arrogant appearing football player tries to convince heroine that he’s a good guy by taking her home when she’s had too much to drink, puts her to bed, doesn’t make a play at her, has her car delivered to her house—became too much for me to take.

I suspect the author has written other things, under another name, that might be more worth reading.

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To catch up on other project results; after watching a recorded appearance that Zsuzsi Gartner made at a university class and her passing reference to “A Game of Thrones, I decided to pull that up in my list. Fantasy/horror is not one of my preferred genres and so I had intentionally avoided the novel until she referred in a joke to the television program.

“Game of Thrones” is also surprisingly well written, at least at the opening. Interesting characters, good, compact descriptions of as the characters appear.

“Yoren had a twisted shoulder and a sour smell, his hair and beard were matted and greasy and full of lice, his clothing old, patched, and seldom washed. His two young recruits smelled even worse, and seemed as stupid as they were cruel.”

But the characters are not very deep (maybe because there are so many of them, but even with as many characters as “War and Peace” has, the author can give us depth in the central ones; Pierre, Natasha, Andrei, Marie), and by the time I got two thirds of the way through my interest in the world, the characters, and the conflict had worn out.

I speed-read the rest just to finish it, then went to Wikipedia to read the summaries of the rest of the series. That’s when I realized that this is not some huge plan like the Harry Potter series, or Wagner’s Ring cycle,  “Game of Thrones” is a soap opera, and should be more accurately compared with Dallas or The OC.

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Two others to note briefly.

The Round House: A Novel by Louise Erdrich was a good read, but it was another Pulitzer winner that got into the collection (which has more than just the Goodreads list). Again, I don’t know anything about these when I start reading but when I get a sense of the writing I usually research the author to see what other people think of them. That’s when I discovered that Erdrich (and Jane Smiley earlier in my list) won prizes.

And The Light Between Oceans: A Novel by M. L. Stedman is, at the moment, unfinished, but it’s also well written. It’s interesting that the author is female and yet I feel that the female character is under-presented, that I, the reader, am lacking in my understanding and sense of closeness and my empathy for her.

The other interesting thing is that my inner editor questioned some things in the first couple thousand words or so. Small things, like the use of passive voice in one sentence early on, and some other similar writing question, but I thought, ah well, this is a published novel, well written, it must have been edited and there must be a reason for these things. But it turns out that the author is a lawyer and this is her first published novel. It’s not another Pulitzer winner that snuck into my list, but the first publication of someone like me. One giant step beyond me, but I admit to some (unwarranted) pride in being able to see some tiny questionable items in a literary first publication.

Writing a Character Driven Novel

by Intermittent Rain ~ January 14th, 2014

I’ve completed four novels to date, all connected with some form of writing competition; three NaNoWriMos and one 3DayNovel; a 23,500 word submission which subsequently expanded into a 60,000 word novel.

The one that I’m working on now is the first non-competition generated novel. It’s also the most character-driven and has some of the thickest writing that I’ve done other than in some short stories. Thick meaning dense; the words mean something, the writing style and topics are not light and superficial, the characters, situations, dialogue are not thin throwaways produced simply to titillate or entertain or to get from one plot point to the next. The main character comes from a dark background and she’s trying to adapt to a low or lower-middle class world and is discovering that she has some unusual talents that point her in a direction that she never would have considered. A very genre-esque plot technique and the story definitely is not without genre elements, but I find the character irresistible and I think she’s up for it.

But the process of writing is interesting. The first four chapters, followed by some background-exposing chapters, presented in memoir or reminiscing form to be inserted into the story at unknown points, were fairly easy to write and allowed me to define the character. Then I wrote some early plot-necessary chapters and scenes, followed by some middle section plot-necessary chapters, though I’m missing some sections and I’m not convinced that the order is correct. These grew out of some characters and situations that I established in the early writing, so they seemed to flow well enough, though, I am sensing now that I lost some of the character’s voice, some of her unique and interesting characteristics in these plot scenes, falling back instead on some default hero/heroine personality that is indistinguishable from some of my other central characters, particularly the journalist-investigator of two and a half novels that I wrote over the past two years.

This revision is part of the process that I find interesting. Last week I reached a point where I was no longer comfortable with the writing that I was trying to add. Partly this is because I don’t know exactly how the story ends so I don’t know what I’m working toward, but, I’m drawing close (over 65,000 words) and what I have planned so far lacks the inevitability that I want. If I were to go ahead, dump another 20,000 words, and finish it off, I’d feel as if I had disrespected the quality of the opening, let myself down.

Instead, I’m analyzing the novel to date, focusing on the first materials that wrote. I started with a page of general thoughts because I felt I was losing track of miscellaneous ideas, especially since I haven’t written every idea that I’ve had, and what I have written is incomplete and missing some scenes necessary for the plot, such as it stands now. Then another page of worries and things that I felt are missing or underexposed. That led to a list of my character’s key personality traits, which led to a list of type of situations where these traits can be exposed. Then I looked for themes, particularly those within the key backstory chapter, the one that largely defines how she came to be who she is now. This process is a lot like the ones I remember using to write papers in English Lit classes in university, except that the novel is incomplete and, as I discovered, the consistency is missing.

Having the themes drove me back to the situation and personality analysis to see where I can force the themes to carry through, to develop consistency and meaning, and that has led me to the where I am now, editing chapters to bring out her character and reinforce themes. I still don’t know how it’s supposed to end, but hopefully I’m getting closer.