Creating the Continuous Dream

dream

Creating the Continuous Dreamdream

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

descriptionDescription 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.

Can I Write My Memoirs?

memoirs

memoirsCan I Write My Memoirs?

Yes.

I suppose you’d like a little more meat on that bone.

Well, I think everyone can write a memoir.

You’ve got memories, you can write your memoirs. However, I accept that this bald statement, stirring though it is, might not be enough to attack the computer with zeal. There are often some lurking questions.

Do I have anything to say?

Every life is unique. Only you have had your experiences which you have coupled with your unique learnings which have culminated in a life nobody else has lived. For example, your first family was unique. You may think, “Nah, I had two other brothers—so they grew up the same way.” But not true.

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Everything I Write Is Junk!

crumpled ball

Everything I Write is Junk!

I think writers come in two flavors: one assumes everything they write is worthy of publication and; the other is convinced that what they write is junk worthy only of being deleted.

The latter flavor is the subject of this post and the former is in a following post called Deathless Prose.

Destructive self-talk

I get it.  The voice in the back of your head is telling you, Why are you bothering to write? You really think you can turn out anything good? Who wants to read this anyhow? Been there, done that. What’s worse is that, in that moment, it feels like an eternal truth whose force will never diminish.

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