19 March 2009

Oh, technology (A tangent)

While trying to save a draft from my phone to Blogger it was posted by accident and fed out to the world, permanently, despite that I deleted the original post within a minute. There's no way to undo this particular error. That's the way the internet works.

I wouldn't have it any other way, but I'm sad to have my flaws so illuminated.

Maybe if the internet were smarter, it would be kinder. Here's a video found via GoogleSystem about a brand new smarter Google.

(Don't believe everything you see on the internet.)

Then again... is anything ever kinder when it becomes smarter? I've read too much sci-fi to believe it.

16 March 2009

The Writer's invisibility cloak

“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

Elmore Leonard

Now that I've written about trying to see the craft behind the writing, I may as well write about how hard writers work to hide that craft from their readers.

It's sort of contradictory, using all the tricks of the trade to make it seem effortless. My favourite contradiction is that fiction writing is usually written in the past tense. Authors spend painstaking hours creating stories full of immediacy, and place the readers right in the moment... with past tense. If you think about it, it makes no sense. Don't think about it.

"She ate the pear. It was juicy and cold."

She did? It was? When? Ages ago? Yet while reading, time folds in on itself and it seems natural. The story has already happened, but the reader is experiencing it now. Whether it's the way our brain and language works, or because we've been trained throughout our lives not to notice, past tense is now. Trying another tense takes guts, and it often reveals the wizard behind the curtain.

And that's how fiction writers spend their time: considering madness like that, and hiding from their readers. Remembering you're reading a story is remembering that it's a lie, and the best part of fiction, I think, is the truth it reveals.

I've been in the depths of editing for these last few weeks and so I'm fine-tuning a lot of bits and pieces of language, trying to make it seem like I'm not. Sometimes I go too far and then back-track to older versions, preferring my original attempt. Sometimes what I first wrote was forced as I tried to reach an idea, and it needs more help to get there.

None of it is fool-proof or I wouldn't feel so foolish trying to sort it out.

09 March 2009

Reading like a writer

I am extremely critical of the books I read. To me, reading is never just about having fun and forgetting about it. Even if I'm having fun I want to know why, and what it is about the book that's entertaining. If I'm bored or frustrated with a book, I have to figure out what's wrong, so I can learn not to put it into my own writing.

Many "How to write" books suggest "Reading like a writer," and I guess that's what I'm doing. And the more I can tell about what I like or don't like about a book, the better I feel. This isn't a slight on the author's ability to disappear into their own work. It's about me and whether I can see through the words to the craft beneath. If I can, I feel like I'm learning how to improve my own.

One concrete example of a lesson well learned comes from Karin Slaughter's thriller Triptych that I read last month. The characters in this novel are extremely memorable. One excellent specimen is a prison inmate named Zebra. He is named for his alternating black and white teeth, and that image combined with his horrific actions mean I can't forget him even though he appeared just briefly, in a flashback.

These small details that grow huge in the reader's mind are like the memory aid of remembering one detail about each person and attaching it to their name. Bill has a big nose, Harriet has hairy arms. Those examples are blatant, but they can be subtle and the reader will still get it. It can be the difference between remembering a character by thinking, "Oh right, that guy, um..." and remembering them as if they're a real person.

Not all lessons come from good books. I recently read a mystery that frustrated me from beginning to end. I finally figured out it was because I had no idea what was at stake in the story. At first it seemed like a quiet plot, more about internal monologue than action, and then suddenly there were guns and life-threatening situations. I wasn't sure if I should take it seriously. The atmosphere hadn't been developed so that I could follow the characters into their dilemma. I was left behind at the side of the road wondering when I'd gotten out of the car.

Being critical of the books I read doesn't mean I don't enjoy them. I remember dissecting poetry in high school and discussing whether the dissection took away from appreciating the poem. I thought no, a poem can be dissected and still be beautiful. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. You can write a thousand word essay on the use of plant names in Shakespeare, and still enjoy the play as a regular play. It's a good thing, too, or I wouldn't be able to appreciate Shakespeare, Austen, Hawthorne, any of the Romantics, or modern crime fiction as a whole.
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