Thursday, April 16, 2009

How Not To Be Seen

Know what would be nice after the brutal tax season? Well, pretty much anything...

So, what’s the easiest way not to be seen?

Not to stand up.

If you get that joke, points to you. If not... Seriously, expand your horizons...

Anyway, if you’ve been following this rambling, ranty blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably figured out writing is almost never easy (despite what you may see on Castle). It takes a lot of work, and it kind of sucks that when you’re doing your best work as a writer no one’s going to notice.

Allow me to explain.

The best compliment you can ever hope for is someone forgets they’re reading your story. Not in the sense they stop reading for lunch and forget to pick it back up, but in the sense they honestly forget they’re reading a story.

Back when I was playing with my first real attempt at a novel, The Suffering Map, I handed it off to a few folks who I knew could be brutally honest about it. One of these people was my best friend, Marcus. Yes, he’s a friend, but we’ve been friends so long we both have no trouble telling each other when one of has screwed up. Sometimes there’s even some glee to it. And, yes, I freely admit nine times out of ten it’s him pointing out how I’ve screwed up.

Marcus took longer than anyone to get back to me with notes on The Suffering Map, and he finally admitted it was because he kept forgetting he was supposed to be making them. He’d go for dozens of pages without noting any mistakes or jotting down comments.

Silly as it may sound, this was one of the best compliments I’d ever received. It meant Marcus had forgotten he was reading my book and was just getting caught up in the story. The author and the medium fell off to the side and he just got absorbed into the tale of Rob, Sondra, Gulliver, and the Polynecros Transporter. The fact it was his friend’s story became inconsequential.

This is what we should all be shooting for. Our audience would forget they’re reading the latest John or Jane Smith novel or screenplay, perhaps even forget they’re reading a written work altogether, and just let themselves sink into the story. This happens when the audience forgets they’re reading, and the easiest way for that to happen is for them not to see your writing.

It always feels satisfying to avail oneself of an exuberant flourish of words and demonstrate not just the verbosity and vocabulary we’re capable of as proficient wordsmiths (and thesaurus owners), but also the clever intricacies we can interweave between character, plot, and theme. The problem is, every time we make the reader hesitate or pause just for a second, we’re breaking the flow of the story. Whenever the audience becomes overly aware of us, the writer, leaning over their shoulder and saying “hey, check out what I did there,” they’re going to pull back the same way anyone would. If you don’t mind the touchy-feely analogy, it’s an invasion of their personal space.

Think of some of the times you’ve been painfully aware of the author you’re reading. Ahhhh, Stephen King is doing that down-home-folksy-supernatural thing again. Look, Anne Rice is drifting back to her softcore porn roots again. Oh, that’s the same twist Harper Lee used in her last book. Sometimes this works, but more often than not if the audience is pausing to be aware of the author it’s just a chance for them to become aware of the world around them, to register they’re just holding a manuscript and not experiencing a story.

As writers, we should aspire to being invisible. Oh, we want our characters to be seen. We want our dialogue to be heard. We want our action and passion and suspense to leave people breathless. But we are just distractions. Less of us is more of the story.

By the way... if you are actually in possession of any other book by Harper Lee besides To Kill A Mockingbird, you are sitting on a gold mine.

Just saying.

So... some ways not to be seen.

Names. If used in moderation, names are invisible. They’re just shorthand for the mental images we’ve all formed in our heads. If I say Angelina, there’s an immediate link to the actress, just like saying Bob will make your audience think of your character Bob. It’s also worth mentioning that simpler, more common names blend easier than rare or unnatural ones. Tony doesn’t stand out as much as Antonio, Edward is easier on the frontal lobe than Ezekiel, and all they’re nothing compared to Bannakaffalatta.

Moderation is the key, though. If names repeat too often, they start to get cumbersome. Even if the name is something short and simple like Bob, when I see a paragraph about Bob reading Bob’s book shortly before Bob decided it was too hot outside and so Bob went in where it was air conditioned... well, personally at that point I start counting them, which means I’m not reading the story I’m auditing it. This is why we have...

Pronouns. When names start to get too noticeable, we call in the almighty pronoun. Just like names are shorthand for story elements, pronouns are shorthand for those names. When names start to clutter up your writing, they’re there to leap in and shoulder the weight. It’s how Bannakaffalatta becomes he, that mysterious island becomes there, and the Maltese Falcon becomes it.

The catch here is to make sure your pronouns are clear, because the moment someone gets confused about who she is, they’ve just stopped being part of your story and started studying the page. A good rule of thumb—after you’ve referred to Angelina as she six or seven times, drop her proper name back in once. It’s been long enough it won’t look repetitive, and it’s a gentle reminder of who she is.

Said. We talked about this just last week, but it’s worth saying again. Said is invisible. No one’s going to count up how many times you use said (except maybe my friend Meredith), but people will start noticing if you constantly respond, retort, or exclaim. If you plan on having several characters pontificate, depose, or ejaculate, don’t be surprised when your audience stops reading to scratch their collective heads or giggle. Usually while they’re pointing right at you.

Vocabulary. We all know what red means, but viridian can make us pause for a moment. Some things glow and some are effulgent. That guy can be hairy or he can be hirsute, which means you might also think of referring to him as an ape or perhaps an anthropoid.

A huge problem I see is writers who can’t figure out what common knowledge is, and argue adjectives like atrementous or glabrous are valid simply because they’re in the dictionary. Pruinose is a real adjective, too, but there’s a reason it doesn’t come up much over drinks. Any word a writer chooses just to draw attention, to prove they don’t need to use a common word, is the wrong word. And the fact that it’s drawing attention means you’ve just been seen again.

So duck behind the bushes, crouch down inside that water barrel, and prepare to write. Once you’re out of sight, that means the audience can only focus their attention on your characters and your story.

Next week... what should you have in common with the people who built the pyramids and the hanging gardens of Babylon? It’s not the lost continent of Atlantis, I’ll tell you that much.

And don’t let me see you until then.

For now, go write.

4 comments:

frank farrar said...

Didn't see this one coming.

Sound advice on every point.

Ever read a book called, "Lord Foul's Bane"? I almost didn't. The other characters' names were almost equally laughable. It still astounds me that there was a good story there. With OK writing.

What were the editor and publisher thinking?

Virtual Stranger said...

That's the first of the Thomas Covenant books, yes? They've been on my reading list for a few...

...well, a few decades now, to be honest. And, yeah, it's probably been that title that's given me so much hesitation.

Rakie said...

is it Monty Python?

i have an unfair advantage cos i is english. :)

Virtual Stranger said...

Yes, it's an old Python joke.

Rakie gets this week's gold star. ;)