Monday, October 19

Writing: A Support System for Life

"... the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies ...", Stephen King

What is writing? Stephen King has a very simple answer: It’s the art and craft of telling stories on paper. But what is “the art and craft of telling stories on paper” and can it be learnt?

King believes that, if you’re a writer, then you can get better at it, but if you’re not a writer then, Sorry, it’s not gonna happen. 

King writes,

“I don’t believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-will (although I did believe those things once). The equipment comes with the original package. Yet it is by no means unusual equipment; I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened. If I didn’t believe that, writing a book like this would be a waste of time.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Personally, I believe that anyone with sufficient interest in writing can learn to get better at it. But, of course, not everyone is going to have sufficient interest. Stephen King, like Ray Bradbury, wrote millions of words before he was published. It takes perseverance. And those who don’t love writing probably won’t persevere. 

By the way, I'm going to talk quite a bit about Stephen King in this article because he has, more than any other writer, helped me write better. That's my goal: be better today than you were yesterday. (I'm not saying I achieve that! But it's a goal.)

What is writing?

In order to talk about how to become a better writer one needs, I think, to say something about what writing is.

Is there any one thing that writing is? Perhaps. According to Stephen King, writing is telepathy. That is, it is the sharing of thoughts and ideas.

Perhaps, though, there is just what writing is for me, what writing is for you, what writing is for Stephen King, what writing is to Neil Gaiman, and so on.

I don’t see anything wrong with looking at writing like this, but I think that what writing is for any one particular writer is going to have something in common with all writers. What is that thing? 

Writing as manipulation.

I agree with King that writing is the sharing of thoughts and ideas with a reader, but I sometimes wonder if that goes far enough. We are communicating ideas to the reader, but with a desire to achieve a certain end. For example, when a writer creates a book of jokes, his intention is to make his readers laugh. When a writer pens a thriller, she wants her audience to be curious, apprehensive, frightened, and generally caught up in the suspense.

In this view, writing has to do with the manipulation of a reader's emotions. I hate to put it like that because I don’t want anyone to think of writing as machiavellian. If one accurately communicates a certain idea or set of ideas, it is usually going to be the case that certain thoughts and emotions will follow. For example, when Luke’s family's farm is burnt to the ground in Star Wars IV: A New Hope one can’t help but feel Luke’s horror as he sees his relatives’ smoking corpses.

Writing is different for each of us.

As I said, writing is a bit different for each of us. For me, ‘being a writer’ means turning my thoughts, ideas, emotions, wishes, peeves, hatreds, loves into something shareable. For me, writing is sharing an experience with my reader.

King writes:

"Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning the pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story. I’d argue that it’s impossible to make this sort of connection in a premeditated way, gauging the market like a racetrack tout with a hot tip." (Stephen King, On Writing)

I really like what King says here. Yes, I can't help but be the kind of writer I am. 

In my everyday life certain things make me happy or sad, certain things make me angry, certain things make me laugh like a lunatic. I'm unique, and that this-ness is and should come out in my work. But, at the same time, that doesn't mean I can't improve my writing. Since writing is the communication of thoughts and ideas, there are better and worse ways of expressing them. And we, each of us, can get better.

So! That leads me to: 

Nine things you can do to become a better writer:


1. Read.

Stephen King believes that in order to write one must read.

“You have to read widely, constantly refining (and redefining) your own work as you do so. It’s hard for me to believe that people who read very little (or not at all in some cases) should presume to write and expect people to like what they have written, but I know it’s true. If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but “didn’t have time to read,” I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.

“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read. It’s what I do at night, kicked back in my blue chair. Similarly, I don’t read fiction to study the art of fiction, but simply because I like stories. Yet there is a learning process going on. Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones. (Stephen King, On Writing)


2. Don’t write for anyone but yourself.

Just the other day I was talking to a writer about writing. I do that occasionally, and I always come away looking at the craft a bit differently. 

Sometimes it’s just the realization that not every writer thinks about writing the way I do. Some writers write with the desire to communicate certain thoughts, certain ideas, perhaps even certain emotions to their reader. Other writers write because they are telling themselves a story. If they like the story, good. If other people like the story … Well, great, but that’s not the point. The story will sell or it won’t. Selling is better than not selling but that doesn’t change what they write.

I guess, thinking about it now, I would say that the latter kind of writer -- one who writes what they like and their only concern is the story itself -- is more of an artist than I am. I chew my fingernails and pace the floor when my story is read by others. My first question is a breathless, “What did you think?” But, really, it would be much healthier to just write the story for myself, edit it for the world and then let it go. If readers take to it, great! If they don’t … Well, I should already be working on my next story.


3. Edit for the world.

There are two things here. First, write the first draft for yourself but write the second draft for the world. Second, the first draft will tell you what the story is and what it isn't. On your second draft, take away all those bits that don't belong. (Yes, this is where another bit of King's advice comes in: kill your darlings.) [1]

King writes:

“When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story,” he [John Gould] said. “When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.”

“Gould said something else that was interesting on the day I turned in my first two pieces: write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right—as right as you can, anyway—it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it. If you’re very lucky (this is my idea, not John Gould’s, but I believe he would have subscribed to the notion), more will want to do the former than the latter.” (Stephen King, On Writing)


4. Backstory

“The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Long life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Whenever I think about backstory I think of Aaron Sorkin’s advice:

“A song in a musical works best when a character has to sing—when words won’t do the trick anymore. The same idea applies to a long speech in a play or a movie or on television. You want to force the character out of a conversational pattern.” (Aaron Sorkin, from Aaron Sorkin On How To Write A Gripping Monologue)

You want to only give a reader background information when they want the information. The background information needs not only to be relevant, but you want the reader to be sitting on the edge of their seats eager to know the information.


5. Be brutally honest

“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are things you get ashamed of, because words make them smaller. When they were in your head they were limitless; but when they come out they seem to be no bigger than normal things. But that's not all. The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried; they are clues that could guide your enemies to a prize they would love to steal. It's hard and painful for you to talk about these things ... and then people just look at you strangely. They haven't understood what you've said at all, or why you almost cried while you were saying it.” (Stephen King, The Body)

Writing isn’t easy. It requires bravery. I believe that the very best writing needs honesty the way humans need oxygen. That said, no uncomfortable admissions or confessions are required, just be honest about how things seem to you and try to say them clearly. That’s usually awkward enough.

And if that is accompanied by a bit of poetry, by a bit of style, so much the better.


6. Art is there to enhance our lives, not the other way around.

“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

I love this. The purpose of life isn't to create great art, the purpose of great art is to create a good life. Art enhances life, it helps us understand ourselves as well as others. If we're really lucky art helps us come to grips with this great nebulous thing that we sometimes gesture toward by mumbling about “the human condition.”


7. You will have critics. Ignore them.

“Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job; it’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There’s plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

“I have spent a good many years ...—too many, I think—being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all. I’m not editorializing, just trying to give you the facts as I see them.” (Stephen King, On Writing)

Tell yourself a story, a story that is unique to you, and enjoy yourself. If no one else likes the story, that’s fine. It will happen. Start writing your next story.

Stephen King knows more than I ever will about writing but, for what it’s worth, I’ve found that my best stories were written quickly, in the heat of the moment. Yes, that initial draft was followed by a number of others, but the story itself, the first draft, was written quickly. And I think that’s key. Checking on a date, or the spelling of a name, etc., is important, but it can break the flow and let doubt in. And, who knows, whatever it is you wanted to research may be a detail that is nixed in the next draft.


8. You will fail. Shake it off and keep writing.


If you try your best to succeed at something, anything, one thing is inevitable: failure. The key to living a moderately happy life is not to let the failure paralyse you. Shug, learn what you can from the failure, and move on. If you send a story to a magazine and it isn't bought, if a book you publish sells only the one copy that you bought, accept that and move on.

"Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation. Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sorts of writing as “good” and other sorts as “bad,” is fearful behavior." (Stephen King, On Writing)

"What would be very wrong, I think, is to turn away from what you know and like (or love, the way I loved those old ECs and black-and-white horror flicks) in favor of things you believe will impress your friends, relatives, and writing-circle colleagues. What’s equally wrong is the deliberate turning toward some genre or type of fiction in order to make money. It’s morally wonky, for one thing— the job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies, not to commit intellectual dishonesty in the hunt for the buck. Also, brothers and sisters, it doesn’t work.

"When I’m asked why I decided to write the sort of thing I do write, I always think the question is more revealing than any answer I could possibly give. Wrapped within it, like the chewy stuff in the center of a Tootsie Pop, is the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around. The writer who is serious and committed is incapable of sizing up story material the way an investor might size up various stock offerings, picking out the ones which seem likely to provide a good return. If it could indeed be done that way, every novel published would be a best-seller and the huge advances paid to a dozen or so “big-name writers” would not exist (publishers would like that)." (Stephen King, On Writing)

Don't measure your own success or failure by what other people do. Measure it by where you are today compared to where you used to be.

Above all, don't let fear of failure stop you from doing what you love.


9. The adverb is not your friend.

Stephen King makes no secret of it, he does not approve of adverbs. And for good reason! As he points out:

“Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind. With the passive voice, the writer usually expresses fear of not being taken seriously; it is the voice of little boys wearing shoe polish mustaches and little girls clumping around in Mommy’s high heels. With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

“Consider the sentence He closed the door firmly. It’s by no means a terrible sentence (at least it’s got an active verb going for it), but ask yourself if firmly really has to be there. You can argue that it expresses a degree of difference between He closed the door and He slammed the door, and you’ll get no argument from me … but what about context? What about all the enlightening (not to say emotionally moving) prose which came before He closed the door firmly? Shouldn’t this tell us how he closed the door? And if the foregoing prose does tell us, isn’t firmly an extra word? Isn’t it redundant?” (Stephen King, On Writing)

I’ve thought about this a great deal over the years, more than is decent. And the more I ponder it, the more I agree. No matter how much you would like to be on congenial terms with all parts of speech the truth is clear: adverbs are traitors. It seems they’ll help you express yourself more clearly but they won’t. If I need an adverb to explain things to a reader then I haven’t done it right.

For example:

a) She looked at him, puzzledly. 

b) Squinting at him, she frowned.

I like to see things when I read. “The man walked down the street.” I see this, and in seeing it I understand it. If I squint at someone and frown, there’s something I’m trying to figure out. 

The first sentence, (a), tells us that someone is puzzled and asks us to do the imaginative work. What would happen if we took “puzzledly” away? We would have no idea that she (whoever she happens to be) is puzzled.

Now, I’m completely positive (and, yes, I did that on purpose!) that you will find my own work (as is King’s work) riddled with adverbs. The point is not to excise them from one’s speech, but to make sure they’re not doing the heavy lifting. (And, yes, definitely, this is a “do as I say, not as I do” moment. ;)


That's it!

Thank you for reading! If I have written something that encourages you to write, I will consider this time well spent. I hope you have a wonderful day, and I’ll talk to you again soon. 😀👋

My home on Twitter: @woodwardkaren


Notes:

1. Stephen King on killing one's darlings:

"... it’s all on the table, all up for grabs. Isn’t that an intoxicating thought? I think it is. Try any goddam thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it. Toss it even if you love it. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch once said, “Murder your darlings,” and he was right." (Stephen King, On Writing)

"Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)." (Stephen King, On Writing)

2. I thought this was a good article: 22 lessons from Stephen King on how to be a great writer, by Maggie Zhang.


Saturday, October 3

Free Indirect Discourse: What it is and why you should care


What is Free Indirect Discourse and why should you care?

Do you have a favorite author, one who is able to grab you on the first page, immerse you in their story world and release you only when their tale is over? For me, that author is Stephen King.

That was how I read The Dead Zone, It, Carrie, The Stand and many of King’s other novels. Misery was a bit too much for me -- the scene where fan Annie Wilkes hobbles Paul Sheldon did me in for a while but I couldn’t stay away for long.

My question: How does King do this? How does he immerse readers in his world so quickly and so totally? Here’s what I think: It’s his use of free indirect discourse.

What is Free Indirect Discourse?

Free indirect discourse is a way of presenting a character’s voice in such a way that it is partly mediated by the voice of the author or narrator. Or: It is where the character speaks through the voice of the narrator.

There are two things here. First, free indirect discourse has to do with the way in which the thought is expressed and, second, it also has to do with the narrator’s voice bleeding through. 

Let’s take a look at each of these.

1. No reporting clause.

Let’s look at free indirect discourse by contrasting it with different modes of writing:

Quoted/Direct Speech: The child lay on the mat and asked, “Where’s the cat?”

Reported/Indirect Speech: The child lay on the mat and wondered where the cat was.

Free Indirect Speech: The child lay on the mat. Where was the cat?

As you can see, there is no reporting clause in the last example, we are presented with the thought itself in all its naked glory. (Also, the tense is shifted from the present tense to the past tense.)

2. The narrator’s voice intermingles with that of the character.

Free Indirect Speech blurs the boundaries between the character’s thoughts and the narrator’s report. As a result, the reader feels as though they are being given direct, god-like access to a character’s mind, to their motivations.[2]

As Jen Miller writes in her article, “Teaching Under the Dome”:

“Such a technique provides a very useful shortcut for giving readers the personality of a wide range of characters in a short period of time.”[1]

Free Indirect Discourse in Graham Greene’s Short Story The Basement Room

A friend, RLL, recently introduced me to the work of Graham Greene by way of Greene's short story, The Basement Room. What drew my interest was how quickly Greene immersed me in the story, how quickly I bonded with his characters. In fact, my reaction to this story made me think of my reaction to Stephen King’s work.

Briefly, The Basement Room is about a child of seven who is left on his own for a fortnight with only Mr. and Mrs. Baines -- the butler and his wife -- to mind him. The child, Philip, has been looking forward to the freedom this arrangement will bring. Unfortunately, Philip soon learns that Mrs. Baines is worse than an entire gaggle of nannies. She becomes a jailor and he and Mr. Baines are her prisoners.

It seems to me that Greene uses free indirect discourse to overcome some of the limitations imposed by seeing much of the world through the eyes of a young child.

For example:

Philip took the slice of Dundee cake in his hand and munched it round the room. He felt very old, independent and judicial; he was aware that Baines was talking to him as man to man. He never called him Master Philip as Mrs. Baines did, who was servile when she was not authoritative.

Baines had seen the world; he had seen beyond the railings. He sat there over his ginger pop with the resigned dignity of an exile; Baines didn't complain; he had chosen his fate, and if his fate was Mrs. Baines he had only himself to blame. (Graham Greene, The Basement Room)

Here it seems to me that we’re not just getting Philip’s thoughts, we’re getting the narrator's -- and possibly the author’s -- as well. Philip’s thoughts seem to be viewed through the lens of a more mature mind. 

Here it seems that Greene has deliberately run his character’s thoughts, Philip’s thoughts, together with the narrator’s report in such a way that it is difficult to tell which it is. As a result, we get a more intimate peek inside of both Mr. Baines and Philip.

Free Indirect Discourse & Stephen King

Let’s look at another example, this time from The Shining by Stephen King.

Jack Torrance thought: Officious little [so-and-so].

Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.

As he listened to Ullman speak, Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk- under the circumstances.

Ullman had asked a question he hadn’t caught. That was bad; Ullman was the type of man who would file such lapses away in a mental Rolodex for later consideration. (Stephen King, The Shining)

At the end of the second paragraph we get this sentence: “There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.” This is obviously Jack Torrance’s thought filtered through the report of the narrator and, because of this, it tells us quite a bit about Jack Torrance and gives us a sense of intimacy with the character.

Here’s another example from the same book:

"Your daddy may not be back until suppertime, doc. It’s a long drive up into those mountains."

"Do you think the bug will break down?"

"No, I don’t think so." But he had just given her something new to worry about. Thanks, Danny. I needed that.

The last sentence seems to be a direct report of the character’s thoughts without a reporting clause. As a result, it has an immediacy, an intimacy, it would otherwise lack. We are, essentially, getting a first person report but with all the flexibility that writing in the third person provides.

Free Indirect Discourse in More Recent Work

I peeked at the books at the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list. Most of them had been written in the first person, but there was one, “Total Power” by Kyle Mills, that began like this:

A light mist condensed on Sonya Vance’s windshield, turning the forested mountains around her into smears of green. Clouds had formed beneath the bridge she was driving across, dense enough that it looked like they would catch her if she jumped. 

Tempting.

"Tempting" -- the sole word in the last paragraph -- is an example of the character’s thought merging with the narrator’s voice and, in so doing, it reveals to us Sonya’s mental state. Precarious. 

Tips For Using Free Indirect Discourse in Your Own Work

1. Third Person Perspective

In order for a character’s thoughts to merge with the narrator’s you -- of course! -- need a third person narrator. But you can use either a limited third person or omniscient viewpoint. Of course an omniscient viewpoint, while it gives you the greatest flexibility, also gives you the most rope to hang yourself! 

2. Season to taste

I’ve been scouring my favorite books looking for examples of free indirect voice. It seems authors use it to heighten intimacy with a character who might otherwise not be as transparent (for example, a young child or someone with an unusual viewpoint) or someone unpleasant like Jack Torrance in the Shining. 

Also, if you are using a limited third person viewpoint and your character is on the verge of becoming unconscious, using free indirect voice might help add intimacy and richness of detail.

Do you use free indirect discourse? What do you think of the technique? 

Notes:

1. Teaching under the Dome: Life in a Small Town, Characters, and Narrative Point of View, Site: Fantasy Matters

2. Baktin talks about heteroglossia which is the “presence of two or more voices or suppressed viewpoints in a text or artistic work.”

Bakhtin argues that the power of the novel originates in the coexistence of, and conflict between, different types of speech: the speech of characters, the speech of narrators, and even the speech of the author. He defines heteroglossia as "another's speech in another's language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way" (1934). (Wikipedia, Heteroglossia)