Thursday, August 28, 2014

Get On The Train

I had lunch with one of my more successful friends who spoke of writing and what editors look for. He related that you want to get readers INTO the story and keep them there.

There is a real sense that reading transports the reader from where they are to where the story is. The reader finds a comfortable chair in her study, begins reading, and finds herself hurtling between Earth and Mars.

At least this is what the writer is trying to do and the editor is looking for.

It is painful to give up on a story. It is also painful to stick with a story that sucks. When you hear me gripe about throwing William Faulkner against the wall, you know it was as painful for me as it was for Mr. Faulkner. And it's more painful when I get to the end of a miserable novel and say, "I won't get that time back."

That's why editors see themselves as gatekeepers. They seek to spare the reading public pain. This should not be mere altruism, because readers who buy one book from an author will look to buy more books from him/her. A successful imprint will spare readers pain. A superior imprint will establish a reputation of consistently bringing readers prose they want to read.

I have seen that the best stories define a world alien to the reader and puts her in that world. And I'm not just thinking of Mars or Mordor, but of the way Tom Clancy put you inside the Reagan Military Industrial Complex, or the way John Grisham puts you inside a high powered legal practice.

OK, sounds good. How do you do that?

And that's where my conversation with my friend took me. He related three things. I'll do an imperfect job of representing them, so bear with me if you've heard them elsewhere:

  • Description/Setting
  • Character/Emotion
  • Plot/Ideas

One of the best compliments I've received in my writers group was, "I felt I was there." I described a scene where Mycroft Holmes is sitting on a lonely Victorian train platform a little nervous because the last train for London should, but might not, be along shortly and was late.

At every moment of our lives we are inundated with sensa. Millions of details impinge upon us, and somehow we ignore all of them save for the sound of wind rustling in the trees, bicycle tires crunching on gravel, and a bird squawking in the distance. Light filtering through those trees dapple cars, tents, and travel trailers while children call out to their siblings.

The writer selects those details most significant to the story and paints them with words. It takes a good grasp of the language, an awareness of how perception works, and an artistic sense to guide what details to include or exclude.

The purpose of this work is to take the reader out from in front of her computer and into P J Hoffmaster State Park. If you were there two paragraphs ago, I've succeeded. If you're someplace else next time you read "It was a dark and stormy night," that writer has succeeded.

Then there is character and/or emotion. We are people who are all the same and we're all different. Others attract us and fix our attention with their beauty, whereas others are more like the cobra who paralyzes his prey. I used to wish someone would kill Darth Vader in the very next scene, until I realized that he was as important to the story as a worthy antagonist as the young hero opposing him. The similarities within us to elements within Jane Porter or Tarzan attract us to them. The differences hold our interest as we wonder what it would be like to be raised by the apes and consort with animals. Or to love and marry an English Lord who is prone to savage violence, yet nonetheless civilized.

The characters you can devise and populate your stories with is one thing, but the acid test is making them real to the reader. I say to avoid superlatives, because in our lives we encounter superior people, but we never meet THE BEST Olympic high jump champion (because he's at the track practicing). Yet we encounter fellas who can jump higher than we imagine possible. And that superiority is (in real life) the result of talent, learned skills, and relentless practice.

I find it most annoying when a character is described with certain attributes useful to the story, but without any of the antecedents of that attribute. You're the Empire's greatest swordsman. And you're the Empire's greatest pilot. And you'r the Empire's greatest Admiral. So, how much time do you spend in the gym practicing? Or on the flight simulator? Or writing memoranda justifying the next quarter's budget?

The reader must find your characters and their interactions believable. If two women want to sleep with the same man, they are likely to feel some hostility toward one another.  Or if they are contending for the same promotion at work. Is the subordinate unusually loyal to his boss? Maybe the reader should know the boss saved his life in Afghanistan. Or showed up at the hospital when he had cancer surgery.

This requires the writer to be a keen observer of psychology.

Finally, there is plot or ideas. This is what I love about an Agatha Christie novel. Each mystery is a puzzle story for the reader to figure out. Is Lord Peter Whimsey the most interesting detective? No. Is Harriet Vane a bit too bitchy for my tastes? Yes. Ah, but look at how they work together to break a Playfair cipher? Some readers are as crazy as I am and we will eat it up when Neal Stephenson interrupts his novel to write a chapter of mathematics text. Note that many more readers will skip this chapter like I skipped twenty pages of John Galt sermonizing. The idea must be interesting to most people, not just crazy people like me.

If you've got a "wow" idea you're at risk of putting that idea ahead of the story.

If you are a Social Justice Warrior, you may want The Message to take priority over story. That's your right, and I'm sure lots of editors out there will oblige you. But keep in mind there are politicians, talk-show hosts and reporters out there better suited to bringing out cutting-edge propaganda.

Since I'm none of the above, I want to give the story priority. And I'll seek out editors of whatever politics who'll put story over message. It's important that you do not insist too much on political agreement, because only totalitarians insist that everything is political. Our shared humanity is more interesting than today's two-minute hate.

Whatever the idea, the writer has to be an expert in it so that s/he can capture the details that other experts will expect and that non-experts will subconsciously sense are missing. You can fake it a little, but if you get caught faking it, you risk alienating the expert-readers who would otherwise promote your work with great passion.

They say you shouldn't mix your metaphors and so far we've had this metaphor of the train where you want to entice readers to get on and make them want to stay on for the ride of their lives.

But I've been talking as much about what you the writer want to do as much as you the reader want to experience. And I think that you-the-writer should have a different metaphor when you are thinking about your skill-set. In American baseball, the pitcher can throw the ball in different ways. There's what's called a fastball where the ball is thrown hard and straight and fast. The ball must be past the batter before he can get the bat around to hit it. Then there's the curve, it's a slower ball that bends in flight. The batter swings and misses because the ball "broke" in an unexpected direction. Finally, there is the change-up, a ball that appears to be a fast ball, but is much slower than the batter expects. The batter swings before the ball gets to the plate. (There are other pitches, but we'll ignore them for this metaphor.)

A baseball pitcher won't get to the major leagues without mastering at least one of these pitches. He'll be able to consistently get batters out if he can master two of these pitches. And if he can master three of these pitches, he stands a good chance of being a hall-of-famer.

You, gentle writer, should improve what you do best--be it description, character, or plot, but you should also be aware of, and try to improve those other attributes of writing that bring a reader into the story and keep her there.

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