Exercises in Style

by Intermittent Rain ~ January 19th, 2018

I started an exercise similar to Raymond Queneau’s “Exercises de Style” but much simpler, taken from John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers“.

“Take a simple event: A man gets off a bus, trips, looks around in embarrassment, and sees a woman smiling. (Compare Raymond Queneau, Exercises de Style.) Describe the event, using the same characters and elements of setting, in five completely different ways (changes of style, tone, sentence structure, voice, psychic distance, etc.) Make sure the styles are radically different, otherwise, the exercise is wasted.”

To this I added the condition that any element I define has to be true or possible in any variation so that the reality remains consistent; I can’t introduce a unicorn to write one fantasy story because that unicorn will exist in all versions.

Variety

The first was a basic depiction followed by ones playing with POV because these are the easiest way to explore backstory and to understand the two characters. After six variations I had established:

  • The bus and sidewalk are nearly empty
  • It is mid afternoon in June.
  • The weather is moderate.

And,

The man is in his twenties,

  • wears a suit,
  • is nervous and distracted
  • is on his way to a job interview.

The woman is in her twenties,

  • has just purchased a new pair of shoes
  • is wearing a short black skirt
  • enjoys the feeling she gets from knowing she looks good.

And she is the reason the man stumbles.

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Somewhere around version 10, 11, or 12, I stopped pushing for “radically different”.

Prior to this exercise I thought that a simple situation such as this one can only be written a few ways and then all that’s left to do is just polishing with line edits. But maybe that’s not true. That’s what I’m trying to discover now. Maybe this is in the realm of things that I can’t see, things that I’m missing, things that I’m not aware of, things that are hard to learn because I don’t know they exist. Possibilities outside the realm of my awareness.

So I’m sticking with third person POV, mostly staying outside of either characters’ heads. If I can define a new narrator’s voice by personality, age, attitude, or angle on the situation it’s not too difficult, but am I then limiting it so that there are only a few different ways?

Is it only the range of narrative voice that I’m exploring?

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It is possible that, without being fully conscious of it, I’ve developed a writing voice, a style, one that has some flexibility and can adapt to at least a few different situations, but one that that is ingrained enough that I don’t see other alternatives.

A few years ago in a writing group a woman said that she’s still developing her writing voice. In my head I thought, that’s not my goal. I don’t want a writing voice; I want many so that I’m capable of writing in many different situations. Yet, maybe I’m more stuck than I thought.

Writing Analysis: Cat Person

by Intermittent Rain ~ December 20th, 2017

I’m not a woman and perhaps my perspective will miss the boat for many readers of this wildly popular story published in The New Yorker but my objective is to do writing analysis; there will be no “How To Reply When Asked About ‘Cat Person'” or “My True Life ‘Cat Person’ Experience”.First, a list of elements (not events but factors that reappear, in varied guises, throughout):

  1. Acting as trained/expected (previously a barista where flirting increased tips, and as a young, single person),
  2. and having dreams and needs (she has a fantasy version of Robert, jokingly tells her stepdad they will likely get married, is anxious when Robert doesn’t reply to her texts right away),
  3. but being uncertain as to whether Robert, in reality, is a satisfactory choice (she initiates some steps then recants in her own head, likes him when he’s comforting but finds him revolting at other times),
  4. results in couched speaking, inconsistent and shifting thoughts and feelings, attempts to communicate without words, and,
  5. combined with a fear of appearing capricious or spoiled,
  6. leads to resigned compliance.

Margot’s neediness expresses itself differently than Robert’s. Hers presents as earnestness and agreeability whereas his is expressed as awkward orders and demands — awkward enough that an older, more experienced, more confident version of Margot might find them laughable or disturbing, or, to be accurate; more laughable or more disturbing since Margot does succumb to a laughing fit and has thoughts that he might murder her. Margot’s youth is to his advantage.

Both characters have challenges with communication: hers due to age and inexperience and society-trained female behavior and worries, his due in part to being a loner-nerd who possibly often goes to movies and bars by himself. Both have some interest in the other but also uncertainty about the others’ interest in themselves. This is exacerbated by their early communication; weeks of texting witty comments and funny anecdotes without any real sharing or discussion so by the time they actually go on a date they know very little about each other, including their respective ages. That, for me, is a sub theme; communication in general, but especially between opposite sexes and when using electronic methods with modern attitudes toward communication.

The elements that lead to Margot’s situation, Margot’s hesitant, tentative way of suggesting or making choices, Robert’s unrefined declamatory style, the neediness on both their parts as well as the lack of knowing each other and the difficulties in communication permeate the entire story. Were this an essay for an English Lit course I would list them but instead I’ll just leave them highlighted in my analysis version of the story.

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Structurally, I come up with these sections:

  1. opening
  2. Robert at her movie theater 2 times
  3. texting
  4. going to movie
  5. first bar
  6. second bar
  7. house, and sex
  8. post sex
  9. drive home and end of evening
  10. internal narrative and Tamara breaking them up
  11. see him in the bar, his texts

or, slightly compressed,

  1. opening, movie theater, texting, incipient crush – 1,061 words
  2. movie – 681
  3. first bar – 566
  4. second bar – 1,003
  5. house, sex – 1,881
  6. post sex – 668
  7. drive back, break up, bar, texts – 1,351

Word count-wise the house setting and sex take the largest portion and are 3,771 to 5,182 out of a total of 7,201 words, so about one quarter of the words and located in the third of four quarters, were this a football or basketball game. There are two bar scenes but I’m uncertain whether this intentionally mirrors the two times Robert comes into her work, or three bar moments in total mirroring the three times she sees Robert in movie theaters? There are almost as many sections after the sex as before but shorter, so a nice denouement, though my breakdown by section is by no means definitive.

4,773 words are the single evening, the date, so well more than half. 1,300 words before, up to and including the texting period, and 1,128 after so again a little more lead in and a slightly quicker end. If you’ve read the story you know how tersely it ends and that it ends the way the relationship began, with texting, though now the meanings are brutally clear and personal.

One of the recurring comments from one reader of my own writing is that he often wants more story and more depth. What is here that I might not have included are the bar scenes or at least the amount of time devoted to them, and maybe not as much time in the post-coital scene. Food for my future consideration.

For some reason, not so much during the first read but during subsequent readings, I found the back story and non-Robert elements obvious, separate. For me these include:

  • reference to past barista work
  • conversations with her stepdad
  • movie choice, not part of the story until after the movie is finished
  • seeing the grad student TA in the bar
  • losing her virginity (only reference to her mother)
  • having seen her high school boyfriend during break, who is gay

I’m unclear what the last three add. More food for consideration.

It’s only when, date over, back at school, the obsession and focus from the early stages of a relationship gone that her roommate and other students appear. Though the rest of her life starts to become part of the story we never do find out what she’s studying. Perhaps as a sophomore she’s undeclared, perhaps that’s part of her uncertainty at this point in her life, and it’s likely not important, though an inexperienced writer might think it needs to be included. And where exactly are those cats?

 

The Writing Process

by Intermittent Rain ~ July 13th, 2017

I thought it might be worthwhile to summarize my writing process. This is based on the two most recent stories but the process has been similar for many years.

  • Envision a setting, situation, or character.
  • Write a sentence.
  • Write a second sentence
  • Read what I’ve written
  • Change a phrase
  • Write a third sentence, extending the flow and increasing the breadth.
  • Read.
  • Correct a typo. Fix a shift in tense.
  • Get up and walk away, do something like get a drink while thinking about what I’ve written. Or if I’m in a formal writing prompt situation, stare at the wall for a minute.
  • Come back and start the second paragraph with a new sentence that I’ve thought of while away.
  • Read.
  • Remove an unnecessary comma. Realize I’ve used a word such as “clear” or “recent” twice, think about alternatives, go to an online thesaurus. Decide none are perfect but select one anyway just so I have an alternative. Change one usage.
  • Read to see how it fits and flows now.
  • Add a fifth sentence.
  • Read.
  • Consider whether I’ve covered the opening material sufficiently and if it is time to start expanding the range by widening the vision or adding an action or another character. Ponder character goals and motivation, the back story of the situation, possible threats. Is there a theme emerging? Cut the second half of the second sentence and paste into the first sentence. Delete the second half of the first sentence.
  • Get up and fill the pets water bowl. Put some papers into my bag so I’ll remember to take them to work tomorrow. Take some dry pans from the dish rack and put them away, and other things.
  • Read.
  • Notice an awkward phrase and rewrite it. Add a missing article. Change the character’s name. Spit the fifth sentence into two and extend the second one. Delete the second and third sentence and reorganise and rewrite into one new sentence.
  • Read to feel the new flow.
  • Write another sentence.
  • Read. Wonder if I’m writing too many long sentences or too many short sentences. Read the long ones for missing breaks, read the short ones for unintended emphasis. Look for overused words or descriptions but also to see if they hint at a theme.
  • Change a word that is too intellectual for the scene. Consider whether the voice I’m using is consistent, and if it is appropriate. Make additional revisions to hype the voice or make the style more consistent.

At this point I have 150 to 300 words.

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If you’re wondering why I keep stopping, why I keep reading and correcting it’s because I rarely plot any more. I only plot when I’ve already got a story going and then I might sit and write 200 or 500 words in one go but before I do that I have to know what and who I’m writing about. Even in time pressured situations like NaNoWriMo or the 3DayNovel competition I go through this same process. I have to correct and edit when I see the little errors and weaknesses because they snag my attention. They must be polished away so I’m not distracted.

And to write I need to experience the flow, as focussed and uninterrupted as possible. Much like when I compose, where I listen in my head to the music and then try to hear what might come next, the flow must tell me what the logical next sentence is. I need to hear what the story is telling me.

Since I’ve fallen into using this process my prose has improved. Or perhaps the reverse; because my prose and editing has improved I’ve developed this procedure which requires more editing and results in better prose.

But these pieces often fail to gain traction and to get to completion. I don’t think it’s because of the editing or stopping and starting, I think it’s because my standards have increased and I drop more ideas than I used to because they don’t seem to be leading somewhere interesting or to be worth my time.

I also get stuck, unable to find a satisfactory understanding of the story that will allow me to continue. In more than one case this block has come right at the end where I know what the essence of the story is but I can’t find an acceptable solution for presenting it. Other times the block comes near the beginning because I don’t know where the story is going. And even when I write to the end usually the story feels imperfect because I didn’t understand all levels of the story well enough to give it its full value.