Thursday, September 28, 2006

Just Not Getting It - And Writing Craft

Dear Dead Beat,

I may have a problem, but I'm not sure. I enjoy reading stories that say a lot in very few words, and often leave things out purposely in order to engage the reader's imagination. I like my reading to challenge me as well as entertain, and I try to write stories in the same way. This often translates into cutting. It's common for a 3000 word draft to finish at 1200 words by the time I'm ready to publish. What may or may not be a problem is that some people who read my stories don't understand what happened. Of course, some people do understand, but not as many people as might have if the story had stayed around 3000 words. A lot of writing instructors I've studied with are quick to slap my hand when I say some readers just don't get the story and remind me that it's not the reader's responsibility to bring clarity to a story, but mine. When does this become a concern for the writer? Should one purposely craft their stories to satisfy the larger audience? Or will some readers just not get it and that's okay?

Dear Unsure,
The slapping of hands by writing instructors is to be encouraged. Indeed Dead Beat has been known to advocate the hang, drawing and quartering - and the cutting out of tongues of certain writing students (see Writers’ Workshops - Greasy Bob’s Damage Control). In your case I am prepared to put such punishment on hold.

It all comes down to the intent of the writer and their work. If things are left out purposely “to engage the reader’s imagination”, then the intention is for the left out things to have some real purpose. So far, so good. But this raises a number of questions: What “things” are being left out?, what aspect(s) of the writing process/of the story form is(are) being left out?; Does this ‘leaving out’ truly engage the reader’s imagination?; What is the purpose of ‘engaging the reader’s imagination?; is the reader’s imagination not already being engaged?… and so on. I will come back to this, but for now let us move on.

“It's common for a 3000 word draft to finish at 1200 words by the time I'm ready to publish.”

This is common for many writers. Dead Beat is not being flippant or smart. Many stories need substantial editing and are reduced in size. However, the editing is for many formal reasons. So once again it comes back to what you are editing out.

“What may or may not be a problem is that some people who read my stories don't understand what happened. Of course, some people do understand, but not as many people as might have if the story had stayed around 3000 words.”
Here it depends on what is meant by “what happened”. Happenings, events, generally apply to plot, but it could be thematic. If plot, I appreciate the necessity of ‘mystery’ to pull readers along, but there is a balance to the necessary detailing of situation.

As for “Of course some people do understand…” this ties in with “some readers just don't get the story”. This may even be the crux of the matter.

Dead Beat says this in a non-jaded way, “he has been here so many times”. Indeed he has struggled with this very situation himself and continues to do so.
“At what point is my ‘vision’ correct and those who can’t see it my way because they are blinkered are incorrect? Or at what point am I ‘wrong’ because formally I am not executing my vision for others to see it?”

Here’s the thing - very many writers justify and defend their writing based on their vision - “If you don’t get it, that’s your problem not mine.” When in reality they have been sloppy about rewriting, sloppy about truly figuring out how to formally make their vision work. When Picasso and Braques engaged in Cubism, they had to figure out light and shadow all over again. They had to look at the formal elements of painting and see how they could make it work to paint what they wanted to paint. The “many writers” that justify and defend their writing, in my experience, have not gone to this trouble. Very often it is an excuse they cannot see through.

So Dead Beat puts himself on the line - “No easy answers, Mr Dead Beat, defend your position using strong literary or writing process argument.”

What I am getting at is that writers should not “purposely craft their stories to satisfy the larger audience” - (we would have no Joyces, Faulkners etc then) - but they were no slouches - they understood their craft. However, we must not allow sloppy writing to be excused as “just not getting it”.

I have no way of knowing which it is here. Deep down you do, and please, please, for the sake of your writing do not be defensive. Truly explore your reasons and how you technically approach them.

There are many ways to ‘engage the writer’s imagination’, have I chosen the most suitable one? Am I justified in losing those who feel something is missing? Indeed, is it missing?

Hah! - Dead Beat sighs in exasperation since he needs to hear your responses.

Let me make an offer, send me along a sample of your work. Send me the long version and the shorter edited one so I can view your process. There are many poor writing instructors out there who want you to write like them or like some prescribed notion they have read in a book. Dead Beat ain’t one of those. There are formal elements we cannot deny, but we can appreciate them while understanding the intent of the individual writer (see Writer’s Workshops - or How Do We Cope With Gerry?).

Seeing the work would help greatly (send to: Shh! Don’t tell anyone else that address.

The short and simple advice on problems of this nature is to err on the side of caution - instead of defending our stance, we should approach it from the perspective that technically we may be wrong.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

This Particular Death - The Difference Between Story and Plot

Dear Dead Beat,

You talk about the difference between story and plot. What is this difference?


Dear Undecided,

This is a great question and Dead Beat has a great answer. Story is the chronological sequence of events that take place. Plot is the causal and logical structure which connects events.

To paraphrase E.M. Forster: The king died and then the queen died (story).The king died and then the queen died of grief (plot).

But here this (quote from Diegesis - The Extent of Story: "Now here’s the sucker punch: story refers to all the audience infers about the events that occur in the diegesis on the basis of what they are shown by the plot. Story is always more extensive than plot."

It is logical for the queen to die of grief, but the important fact is that she died - the story revolves around that - grief is our excuse for this particular death.

But let us focus on story - the fact she died.

Questions for Dear Dead Beat should be submitted through the Comment section

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Writing With A Blindfold On - What You Want To Write About

Dear Dead Beat,

How does a writer know when he is writing about what he wants to write about and not what he thinks he wants to write about?

Dear Write About,

Dead Beat believes that a writer should go into their work blindfolded. Go into the dark and discover a source of light. Too many writers shine the light on one spot and write about that. It is usually a spot of comfort( see Swashbuckling). A spot they know only too well, and almost certainly a spot they do not need to write about. Writing is an act of exploration where we find out things we did not already know, where we reveal things previously hidden away. If we go in knowing what it is we want to write about, we are liable to end up with opinionated works. Writers’ opinions are dubious at best.

Dead Beat places a lot of trust in the unconscious processes. What you think you want to write about is usually a conscious thought and less interesting. Begin with that if you must, but as you write your initial draft take chances, go down roads you would normally avoid, meet people you would prefer not to talk to. Make the journey and then see what you have got. Find out what interests you now about your piece of writing and begin again from that perspective.

Dead Beat remembers John Keeble talking about Charles Johnson visiting EWU. Keeble mentioned that he would like some day to write about the Aryan Nations who had a heavy presence in Washington State. Johnson told him that if he ever did he had to promise to write from the point of view of the Aryan Nations people.

Writers must take risks. They must leave their opinions and viewpoints behind. The writing that results will reveal what it is you really want to write about, or more to the point, it will reveal what it is you ought to be writing about.

Leave any questions for Dear Dead Beat in the Comments section

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Finishing the Unfinishable - How Do You Know When It's Done?

Dear Dead Beat,
I seem to never be satisfied with my writing. I edit and rewrite and then I do it again and again and again. It never ends. I have written so many stories over the past decade. But even when I submit them for publication, even when they are published, I never feel that they're finished. I continue to work on them. Is this just the way of writers? How do you know when it's done?

Dear Dissatisfied,
Two questions and one long answer.

No, this is not the way of writers, or to put it more correctly, this is not the way of all writers. Some are like yourself, unsure when the work is complete, others cross the t’s and dot the i’s with absolute certainty. The latter are usually suffering from delusion.

You are right, “it never ends”. (See The Perfection of the Circle and related posts in Dead Beat). It is an infinite process. We seek the ‘perfect’ short story just as we would seek to reach where the infinite ends.

However if we were to pursue this notion, we would only write one story in our lifetime and it would never be finished (come to think of it, is that not what we do anyway?).

So rewriting and dissatisfaction can be very useful things. Rewriting is the crux. The pre-writing and writing stages are where the writer is seeking to find out what story it is he or she is telling. It is in the rewriting that the story can be told.

It comes down to the basic question concerning story - What is the story?

As an instructor and mentor in writing I can honestly say that most writers I encounter do not know the answer to this - even when the story is apparently ‘finished‘. And Dead Beat believes this is why so many other writers have a hard time ‘finishing’ a story. They simply do not know what story it is they are writing. Oh, they think they know. They certainly know the story they intended to write. But writing does not work like that. If we knew the story to begin with, what could we possibly learn?

So we have to probe our drafts and ask, what is the story? This is as concrete as it is abstract. By this I mean it will touch on elements of theme (abstract) but also narrative ones (concrete). Thus the story is not just the plot and it is not just the underlying theme.

Here, let Dead Beat get personal. In my novel The Eskimo in the Net, I would say the story is that Jim Gallagher pulls up an unknown corpse in his fishing nets. His search to find out who the dead man is mirrors his search to comprehend his own life living in a small remote fishing village. We have the concrete narrative details and the abstract theme.

The abstract theme is what interests me most as a writer, but in order to explore it I have to use the concrete narrative. His physical search mirrors his mental one. I am obliged therefore to plot out a physical investigation.

This is the single most important part. Here I am at the highest hierarchical level of fiction writing. Once I know what I am seeking to achieve I can look at all the other elements of fiction and work my way down to the lowest level - dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. Many people do not work their way back down. They start rewriting somewhere in the middle of the process and are doomed to failure. A semi-good piece may result, but it will be incoherent as regards its meaning.

I don’t really have time to go into the various levels in this response, but we need to know this hierarchy, so that we work our way through it. Even then we have to ask ourselves if we have now allowed the ‘story’ that emerged to be told as completely as we can.

I f we are designing a building, we do not start with the individual bricks and start throwing them together. We start with the over all design and work our way through all of the necessary components.

I am not saying that this is why you feel your work is unfinished, but it might be.
Many published pieces are unfinished. Too many in fact.

However, once we have considered the big picture and have worked our way through the other elements, and have gone back through successive rewrites, there will come a time when we can say that the writing is ’close’ to the ’story’ we wanted. And we may have to leave it there. But at least we know that the real story has emerged and has not been submerged by a poor writing process.

This is a big subject - feel free to contact Dead Beat through the Comments section to help clarify any section.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Theme - The Worst Thing You Can Do

Dear Dead Beat,
I love writing poetry and short stories, but quite frankly I am not sure I really understand ‘theme’. It seems obvious, yet sometimes I have no idea what I am writing about.

Dear Clueless,
Dead Beat would not have it any other way. People who ‘know’ what they are writing about usually write in a superficial and often pedantic way. Thus they leave themselves little room for exploration.

That’s not to say, that theme can be ignored, absolutely not. But in the early stages of our writing, the initial drafts we are discovering what the theme will be. The mistake is in imposing theme upon a story rather than allowing it to emerge from within. Look at your drafts and think about them. What interests you in the story or poem? Maybe a single image, a line, a character, an action, maybe something larger. Think about your interest. Why is it interesting? What associations does it have for you, or could it have for your readers? Play with it, tease it out, see if it is going to lead anywhere.

In other words, look at your draft, think about what it could mean and rewrite pursuing this idea. The repeat the process - now what interests you? Has it altered. You stick with it until you feel you have a grasp of the theme that is emerging and then you construct the remainder of your rewrites to build upon this.

Dead Beat remembers taking a workshop from Rick Bass (Homework from D.B. for tonight - check Rick’s work out). Bass is quite the environmentalist. However someone said they had a really big issue they wanted to write about and wondered the best approach. Bass told them never to write about their issues. “What’s the worst thing you could do about an issue you care about? Write a bad story about it.”

Important issues will eventually emerge from within the story not from without.

Please leave questions for Dead Beat in the Comments Section.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Funny Place to Find A Door - Grammar and Punctuation

Dear Dead Beat,

how important is punctuation and grammar?


Dear Worried,

the only reason for punctuation and grammar is to avoid confusion in understanding language. However, it has taken on more elitist functions over the years. Points of grammar etc...

Forget it all. It is the least important aspect of writing. Even for English Composition or Composition of any language - I taught it for many years. Punctuation and grammar come at the end to make sure that the ideas you are expressing are not confusing by poorly placed commas etc

Trivial stuff - I heard the bell ring when I was still in bed, and I answered the door in my pyjamas. A funny place to find a door.

Mirrors and Frogs - Images and Symbols

Dear Dead Beat,

what is the difference between an image and a symbol?


Dear Embarassed,

rechristen yourself - call yourself Brave or Willing to Learn.

Actually it is a huge question, but Dead Beat thinks the answer is simple -
a symbol is an image that gets repeated. Therefore a mirror is an image. Repeat it however and the image takes on great meaning or we read more into it and it becomes symbolic.

If I write a poem and mention a frog it is an image - if I repeatedly write about the frog it takes on more meaning - a symbol.

Next question, by the way - what is an image?

Ask Dead Beat through the Comments Section

Monday, September 11, 2006

Sentimentality and Emotional Effect

Dear Dead Beat,
Someone recently described a piece of my writing as sentimental. What do you think was meant by this?

Dear Sentimental Enquirer,

Dead Beat has no idea what this person meant. If you haven’t already asked him or her, I would, just to see if they can articulate what was really meant. Many people use language inappropriately which can cause great confusions when critiquing work. Always ask people to explain the terms they use.

Used correctly, sentimentality implies that the writer has tried to achieve some emotional effect without providing any reason why this effect is warranted e.g. if the writer tries to make the reader sad about some situation a character is in in a melodramatic way - “This poor innocent woman’s child was about to die” - then sentimentality will result. The character needs to be built up and the situation revealed in detail that we will understand without being told the great sadness being undergone.

The events and the details reveal the emotion. It is not the writer’s business to tell us how to feel.

So take a look at your work. It is easy to fall into sentimentality. Strike out any melodrama and give the reader solid description instead.

Send Dead Beat any writing queries through the Comment section.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Grinding the Java - Writer's Block

Dear Dead Beat,
I suffer often from writer’s block. What can be done, if anything?

Dear Desperate,
There’s no such thing. Writer’s block does not exist.

At it’s worst it is an excuse for being lazy, at best a necessary part of the writing process.

That’s the good news.

What has become known as ‘writer’s block’ is usually one of two things: 1) Poor set-up; 2)A necessary subconscious part of the writing process.

Poor set-up simply means not allowing yourself get into the right frame of mind to write. Perhaps there are too many distractions or simply poor discipline at play. ‘Writer’s block’ begets ‘writer’s block’. We can easily set ourselves up for it, repeat whatever caused it the time before. So create a good writing environment and a good writing discipline. It helps to write at the same time and in the same place. We get used to it. It becomes a ‘writing’ environment. A good writing environment begets a good writing environment. So have regular writing periods and stick to them as best as you can. No slipping off for endless cups of coffee, or checking your emails. Once the pattern is created we go in with a better set-up. The set-up to write. If you are stuck in the beginning, write anything down (words beget words). Write about how stuck you are, but stick with it. Day after day. Discipline is everything.

Now as for the ‘block’ being a part of the process. Sometimes in writing we need to let things shift around in the unconscious mind a while. We have all sorts of writing skills and strategies at play in our mind that we know little about (old Dead Beat has studied this quite a bit, the unconscious processes using the NLP -Neuro Linguistic Programming method - the what Dead Beat? - Never mind!) Anyway trust the unconscious to do its part. But stay at the page. No slipping away - “oh well the good old unconscious will figure it out while I grind the java” - no you must stay with it, and it will all spill out (no, not the coffee).

However watch out that you do not confuse this unconscious process with poor discipline and poor set-up attitude.

No excuses, remember.

Forward any questions to Dead Beat through the comment section.

Plot and the Art of Swashbuckling

Dear Dead Beat,
I tend to map out my plot in advance. Other writer’s I know begin without such an outline? Which do you think is the best approach?

Dear Cartographer,
There is no right or wrong. Both paths are fraught with dangers. Dead Beat himself, being a bit of a swashbuckler, likes to dive on in unaided by charts.
Here’s my thinking. If we plot out the story too much in advance, it leaves little room for exploration. And without exploration, there can be no discovery. And this is what we are after.

If we head in with the germ of an idea, then we will be faced with many different paths to choose from. We may even have to cut a few of our own. We may get lost and never find our way out. But good explorers take note of their surroundings, create maps as they move along.

Either method is good as long as we keep these thoughts in mind. Be willing to change from the outline you began with. When some interesting road appears, travel down it a ways and see where it leads to. Be brave in the dark.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Ambi Valence

Dear Dead Beat,

I have listened to writers, editors and teachers. At times they contradict each other and if you listen to some long enough they contradict themselves. I only write about what I want to write about. If it were any other way, where would the passion come from?

Dear Acute Listener,

you are absolutely right. Good writers, good editors and good teachers contradict themselves. It is those who don't you need to worry about. Remember ambilance - ambi valence both truths. That is what we are seeking in great writing.

Again you are correct to write about what you want to write about but seek out the truths in it. Not opinions, not facts, but truths. And if the passion does not come from that, well where else?
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