Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Back to Basics

One of the things about writing so many pages all in one go is that it makes it very clear to me what my writing does, and what it doesn't do. I'm talking mainly style here.

My writing style is pretty spare. In high school I was reading something and I kept getting fed up with all the exposition in the narrative, especially with regard to characters. It's that classic "show don't tell" idea, and the thing I was reading was all about telling. Then I read "Hills Like White Elephants" by Hemingway and with the two experiences together, I latched onto streamlined writing like nobody's business.

Now I find myself with a problem. My reaction in high school has influenced me ever since, and it also ultimately led to over-correction. So, I've come to the point where it's time to start swinging the pendulum back. While I can never imagine myself getting into really elaborate or expository prose, I can admit that I have a leaning to make my writing more skeletal than spare. I already know I'll need to go back over the pages from the bet to put some flesh on them, and to help that I'm turning to more reading.

One of the best places to look for help is examples, ergo that's what I'm doing.

Which leads me to this month's challenge. However long you've been writing, chances are it's been a while since you've really broken down the nuts and bolts of it and taken some time to closely analyze how other people's stories work. And I'm not talking in a critique group context, here. I'm talking published work which is presented to you as the best version of that novel/story/poem.

This month I challenge you to pick out a few pieces, maybe even focus on one of your favorite authors, and break them down. Look at the different parts of that writing. How do they fit together? How do they talk to each other? How is it that when you put them all together, you get something of publishable quality? Play around with it, a bit of mimicry is encouraged at this point. See what you can learn from it and take for your own repertoire.


Debbie said...

Ya know, I've always wanted to do that and never have. I try to pay attention as I read, but it would be interesting to take a couple books from a favorite author and really disect them. Where do certain plot points happen? Does she always put them there? How does she develop character? Can I tell the difference between characters just by dialogue? Etc. Etc.

Sounds like a lot of work, but it could be interesting.

Oz, the Mad said...

I do that with everything I read. Not rigorously or anything, that would be like work. But I do always sort of keep in mind that any sentence I read is sort of a learning experience and sort of a chance for professional analysis...analisys? I hate that word...

I've been reading Neil Gaiman recently. What's more, I'm listening to him read his own stuff. It's kind of cool. Something I've always done, if I don't stop myself, with books on tape or CD when I listen to them: start mimicking the style of the person reading. I'll start writing as if that person is reading the words. The effect is sometimes interesting. The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers I wrote almost entirely with the voice of Simon Preble and the style of Susanna Clarke playing in my head. And I remember a few specific points where I more or less took a whole paragraph verbatum out of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel and put it in my story and everyone said it was bad.

I've been thinking about that listening to Neverwhere. There are times when Neil does things that we, in our group, tell people not to do. Sometimes he describes through exclusion--it was the kind of description exactly the way Tolkien wasn't. His sentences are sometimes quite long. He'll talk about concepts in vague and affected, meandering ways, with a lot of ands, a lot of ors, or none of them. But his stuff is great. It's peculiarly, incongruously filled with things the group deams problems in each other, but he puts them together somehow so that they work. I don't know how.

I just wrote an economics paper narrated by Mr. Gaiman. All its sentences felt long and awkward and wrong. So I might have done it wrong. Or I might not be Neil Gaiman. Or I might have to try again tomorrow.

Oz, the Mad said...

Feel free not to read all that, I suppose.