If You Write, Do You Enjoy Reading Less?

reading

If You Write, Do You Enjoy Reading Less?

I have at least one friend who has accused me of spoiling mystery novels for him. Every change of point of view, forced plot point, or Deus ex Machina moment kicked him out of the story. It spoiled his enjoyment of the whole book. Will this happen to you?

Yes

Unfortunately. At least, when you first start paying attention to your own choice of words and methods. As you perfect your technique, it’s natural to notice when others do it well or poorly.

So you project a future of reading pleasure destroyed just to build up a shaky repertoire of story-telling skills. Hardly seems worth it, does it?

Okay, bad news but the good news is that it is a temporary condition for two reasons: it eventually enhances your enjoyment of reading and there is a way to still enjoy novels short on craft.

Reading augmented

In the by-gone days when you were ‘just’ a reader, there would have been at least some novels of which you said, “I couldn’t get into it” or “It was kind of confusing” or “I didn’t like the main character.”

You put them away unsatisfied. It looked like it would have been a good story. Other books by this author have been. This leaves you with a vaguely uncomfortable feeling. However, since you have a life, you move onto the next novel on your list.

But as a writer, you start to see why the novel didn’t work. There wasn’t enough forward action. All that description slowed down the plot. The biker, the psychologist, and the fashion model all sounded the same (in a mystery novel I actually read).

Won’t make you like the novel any better but it provides you with the satisfaction of solving the puzzle of your reaction.

In fact, a good grasp of writing principles actually heightens your enjoyment of really fine novels. I first realized this when reading No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod. Two parts of my brain were operating simultaneously. One part was crying and being completely with the character and the other was admiring. So that’s how he did it.

You can remark on how skillfully the author included scenes where the hero was a fine but troubled fellow so that your heart aches for him when he causes his own downfall. You can see why the marriage of two minor but charming characters is told rather than shown to allow the romance of the main characters to keep center stage by being shown

So in the end, understanding what makes a good story allows you to enjoy good ones more and identify mistakes in others’ writing which you can avoid in your own.

Getting around this problem

But you don’t want to spend the next however many years hating to read while you build up your writing skills.

I have a simple but effective answer. Pick what you like in the particular novel or author and read for that.

Agatha Christie was a great plotter but her character development (aside from caricature) was practically nil. But I go back to her again and again.

Other authors may write a nail-biting cliff-hanger by having his character do a completely unlikely thing. Enjoy the nail biting, ignore the pushed around heroine. The hero flourishes his hat with the plume of feathers in the novel set in the Victorian era. Ignore the historical anachronism and enjoy the romance.

If you focus on what the author does well, you can still enjoy her work even if she might be wanting on other fronts. After all, you’re not perfect either, are you?

From Auto-biography to Fiction: Norman Mailer Approach

mailer

From Auto-biography to Fiction: Norman Mailer Approach

I know I have mentioned Norman Mailer before, but I can’t find where and in any case, I’d like to go into more detail on his approach than I did originally (I’m pretty sure). Specifically, his realization that you can use an emotion you understand to inform a character in a situation you’re unfamiliar with. He said that although he’d never been a soldier, he knew what it was like to be in fear for his life. He used that emotional appreciation in his debut novel, The Naked and Dead.

Applying the Mailer approach

This is a great way to use events which have happened in your own life to inform your writing without necessarily recreating the original scene. Let’s work through the process.

  1. Consider a character you’re having trouble with. You can’t seem to get the feel of the persona. Say you’ve created an alien on an alien spaceship. Needless to say, you’ve never experienced this situation.
  2. List what you think isn’t working with the character. I don’t care about him. He seems stilted and unreactive.
  3. Pick the biggest problem. Let’s take stilted and unreactive. On the one hand, the stereotype of an alien might exhibit just such qualities. On the other, readers being alienated from your alien doesn’t foretell gripping involvement in your novel. They need to identify or at least empathize.   What do you want the character to be? Spontaneous and curious.
  4. Look into your own life. Take a moment to think about a time—a specific time—when you were spontaneous and curious. On a camping trip when you were ten? The first time you went to a museum? When you turned the car around and went in the opposite direction than planned? Whatever it is, drop into the scene again. Take in all the sensuous details—sounds, smells, images. And tap into how you felt. Excited? Calm? Floating?
  5. Apply to the problem. Take that compendium of feelings and sensations and write from that space, but about your character. How does he feel (show, please)? What does he do? How does his alien nature change, warp, or enhance the feelings you had? Let it flow.

It’s not foolproof

I’m not saying this always works but it can kick you out of a stuck place into something more productive. You’ll know if it’s working if your writing feels emotionally true, even given the alien setting.

In addition, this approach is somewhat mechanical just to illustrate the point. If you can conjure the feelings in your own life and apply them to the character rather than going through these steps, by all means do it. The more organic you can make the process, the more likely it will live on the page.

But sometimes, using auto-biographical bits in your fiction can cause trouble. Next post.

Using Clichés

Clichés

Using Clichés

Clichés. There should be a bar sinister across them, right? We’re never never supposed to use them. I don’t know on which stone tablet it is written but seems like an immutable rule.

But I use them all the time (cf. stone tablet above) and I can’t even get excited about it.

For one thing, it’s a way to capture a thought or a moment in a way which is easier to identify with. I mean, I could have written: I don’t know from what mystic time or place the immutability is derived.  Or some such. But stone tablet seems so much more straightforward.

It also promotes a more informal relationship between you and your reader, as in this blog. And applies to a fictional character. Clichés can be part of a speech pattern to convey a more relaxed or unceremonious persona.

So, I don’t think they’re all bad. At least, not word clichés.

Clichés of thought

But where I can get excited are clichéd thoughts.

There are some ideas which are important to your story. You want to portray your hero as, well, heroic. So, first and always, his actions need to show this quality. But, as I’ve mentioned, as the narrator, you can bolster the action. But if you call him brave as a lion, the reader’s eyes are likely to slip right past this description because it is so familiar.

If the idea is important, then reach for unique, specific and even beautiful words that make arresting reading and imbed the quality in the reader’s mind.

What comes to mind is the haunting description Isak Dinesen wrote in Out of Africa of the grave of her lover Denys Finch Hatton.

…many times, at sunrise and sunset, they have seen lions on Finch Hatton’s grave. A lion and a lioness have come there and stood or lain on the grave for a long time. After you went away, the ground around the grave was leveled out into a sort of terrace. I suppose that the level place makes a good site for the lions. From there, they have a view over the plain and the cattle and game on it. Denys will like that. I must remember to tell him.

The problem is that this quote is from the movie and I have lost my copy of the book which I am sure included something like: “Nelson on his column could not have had a more fitting memorial.” If I am right—and even it is just the one paragraph above—this is a fine allusion to his bravery.

If the idea is important to the story, then put the time into remarkable phrasing.

(I know it takes longer to write. Stop it.)

Ensuring your central ideas are captured memorably will go a long way to avoiding clichéd work and stories which really are anathema.

Okay, there are some you probably shouldn’t use

So, after being all doctrinaire about using clichés whenever I please, I do accept that there are some clichés so shopworn that they no longer convey much meaning. Like bright as a button, fit as a fiddle, or don’t cry over spilt milk. Huffpost has a further list.

Oh yes, and of course, you really must avoid clichéd words and thoughts if the beauty of the language is your main shtick (sorry).

Writing about Therapy Sessions

therapy

Writing about Therapy Sessions

What can I say? Writers, while not necessarily crazy (sorry, with mental health issues), nonetheless seem to be not infrequent users of therapy in various forms. And there is the whole write-what-you-know thing. So, sooner or later, we try to depict a therapy session.

And it almost always falls flat.

Not because you are a crummy writer but because of the nature of therapy. As those of us who have addressed our problems this way know, it is iterative, repetitive and slow process which takes a long time to get results. All things anathema to story.

So, if you try to truly reflect conversation in a session, you’re likely to get a boring, going nowhere mess which contributes little to the story.

How about speeding things up?

One option is, of course, to telescope the process in the novel. This compression in other areas is often quite justifiable to maintain the momentum of the story. So, the main character is completely open to all the suggestions made by the counsellor, integrates the learning with lightning speed, and is back on the right track in no time. She goes from mistrusting the world to complete and utter belief in the innate goodness of humanity.

First of all, sucky tale. You’ve removed all the struggles and conflict that makes a narrative hum. But more importantly for our purposes, completely unrealistic. Because we know in our own lives, with or without guidance, change doesn’t happen that way. Change is iterative, repetitive and slow.

How to avoid writing therapist scenes

Despite this, the insights that come with therapy may be pivotal to your plot. So how do you write about it without writing about it?

First, you probably need a scene establishing that your protagonist is seeing a therapist. But it might be the first session, where the main character illustrates the real reason she is embarking on this process. She thinks it’s because her family is so difficult but her defensiveness and the sharp tongued way she communicates cues the reader that there are other issues. Tricky to write, but if done well, it provides the reader with important information early on.

From there forward, the therapist might not figure prominently at all. But the main character might recall something learned in therapy which she applies to the present point in the plot. You might even be able to get away with a short—very short—scene where the protagonist comes to a significant revelation which we then see her applying it to refocusing her actions and life.

So you might be able to get the juice out of these sessions without having to do all the peeling, pitting, and dissecting which actually occurs.

If you must write about therapy

It is possible that your plot is integrally tied to depicting therapy sessions.

The only thing I have ever seen which did this effectively was an originally Israeli series, adapted to North American audience called In Treatment. In it, a therapist treated four different patients. And it works. Even though the whole series takes place inside the therapist’s office and the patients are just basically telling the therapist their stories.

So, if you must, you would do well to study why this tell-not-show approach works. If it’s the acting or direction, then you’re sunk. If it is the extremely clever writing (and I suspect it is), study how the writers made it work. Unless of course, it’s just bloody magic.

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.