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.

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