I Can’t Write Until I Have Something Deep To Say

deep

 I Can’t Write Until I Have Something Deep To Say

I think people sometimes believe that writers must have deep and important thoughts before they start writing. Shakespeare had all the poetry in his head, just bursting to get out. Jane Austen already knew the intricacies of the social dramas she so brilliantly portrayed.

Okay, obviously I can’t check with these guys to be sure, but that’s not my experience nor that of any writer I know or have heard speak of the writing process.

Bad news: can’t do deep to order

Setting out to be ‘deep’ seems a dubious way to start.

First, and importantly, it may stop you from writing at all because you haven’t yet acquired the ‘depth’ that you think you need to write.

Secondly, and equally important, the final product is almost guaranteed to be pretty boring. Earnest and worthy, perhaps. But not good reading.

This approach ups the chances that your characters are representations of your ideas (sincerity, truthfulness, whatever) rather than living breathing entities who can be both inspiring and despicable. In short, human.

Also, novels with an a priori message are prone to long passages where they figuratively hit the reader over the head with “this is my message—get it?” Most readers don’t like being preached at from a fiction pulpit.

Good news: don’t need to

But the good news is that a message is not required before starting to write.

With my first book, I realized what the book was about only near the end of the writing that . But I didn’t have time to redo it as I was committed to a publisher’s deadline. With the second book, I built in enough time to do a redraft which allowed the threads to become clearer. I would have liked to have done another draft to refine it but again, I needed to respect the publisher’s deadline.

What I am trying to say is that whatever depth I was able to demonstrate on the page was as a result of refining, elaborating, streamlining, and sometimes chopping. It did not appear as whole cloth the first time through.

The act of writing prompts the thinking and reflection. One idea flows to another and another. The thinking and writing grows from what it feeds on. And then you rewrite and rewrite to get it right.

So when you consider a book you admire for its insights and depth, recognize that you are seeing the result of the unseen struggles of the author to make his message clearer, more nuanced, and insightful. Don’t compare what you turn out the first time with the author’s finished product. It really is apples and oranges.

You do have something worth saying but you have to work at bringing out. The depth will come with the writing, rethinking, and rewriting.

How do I do it?

Rather than starting out with the intention of writing something deep and important, start out with a situation, or a character, or a moment in time, which feels as if it has meaning for you. A terrible injustice, a generous person, the bravery of a group.

Whatever it is, write the scene which renders that feeling without using the terms I just used (i.e. terrible, generous, bravery). Show the actions of the characters which will prompt in the reader the same feeling that you had/have without naming it. Then rewrite until the message comes across in a satisfying way.

So you can do deep—you just have to work at it.

Role of Talent

talent

Role of Talent

I vacationed with a group of friends, one of whom took tennis lessons from the resort pro. Although a complete novice, she stepped into the moves as if she had been doing them her whole life. This was athletic talent on show.

I think it is sometimes assumed that writers have or need to have the same level of talent to write.

I would be the last to deny that talent at anything allows you to learn faster and sometimes better than others. It might even give you an edge on how easily your imagination transforms into something magic on the page.

But talent is not enough over the longer term.

The role of skill

If my tennis friend had turned pro, she’d need to learn the moves and strategies more likely to promote winning; she would have to practice obsessively. What she ate and how much she slept would no longer be only her business.  In short, she’d have to acquire the skills of a professional tennis player.

Similarly, with writing, there is a huge body of craft that needs mastering. It is essential to learn how to move easily around the page, employing the techniques that help create the continuous dream for your readers. Without control of your craft, you won’t be able to produce the kinds of effects which best serve your story.

Even more is needed

Unfortunately, as with all things worth doing, there’s more. Here are a few.

Perseverance

This is tough for writers because they seem to discourage so easily. Ten positive statements are outweighed by a single negative. Even if you know your friends have not a literary bone among them, it still hurts if they aren’t encouraging. It can be hard to keep the faith.

But it is important to remember a line whose author I forget but whose wisdom I constantly rely on:

Courage does not always roar. Sometimes, it is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”

Hard work

Making the time to write is a bugaboo for all writers. But serious writers, like serious tennis players, set up their lives to have the time. They forego some pleasures to leave space for the greater joy of writing. They constantly work at being in control of their craft. And write and write and write.

Profit from feedback

Not everything will spring from your imagination, whole cloth and perfect. In fact, the earlier on in the journey you are, the more the feedback is likely to be instructive rather than rhapsodic.

This is hard to bear. But you cut yourself from ever improving if you don’t listen to criticism without automatically assuming any negative comment confirms your lack of talent. Cultivating an inquiring rather than a defensive stance is more productive. I have spent several posts on working well with feedback because I think it is critical.

The farther you advance in the field, the more you will find that those whose self-belief has faltered, who never made the time, or whose defensiveness prevented improvement have fallen away. Who is left? Those who have persevered, worked hard, and were open to criticism. You need to be among them.

But what if I really don’t have any talent?

News—there is no fairy godmother who taps some of us on the head with the blessing of writing talent. Like all artistic endeavors, you’ve got to put the work in before you know whether you’re successful. Work hard, keep learning, welcome feedback, and write, write, write.

Stories in a Frame

frame

Stories in a Frame

What are stories in a frame? Typically, the novel opens with the story-teller/author, recounting events which occurred either to him or to someone else. The form is reminiscent of campfire tales. This phenomenon is also referred to as a story within a story.

The movie Titanic, starts with elderly woman, Rose, who is a survivor of the disaster. Rose tells the viewer of her ill-fated love affair with another passenger. Rose provides the frame to the movie.

Okay, so does anyone remember Rose when you think of the movie? I don’t. The ship, the special effects, the stars, yes. Rose, no.

Are frames needed?

Often, the answer is ‘no.’

Framed stories frequently start out that way because it is the writer’s sort of clearing her throat. Rather than jump right in, she may find it easier to use a proxy of herself through whom to tell the story. Don’t ask me why, but it seems an easier way into a story.

Would Titanic the movie lose steam (sorry) if we went straight into the story without Rose? Not a jot.

The disadvantage of a frame around a story is that it removes the reader one degree from the main action. You lose the power of seeing the story directly through the eyes of the protagonist. The format also makes it easier to slip into more telling than showing, which also lessens the power of the drama.

Avoiding a frame

Often, it is pretty easy to get rid of a frame. Just drop it. Start directly with the story.

Yes, you may have to do some fiddling throughout the story if you have allowed your story-teller to break into the action. Oh, if I had only known what was about to happen.

But that’s a good thing. Concentrating on the main character’s thoughts and feelings up the chances of a compelling portrayal.

When to use the story within a story technique

As usual, nothing is hard and fast in writing.

For example, Arabist Richard Francis Burton translated parts of One Thousand and One Nights which used the frame story of Scheherazade who must tell a new story every night to her husband, the king Shahryār, to keep alive. It is a way of linking basically unrelated stories into a cohesive whole.

Similarly, Hamlet hires a group of actors to perform a play. This play within the play is intended to flush out the guilt of his step-father for the killing of his father.

So, it’s not that stories in a frame can never be used. But you need to ask yourself why you need it. If the story within a story is intended to further the plot as in Hamlet, that makes perfect sense. But if it was just your way to get into the real tale, it might be worth dumping.

Using Dialect—Not

dialect

Using Dialect—Not

Many writers have used dialect to portray characters whose use of non-standard English often indicates a difference in geography or social status from the protagonist.

There are many examples in literature. One of the most famous is Mark Twain’s use in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. An example:Yes. You know that one-laigged n***** dat belongs to old Misto Brandish? Well, he sot up a bank, en say anybody dat put in a dollar would git fo’ dollars mo’ at de en’ er de year.”

So, how easy was that to read? Pretty tough, no? I find myself working so hard to figure out what is being said that I forget to concentrate on the meaning.

And because of that, I also lose whatever emotion intended for the passage.

By and large, I’m not a fan of using dialect for that reason alone.

Other dangers of using dialect

But there are other hazards to using dialect.

Stereotyping. You run the risk of stereotyping the culture you’re trying to portray. You can get away with this type of dialect if you’re writing about your own culture. But be very careful if you introduce ancillary characters who are not. Yes, you might be able to get across quickly who this minor character is using dialect. But I think you’d be better off either having the character speak in his own language and providing a translation in brackets immediately after or creating another character who translates for the group being addressed as well as the reader.

Cultural appropriation [1][2]  is a much talked about and contentious issue right now. It is basically when the member of one culture uses/adopts aspects of another culture and, in our case, incorporates this borrowed material into a written piece. It questions to what extent, for example, a non-indigenous writer can portray an indigenous character. Or any other culture not their own.

Use of dialect can be a slippery slope into either of these two phenomena.

Capture the sense of the idiom

However, it also doesn’t make sense that a writer can write only about his own culture, with no contact with others’. But here is how you can portray the culture/language without resorting to dialect.

Use easily recognizable words from the language. There are often words in your character’s native culture that are recognizable to English readers. Sayonara or Arigatō from Japanese. If you think the reader might not know the word, the dialogue can always be something like: I am most grateful. Arigatō.

Use grammatical errors. Prepositions are tough to get right in any language. German people speaking English might say “I am interested for” rather than ‘in.’ Or “I took an aspirin against a headache” rather than ‘for.’

Use the cadence of language.  In French, débit is the flow of the spoken word. If you know French, you will soon pick up the particular rhythm that Francophones use, particularly with other native French speakers. You can mimic this pace and tempo in your dialogue to give the impression of a Francophone even if the speech is entirely in English.

If you don’t know the culture well enough to use one of these techniques, why are you trying to portray a character from that background? Just asking.

Anyhow, both for ease of reading and to avoid straying inadvertently into controversial territory, stick as closely to standard English as you can, making adjustments at the margins to add flavor.

Don’t Talk about Writing in Progress

progressDon’t Talk about Writing in Progress

During the progress of a writing retreat, one of the members mentioned that a friend was in Africa doing clown ministry work.

This was a new concept to me.

“So, what do they do—dress up as clowns?”

“Yes—to make the children want to listen to them.”

“And do they juggle, and make balloon animals, and do slapstick?”

“Yes, and they incorporate the Christian message in the performance.”

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation except that we laughed and laughed about it. For whatever reason, it struck our collective funny bones.

What I do remember is rushing back home to try to capture the idea. It was completely flat. Almost as if I had used up all my humor and had nothing left for the story.

Since then, I have often found that the more I talk about what I intend to write, the less I seem to be able to get anything down on paper. It is such a familiar problem that I really don’t discuss my writing at all unless pressed and only in the vaguest terms (see suggestion at the end of the post).

Why talking impedes progress

I realize that this might seem odd—why would talking about a work in progress make it harder to write? Seems as if there are two different phenomena operating.

But I think there is more of a cross-over than you might expect.

Takes the juice out of the idea

Talking about the work in progress seems to dissipate the energy associated with your idea. In fact, the extent to which you are pumped when talking about it seems to be inversely related to how effectively you can get it down in words.

Fixes the intent

Usually, when I’m writing I have a vague idea of where I am going. Clear enough for me to continue but without pinning it down irrevocably. But talking about it, or even trying to pin down the intent in my own thoughts, makes it too concrete, too defined. It discourages indulging in pleasant, abstract, amorphous thought from which any number of interesting scenes or characters might arise.

Avoids embarrassing incidents with friends

Finally, if your readers don’t know where you’re taking a piece, on reading the finished piece, you won’t get: “Yeah, it was nice but I thought you were going to write about a genie.” Much as you fix the idea in your head when you talk about it, you do the same for your readers. The end product will violate their expectations. So even if you turn out a better piece than you spoke about, you may not get the praise it deserves.

Write first; talk later

So when friends ask you what you’re writing, don’t give them soup to nuts. Try a short description like “it’s set in the Second World War,” or the technique you’re using—“I’ve created an unreliable narrator.” Then you can talk about the interesting period or technique and not about the story itself.

Write first; talk later.