Breaking the Continuous Dream

Continuous

Continuous

Breaking the Continuous Dream

As discussed in the previous post, the writer’s job is to create a continuous dream for his readers. When he can’t, the reader is confused or bored or will abandon the reading. The breaking of this dream often consists of inadvertent slips by the writer—ones which are eminently avoidable.

Here are some ways writers can break the continuous dream for readers:

Implausibility in plot

If the reader ever thinks anything like “He wouldn’t do that,” or “That wouldn’t happen,” or “How did she get there?,” you’ve pulled the reader out of your world by making him skeptical of events in the novel. The detective who just happens to be in the right place to catch the murderer, the heroine who overcomes using a power the reader didn’t know she had, the lightning which luckily hits the secret cache—all of these can make the reader pull her head figuratively out of the continuous dream enough to have a moment of doubt, confusion, or disbelief.

Erratic characters

By erratic, I don’t mean ‘runs around a lot’ or even crazy. Rather, I mean characters who suddenly become different people in the middle of the novel, usually because the writer needs them to do something uncharacteristic to move the plot along. The loving devoted father who suddenly slaps his son so hard he crashes into the secret room; the villain who frees the hero in a sudden rush of sentiment (thus allowing the hero to live on for a sequel); the taciturn and sulky teen who suddenly breaks into a peon of love for his would-be significant other.

I don’t mean to suggest that none of the above could happen, but you’ve at least got to give the readers enough clues to this surprising aspect of the character that they don’t get confused about who the character is. If it comes out of the blue, it breaks the continuous dream.

Diction

I once read a mystery novel where a psychologist, a biker and a model were talking (don’t ask how that happened—another example of breaking the continuous dream). I suddenly realized that I couldn’t tell who was saying what unless the author tagged the dialog with a name. They all used the same kind of vocabulary, had similar insights on the world, and spoke in beautifully formed sentences. I don’t think so.

You don’t have to stereotype your characters but you do have to be aware that how they say something can be as important as what they say.

Otherwise, you again pop the continuous dream.

Grammar and other stuff

I know, totally boring. But if the reader starts to think, “Shouldn’t that be ‘affect’ not ‘effect?,’” or “Which ‘he’ are we talking about? Jordan, Guy, Allan?” or “Is that the right spelling?,” you’ve lost them. They’re thinking about the mechanics of the work and not where you are hoping to drive to (dangling participles also a problem but I like them).

Keeping a continuous dream is not the same as magic

Dodging these pitfalls can up the chances of your reader remaining in the continuous dream. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that doing this conscientiously is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, to great writing. This is where craft, practice, and magic come in. It’s one of those unfair things—if you commit these errors, you and your reader pay for it. But avoiding them doesn’t guarantee an enthralling narrative. Sorry to have to break this to you (pun intended—breaking your continuous dream—might not be a pun if I have to explain it. Sorry).

Creating the Continuous Dream

dream

dream

Creating the Continuous Dream

John Gardner wrote The Art of Fiction, a classic coverage of learning to write. If you haven’t read it, it is worthwhile although I find him a bit rigid (e.g. he believes that people can have such faults of the soul that they should just walk away from the keyboard). However, he does have one concept—creating the continuous dream—which I find immensely helpful when talking about the difference between a reader and a writer. Okay, the obvious—one reads and one writes—but the continuous dream helps reveal their different roles in fiction.

The reader, the writer, and the continuous dream

As a reader, I want to sink into the world created by the author, to immerse myself completely in the story, to identify with the characters, to feel at home in the writer’s world whether it be a planet in outer space, a different reality, or the story of your life.

When you’re successful in creating this continuous dream, the reader will not even realize he’s in one. He’s likely to experience it as, “I couldn’t put it down,” or “I wanted to make sure the guy got his comeuppance.” For me, I know the continuous dream is working when I near the end of the book and am worried that things are not going to turn out as I want them to for the protagonists.

So, according to Gardner, the job of the writer is to create this continuous dream—that is, a world that a reader can drop into and remain in happily until the end. You want to weave a world which is completely engrossing and persuasive.

Easier said than done, of course. This is where our creativity and mastery of the craft come in. Which is, of course, the subject of this entire blog. But there is one aspect of the continuous dream I want to focus on: the breaking of it.

Breaking the continuous dream

When the reader gets pulled out of the world you created, when she momentarily ‘wakes up,’ she doesn’t say, “Oh, gosh, the writer broke my continuous dream.” Instead, she’s likely to experience this discontinuity as boredom, disinterest, or confusion. She’s more likely to say, “I put it down and just couldn’t get back to it,” or “I tried to get into it, but it didn’t grab me” or, the worst, “I lost interest.”

The problem for the writer is that these types of comments are minimally useful because they provide no clues on how to make the novel fascinating and unputdownable. Nor, realistically, is it the job of the reader to do so. The reader’s job is to read; it’s the writer’s job to figure out how to make the writing compelling so the reader will want to read it.

Of course, writing can be successful largely because of the magic I discuss elsewhere. But there are other, more mechanical means, by which the writer can inadvertently break the continuous dream. What these means are and how to fix them is the subject of the next post.

Description Gone Wild

description

description

Description Gone Wild

First off, let me admit I’m not much of a description gal either in reading or writing. In many novels, I have to force myself to slow down enough to read the description or go with my default which is to skip more than three of four lines of it. In my own writing, I rarely describe the characters physically and my descriptions of the environment are, to be kind, limited. So, you need to factor this in when you read what I have to say about description.

Sensuous detail

Writers are exhorted to include all the sensuous detail. And by and large, that’s good advice. You want the reader to smell the coffee, feel the silk of the pillow, hear the rattle of the car, see the volcano erupting, and maybe even gasp aloud at the plot twist you cleverly inserted.

Having said that, it can go too far. I recreate a piece I once heard at a writing workshop.

I arrived at the entrance. It was a big grey stone building with bars on the lower windows and mesh on the upper ones. I knocked at the door. It was opened by a guard. He had on a grey uniform with a black belt. He had me sign in. He handed me a pass. The buzzer sounded to let me through the door. I walked down a long corridor. The walls were painted grey and nothing was hung on them. I got to the next checkpoint. There was another guard, also in grey with a black belt. He looked at the pass the first guard had given me and pressed the button which buzzed the door open. I walked down the long grey corridor, then took a left turn down another and found room 45.

I’ll quit before I fall asleep. This blow-by-blow description includes a lot of detail (although sensuous is in question). To my mind, it is not a useful piece of description.

I take that back, perhaps. In the hands of a skilled writer, the entrance into the building could have been valuable if the intent was to show the grey hopelessness of the surroundings. But then you need to rejigger it to emphasize this. In its present iteration, it is more a litany of steps rather than the creation of a specific mood.

The use of description

Description needs to be in service of the story. That is, an account of the countryside view is to establish how isolated the mansion is; you have to mention that Alice has dark hair so she’s less likely to be seen in a dark corridor when eavesdropping. Every part, including description, needs to be in service of the narrative. If it is not, no matter how beautiful, you need to give it a good hard look to decide if it stays or is consigned to the ‘extra’ file.

The annoying part of writing is, of course, that there are always exceptions to every rule. Some writers’ descriptions cause swoons in their readers’ ranks and perhaps you aspire to that. Okay, fine. However, I bet if you did a close analysis of a novel whose descriptions you particularly admire, you’d find that the descriptions by and large still are in service of the story as well as being beautiful.

The trick is to know whether you can ignore this practice or are better off sticking to the tried and true. See my upcoming post on breaking the rules. Obviously, and ultimately, only you can make that decision. But for the rest of us, I think it is well to keep in mind that description should be in service of the story, whether to establish mood, or anchor a plot point, or anything else which will help the reader stay in the continuous dream.

Is Journaling Writing?

journaling

Is Journaling Writing?

Yes and obviously, journaling is writing if writing is strictly laying words down in a comprehensible string.

But I want to talk about journaling and writing fiction.

What is journaling?

I think of journaling as an episodic or regular recording of your thoughts, feelings, events, etc. A natural way for writers to think through and about the current of their lives.

I know some people journal every day. I tend to journal about once a week—whether through a paucity of life or thoughts, I leave you to decide. And my journaling is decidedly of the pedestrian kind. I mostly write about how my week has gone, who has pissed me off (often accompanied by a pithy and well-reasoned analysis of their failings), what is worrying me, what I can do about it, what I can’t…I’m sure you get the picture.

Although I don’t consider it writing with a capital W, I still find it very useful, mostly in a mental health way. It allows me to vent my spleen on annoying people thereby avoiding doing so in person. It helps me work through a problem in my life, slowing down enough to be able to consider options rather than react in a knee-jerk manner. It calms me.

But I don’t consider this weekly dump as writing in the fiction sense.

Leading to fiction

You may journal or want to as a road to writing fiction. If that is your intent, then you may use a different approach. Rather than recording your life as it evolves, you may elaborate on big thoughts that you want to capture in words. New ideas for a fiction piece might come out of this.

It can also be fertile ground for speculations on how the story you are working on might develop, or thinking through a niggle you have about it. Snatches of dialogue or description that might be useful might also occur.

It seems some people seem to be able to combine my kind of journaling with falling into fiction. I haven’t been able to do it, but if you can, all to the good.

But don’t be lulled into thinking you are WRITING if you just do my kind of journaling, no matter how frequently. The only thing it is likely to give you is better typing and an ease with words (the latter not to be sneezed at).

As avoidance

In fact, I have found that journaling can be an excellent way to avoid writing fiction. Either by satisfying the need to play with words or, in my case, wasting time which I had intended to devote to fiction. In fact, at some writing retreats, I have written pages and pages (current record: 10) of anything but fiction. I’ve written about writing, about how much I would like to be writing at this moment, speculating why I am not writing, torturing myself on my inadequacies as a writer. Interspersed with charming word pictures of the gopher under the cottage or the ducks on the lake. Or any other topic which will assure that I don’t focus on fiction writing.

So, if you are journaling now, I encourage you to continue. But unless you are among the lucky few whose journaling turns into fiction, don’t confuse the two. Set aside time for journaling for your mental health by all means. But also time for creating magic.

The Problem with English Lit Courses

lit

The Problem with English Lit Courses

Off the top, I differentiate between English Lit and Creative Writing courses. The latter is more closely aligned with this blog. English Lit courses focus primarily on reading the Great Literature of The English Language and talking about why it’s so great.

Great not being synonymous with ripping stories, by the way.   A friend and I once decided that to spend one lunch-time a week reading the Great Literature we’d missed. Unfortunately, we started with Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Fifty pages a week was our goal. To reach it, I had to sit in a hard-backed chair to keep awake.  That I had been unsuccessful was evident when my friend asked, “What did you think of the ship sinking at the end?”

“The ship sank?”

So concluded that pursuit.

English Lit is reductionist

My beef with English Lit for aspiring writers is that the novels are studied by parsing them to death. The devices and metaphors used; how they contribute to the major theme; the effect of the time period and context on the novel’s shape, etc.

Which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Certainly you need to be able to recognize the component parts of a novel and the effect of authorial choices on the shape of the story to inform how you create your own.

But because you’ve gotten adept at identifying devices, doesn’t mean you can use them in your own writing. It doesn’t teach you how to create them or when to use them and sometimes even more importantly, when not to.

And gives the impression of fait accompli

The other objection is that a published novel is of course a finished product which doesn’t, if it works, show all the doubt, re-writing, reshaping, and struggle that had gone into it.

I find it prompts one of two reactions to aspiring writers, both bad. The first is okay, I got it. Now I can do it. These writers are unprepared for the mastery of technique they must achieve nor the amount of sloughing. They can be put off and abandon their aspirations.

Even worse are would-be authors who read a novel which has been cut, recut, and polished into the jewel it is and think I could never do this. There’s no point in trying. They don’t realize that the author started off with the same unprepossessing lump of rock that they presently have. They compare their unfinished product to the finished one and despair.

No room for magic

However, my real objection is that English Lit courses leave no room for magic which is the real reward of writing. Oh, the magic of the finished novel might be acknowledged. But not the magic of creation which is the joy of writing. It’s not magic all the time, unfortunately, and you don’t control when it visits, but when it does, it reminds me that this is what I was meant to do.

Okay, I may have set up English Lit courses as a bit of a straw horse. Their objective, to be fair, is not to make you a great writer but to study those who are. You still need to work at technique, and write, write, write. And thereby make room for magic.