Going For Broke

brokeGoing For Broke

I think every writer, consciously or not, decides how much of themselves, or their history, or their great ideas they want to reveal in a particular piece of work. That is, we don’t often go for broke.

This is what I wrote in my journal when I was starting a new project.

What if I put everything in one basket and went for it? All out, everything I’ve got on one story—rather than eking out the thoughts, rationing the imagination so it will last for the rainy day when the magic is a sodden as the clouds. What if I thought it was a river not a reservoir? What if I trusted myself? God, there’s a concept. Go get the laundry.

I don’t know if the passage makes as much sense now as it did then, but I felt that I was holding back, tiptoeing in rather than jumping into the deep end of the novel. By which I mean, allowing any semi-deep insight or crazy idea or scary revelation to just flow onto the page. To open the dam and see what comes out.

Why was I holding back?

Well, I think it comes down to trusting yourself, or at least it did for me. If I threw everything I cared about, everything I feared or hungered for or dreamed on a silly night, what would I have left? Nothing, I feared. I’d pour my whole self into this one novel and then I’d have no more to give. I’d be emptying myself, at least the writing self.

Yes, and of course, there were the ancillary concerns that I don’t technically know how to do what I want to produce, or that doing it will reveal too much of me, that I will offend, that people will think I’m crazy/callous/sentimental/boring.

But fundamentally, it came down to: was I going for broke or not?

So I took a deep breath and jumped in. Frankly, it was scary. However, when I finished, I was pleased with the result. The no-holds-barred seemed to produce a piece that had more life and depth.

Good result but didn’t address the concern—was I going to be able to write anything else?

Well, of course I was. I might feel empty after finishing a piece but the hopper got refilled shortly thereafter. With that comfort, I try always to go for broke when I write. Doesn’t always work, sometimes I chicken out or get distracted. But I have adopted it as my mindset.

What if it gets broke?

You may feel differently—that you tried it and you were emptied. I admit that sometimes it feels as if it has happened.

But I would say, pretty emphatically, it doesn’t really. You haven’t stopped thinking, have you? Or living? Or changing, for ill or good. There will always be ideas and thoughts and insights which can be turned into story.

Still disagree? I firmly believe what you are experiencing is due to other circumstances. Like writer’s block or self-censoring  or fear of appearing naked on the page, or being stuck .

My advice—go take a nap, reread the novel that made you want to write, walk away for a bit (a bit, not forever), get on with real life. From which river, you can catch your next insight, event, or feeling. Which you write about.

Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing

orwell

Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing

So you know George Orwell’s famous novels like Animal Farm and 1984. In addition, he set down Six Rules for Writing which are:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

All good advice but I want to focus on two of them: #2 in this post and #3 in the next.  The action called for is self-evident but writers don’t always seem to understand the logic behind them. And because the reasoning isn’t obvious, it may not be clear why they embody such wisdom and are so worth following.

Rule 2: Never use a long word where a short one will do.

On the surface, it’s hard to imagine why it matters. Long words abound. Politicians can use them to cloud the issue. I would never obfuscate on such a monumentally portentous issue.  But medical people can use them for precision. It involves the integumentary system. Sports use terms particular to their activity. Wow, that guy just got posterized.

But generally, although long words might delight the writer’s instinct for the new and different, most readers are not fascinated with the words themselves but more focused on the unfolding story.

Here’s an example and an alternative.

Example—meandered

She meandered through the forest, her ambulatory exercise freeing her mind to address the shattering decisions preying on her psyche.

Applying rule 2 to the example

Walking through the forest freed her mind up to think about the decisions worrying her.

Discussion

I know the first sentence is over the top but it’s possible that the second sentence might feel as if it lacks drama or even interest. You might be right. However, if you look carefully, the drama in the first example, such as it is, comes from the writer telling you how to feel about the heroine’s issues (shattering, preying).

In the revamp we know the heroine is worried, but we’re not directed by the writer on how to feel about it. Presumably, he’ll show us what’s worrying her and we can decide ourselves how shattering and predatory the issues are.

So, you don’t need to, nor should you, have one sentence do all the work or all the reader’s thinking. Plain, short words present the action in a clear and understandable way. It’s up to you to build them into a compelling story.

Situations where Orwell’s rule 2 might not apply

Sometimes, the longer word is preferable because of its precision. Take the word disingenuous. Other, shorter, words—like dishonest—might be similar but ‘disingenuous’ has the particular implication of being deceitful knowingly. It is built into the word. A person might be dishonest without realizing it—from lack of knowledge, etc. Using ‘disingenuous’ removes that possibility.

So, use a longer word to capture accuracy. However, and especially if it’s an esoteric long word, don’t pack it closely together with others of the same ilk.

In short, long words if needed but not as a way to show off how learned you are (which I know you are).

Next post: Rule Three: Cutting out words.

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From the General to the Specific

specific

From the General to the Specific

Let’s talk specific rather than general. It’s very common for writers to pen something like:

Jen was very bossy. She was always telling her co-workers what to do. Even with her family, nothing got done unless she okayed it.

Not the end of the world as writing goes, either good or bad. But weak, I think. First of all, it has the air of telling the reader what to think about the character (which is bossy in and of itself) and no, following it up with corroborative examples from the office and home don’t make it less tell.

Now, if Jen is a very minor character, then I’d let it go. You presumably want Jen for some limited purpose which, once achieved, she will drop off the literary cliff into oblivion. If that’s the case, the example paragraph might work.

But if she is more major, then starting off with this sort of general descriptor doesn’t work as well.

Specific first

Let’s do the scene again.

“No, not there.” Jen moved the vase to the edge of the table.

“But it might tip over,” Clark objected.

“Nonsense. It balances things much better.”

“But I want Lilly to see them as soon as she comes in.”

“She can see them fine from here,” Jen held the vase firmly in place.

So, here we see Jen do something specific. The word ‘bossy’ doesn’t get mentioned but we get the message. And in a way which is more vivid and therefore more likely to stick in the readers’ mind.

This specific approach has other advantages. It allows the reader to come to his own conclusion about Jen’s personality and the act of doing so involves and commits him more to your story. You allow him to make an emotional investment in the character.

This applies in many places

This specific first approach works in many venues. Here are a couple of examples.

General Specific
The mountains were beautiful One peak, the tallest, had caught the sun on its tip and was holding it there, balanced, as if a daily trophy.
The man was old His hands. Not claws exactly. But not not. He shuffled over to pick up the glass.

Again, don’t need to do this for absolutely everything. But if there are points which you’d like the reader to remember, go with a specific example from which the reader can generalize to the conclusion you’re aiming for.

Do I hear, “Doesn’t this take longer?”

Yes, the old bugaboo. It does take longer to write and takes more work. But is your aim to write the fastest and easiest piece of literature known to man (sic)? Of course not. That’s writing jingles. Instead, you want to use every trick you can to engage the reader so that no matter how long you take, he is with you all the way.

Lots of Events, No Story

events

Lots of Events, No Story

In the last post, I discussed Amor TowlesA Gentleman in Moscow which, while it had lots of events to recommend itself, a story that went somewhere seemed absent.

I want to talk about how to up the chances that your novel will have forward motion. But before I do it, I do want to repeat that a compelling plot is not the only thing which makes a novel attractive. It might be beauty of the language or brilliant capture of the nuances of a character or a time or a setting.  If this is where your novel is focused, then ignore this post.

But if you’d like to make sure that your story has forward motion, read on.

Events do not a story make

I think the idea that lots can happen in a novel but still not have a story is a tough concept. But without a plot that gives meaning to the events, the reader is left vaguely dissatisfied but doesn’t know why.

So, indulge me if I try another example, this time a good one. In Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, a widow and her three daughters try to make their way in the world when her husband’s estate passes to the male heir. They move, they meet interesting new people, the older girls fall in love, etc. So, lots happen. The difference is that the novel has forward motion. We want to know what is going to happen to the family, particularly the two young women. We keep reading for that reason.

This applies to memoirs

By the by, memoir writers should take note of this concept. Memoirs are not, or should not be, just a listing of the events of your life. That’s history not memoir. Remember, a Memoir is a Lifestory, emphasis on story. You want your readers to want to keep reading so you need to build in a sense of forward action beyond the tried and true, I-was-born-I-lived-I’m-writing-this-before-I-die.

Building story in

So after harping on what a difficult concept forward action is to identify, the answer is, I think, is a lot less mystic.

You need to make sure you build in the classic plot structure. You know, rising action, climax, etc. The novel needs to build to some point that the reader cares about. Will the young women marry the right men? Will the hero overcome the monster? Who killed Cock Robin? (Sorry).

I know this seems an obvious and even disappointing answer. But I find a surprising number of writers, perhaps carried away by the fun of creating secondary characters and subplots, forget this fundamental principle. They may end up with an entertaining novel but they are less likely to create a story that readers can’t put down.

So carefully review your manuscript to make sure that you have built this forward action in. This includes establishing a goal or outcome the reader cares about but isn’t limited to that. Does the rising action keep rising at a good pace or does the story get bogged down in interesting byways and asides? Is the climax ‘justified?’ That is, has the protagonist done enough or changed enough so that the outcome is satisfying rather than out of the blue.

So think of this as good news. The fix to forward motion is very doable. A lot of work, but doable. Not unadulterated good news, I grant you.

A Gentleman in Moscow

Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow

Amor Towles’ widely acclaimed A Gentleman in Moscow was published in 2016. It is the story of a Russian aristocrat during the Russian Revolution. His sanctuary/house arrest is the luxurious Metropol Hotel where he meets a girl who shows him the inner workings of the hotel. A moody chef, among other characters, figure in his discovery.

I found I enjoyed reading the novel while reading it but when I put it down, it took me a long time to pick it up again. This happened again and again. At about page 250, I think I figured out what was causing the sporadic reading.

The novel has lots of events, but no real plot. Things happen but the novel doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

A Gentleman in Moscow has other charms

Although I enjoy a good plot, I recognize that novels can be excellent for other reasons. I can and do appreciate living in the world Amor Towles created. The Count is quite a delightful character and his insights into Life are both apt and apropos. NPR’s review of the book says:

All of the verbal excess, the gently funny mock-epic digressions, the small capers and cast of colorful characters, add up to something undeniably mannered but also undeniably pleasant.

And I agree. It is lovely to read when I am reading it.

But there is the problem that I keep putting it down and not picking it up for a long time.

Lots of events, no story

This is tough concept to get. The idea that lots can happen, but there is no real story. The closest thing I think I can get to is when you watch, willingly or otherwise, somebody else’s vacation photos. Lots of places are visited, lots of boats boarded, lots of meals consumed. But it isn’t so much a story as a litany of events.

Which is fine for holiday snaps but readers usually expect more from a novel. I am prepared for people to argue that A Gentleman in Moscow does so have a story. I might even agree with them. But fundamentally, although things happen, it doesn’t have a sense of forward motion. The sense that the protagonist is going to end up somewhere different or be someone at least slightly different.

It might be argued that it is more real life to have a protagonist who is adapting as well as he can to a difficult situation. True. But, as I have said Fiction is Not Life and how it really happened is not actually an adequate defense against the charge of no story.

Fiction has its own rules. In order to feel authentic on the page, it often requires a distortion of what usually happens in real life. And generally, fiction requires that the story goes somewhere even if we don’t necessarily expect our own lives to come to a climax which is resolved in a surprising yet satisfying way.

Well, it is possible that A Gentleman in Moscow does suddenly develop a forward motion even if there was no sign of it at page 250. I’ll let you know when I get back to it.

Next post—how to turn events into a plot.