The Writing Paradigm

Ponderous title, no?

The paradigm of writing has been one of my discoveries, the kind that slaps you upside the head and then laughs at you when you look back over your benighted stumble toward understanding and realize that it was always there, obvious. You were just too dense to see it.

ParadigmWebster’s defines paradigm as “a framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of a scientific community.” The OED weighs in less ponderously than one might have expected, “A worldview underlying the theories and methodology of a particular scientific subject.”

I should have reflected on the definition. Strike the ‘scientific’ and you realize that paradigms are ubiquitous: everything from religion to sandwich-making at Subway has its paradigm. And, as I realized over time, I was light on the ‘methodology’ part of the writing paradigm.

When I began, I thought writing was made up of story-telling and mechanics. I quickly learned (i.e., was corrected) that what I called story-telling is Voice, a somewhat mystical characteristic. Part in-born talent, part life experience, the experts intoned. Not something one can learn by rote. Asked for more specifics, the experts universally mumble something about it having to do with the wealth on one’s life experience and … read a lot. I kind of get it.

I had a rock-solid control of grammar and vocabulary (or so I thought). English major, you know. I had read a lot. Couldn’t do much to influence that ineffable quality called Voice. So what more did I need?

Well, a lot. I’ll call it Technique, the methodology of writing. It is the part I’m learning from other writers. It’s the not-so-obvious superstructure of the story that allows the reader to follow comfortably, the choice of point of view and tense, the way characters and time sequences are introduced. Thankfully, this is stuff one can learn.

It does make it hard, though, to do a rewrite on one’s magnum opus and realize just how much one has to learn. Always the optimist, I look forward to the next epiphany.

Art, Wisdom, and the Comics

Sally ForthI must admit that I glance at the front page of the paper, scan the news of the day and go to the comics page for wisdom.

So, here you have it.  We writers often miss this truth, vainly trying to lock the reader into our own special vision.

(from http://www.sallyforth.com)

Stop Saying “I Feel Like”

One of the many challenges I face as a beginning writer (I can still claim novice status, particularly when making novice mistakes) is the issue of how temporal to be. “Temporal” often means “temporary.” Who knows how long LOL or awesome will last? And, do you really want to date your writing? Then there’s the more complex issue … vocabulary and usage reflect a character’s expressed personality, which is a function of the time and place. “Cool, daddy-o” doesn’t work in a piece set in the 1890’s. Certainly, leave out y’know, like and other limping conjunctions and fillers that are common in conversation … except maybe occasionally, as linguistic spice.  That part I got.

Less obvious is the subtle change discussed in a New York Times opinion piece,“Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’ ” by Molly Worthen. She notes, “imperfect data that linguists have collected indicates (sic) that ‘I feel like’ became more common toward the end of the last century. In North American English, it seems to have become a synonym for ‘I think’ or ‘I believe’ only in the last decade or so. Languages constantly evolve … But make no mistake: ‘I feel like’ is not a harmless tic. George Orwell put the point simply: ‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.’ The phrase says a great deal about our muddled ideas about reason, emotion and argument.”

So, possibly irritating phrases (such as) “I feel like” don’t get expunged because the help define the characters inner self?  The next big question:  “I feel like” is like fingernails on a blackboard to me, but does it describe a character’s state of mind to my reader?  Am I justifying not including it because I am, after all, an English major living on a higher plane of language?  Is that higher plane really an affectation?

No more questions.  Start, like, writing!

 

 

Writing and sculpture

Wood sculptor

Roughing out

My father was a sculptor in wood.  I remember him saying, “The wood has a story.  It’s my job to let it out.”  I was six or seven, but those words have stuck with me.

I have been working with a fine editor (see Kopp Editing Services) on the first part of my second novel.  As I was hacking away at the prose, chopping a sentence here, a participle there, I saw my father working.  His chisel was at first roughing out the block, revealing the grain and density, finding the story.  Maybe because all writers are suckers for metaphor, I realized as I read through the margin notes and suggestions, the first draft is that roughing out.  Rewrite teases out the shape, and editing provides the fine adjustments my father made to his sculpture with the gouges, skews and v-groove chisels that gave the the piece character.

There is something to be said for that metaphor.  When I began my first novel, I thought I would write a draft, then line edit.  (After all, I’m a good writer, I thought.  Got B’s in college from the writing teacher who was reputed to believe, “A is for God, B is for me, and C+ is for the best of the rest of you.”)

Pelican Sculpture

My father saw a pelican in this piece of wood

That first time, I got the same result a woodworker would have gotten by jumping to fine detail before the roughing out was finished.  Now, on the second novel, after more experience and the help of three critique groups, I believe it’s time to take out the gouges and skews.  So I sent the third pass off to my editor.

Writing Dialect, Writing Sex

As an ardent student of the craft of writing, I keep getting these blasts of insight from what other people do. Which brings me to a taxi ride to the airport in New York years ago.

There I was, on the way to LaGuardia. Back then, driving cab was often the province of all sorts of artists. My driver, an articulate middle-aged black man, began to talk about the more salacious aspects of life as a cabbie. It turned out that the monolog was an extended sales pitch for his self-published book. He had a stack of copies on the front seat. Fascinated by a gifted storyteller, I bought a copy.

At home, I read it … most of it. The sex scenes were graphic (the lady who asked him into her apartment while she searched for money, then gave him a particularly enjoyable tip … and the contortionist in the front seat). But the book was, well, boring. The stories themselves did not quite justify the difficulty of reading them. On reflection, the writer confronted two difficult challenges at the same time: Writing dialect and writing about sex.

The great majority of the copy was written in New York Harlem dialect. The old adage, “We all sound stupid when we’re talking” is true and demands careful balancing of authenticity without the pauses, repetitions, y’knows we all are prone to. That’s doubly true when one is writing dialect. Faulkner is a great writer few people read because his prose is so buried in dialect. Flannery O’Conner does better. My taxi driver, no doubt striving for authenticity, flopped.

Then there’s sex. With apologies to the heaving bosoms and rippling muscles that are Romance Novelmandatory in certain sub-genres of Romance, sex is hard to write. My taxi driver went for authenticity and detail, reminding his readers that describing the purely physical aspects of sex is like trying to explain how a Rube Goldberg machine works (with lubricity). A member of one of my writing groups did a much better job with a very few words of free verse, reminding us that the suggestion of ecstasy paints a picture in the reader’s mind that’s much better than a step-by-step, groan-by-turgid-groan recitation.

I never did finish that cab driver’s book, but now, all these years later, it taught me a great lesson.

Putting an Edge on Writing

My wife, Beverly, can’t stand the sound of knives being sharpened. Clever person thKnife sharpenerat she is, she gave me a professional knife sharpener several years ago. It’s big and electric, so she has plenty of warning when the urge to sharpen takes me.  The device has three sharpening positions. The first one comes with a special cover and dire warnings that it should be used only with very dull and distressed knives. The second grinding stone is where the basic business of sharpening gets done. The final position is not a stone, but an emery cloth that polishes the edge.

The sharpening process is similar to rewriting, at least for me. That first, most dangerous stone is for very dull writing, the kind that should be thrown out entirely. In my case, the second stone is my writing groups, where help from others grinds away some words, sharpens dialog and puts an edge on plot (sorry, I couldn’t resist). The final polish is copy editing to make the work shine (ditto).

Okay, it’s a bit labored as a metaphor, but it works for me.

The Difficulty of Simplicity

I keep running into the oh-so-true bits that slap me upside the head:

A comment from Benjamin Moser (New York Times Book Review):  “Today, I realize that clear expression can come only from clear thinking. And I know how hard it is to write something that is easy to read.”

A comment from Tim Mahoney (tpmahoney.com), who has a couple of great books set in the days of Prohibition, back before St. Paul, Minnesota had discovered “Minnesota Nice,” in last night’s critique group:  “watch out for the word ‘because.’  What follows it is almost always an explanation. If you need an explanation, you’ve often not done a good enough job of creating the scene or the emotion.”

Two Books

I am fortunate to be in writing groups with some great writers.  Two of them have published books recently.

If the Dead Could Speak, by Tim Mahoney.  (Goodreads, Amazon)

Great noir mystery set in St. Paul Minnesota before Minnesota Nice was in style.  If you like historical fiction, you’ll like this.  Fast-paced Mystery? Ditto.  Lovable losers nicely drawn? Ditto.  Aw, heck.  Give it a read.  Tim is an editor by trade and a fine writer.

Fifty Shades of Prey, by John Sandfraud (?) (Goodreads, Amazon)

It’s a long short story … almost novella.  It’s got fifty shades of gray (without the lubricious details).  It’s got John Sandford plot and character development (if that’s the word).  What’s more to want?  Sandfraud, who chooses to remain anonymous, is a fine writer who gives you witty, acerbic asides and fast pacing.  If you’re a Sandford lover (the prey series, Lucas Davenport), you’ll get a lot of chuckles; if you don’t like Sandford, guffaws. If you’re a guy, you’ll squirm as you read about your Inner Matron; if you’re a gal … well, what do I know? I’m still tied in knots (laughter AND agony) by the Inner Matron.

I happen to know the fraudster has at least two good novels stored away waiting for a perspicacious agent.

Big Words

Last week, I had one of those epiphanies that come when seemingly unrelated events collide and produce insight.  In my case, three events gave me perspective my habit of (proudly) using big words.

The first was wife Beverly chuckling over a John Grisham short story, Fetching Raymond. It’s a wonderfully written story in its own right, relying on big words for humor (and, in the end, sadness).

The story centers on Raymond, a sorry soul on Death Row at Parchman Farm in Mississippi.Parchman Farm  The family fetching him is uneducated, but Raymond has spent ten years with a dictionary, so he lards his frequent letters home with the impressive vocabulary he’s acquired.  On the way to Parchman, the family contemplates one of his letters explaining why yet another lawyer is coming to his defense:

“Not surprisingly, a lawyer of such exquisite and superlative yes even singular proficiencies and dexterities cannot labor and effectively advocate on my behalf without appropriate recompense.

“What’s recompense?” she (Inez, his mother) asked. “Spell it,” Butch said. She spelled it slowly, and the three pondered the word. This exercise in language skills had become as routine as talking about the weather. “How’s it used?” Butch asked, so she read the sentence. “Money,” Butch said, and Leon quickly agreed. Raymond’s mysterious words often had something to do with money. “Let me guess. He’s got a new lawyer and needs some extra money to pay him.”  Grisham, John (2013-06-17). Fetching Raymond: A Story from the Ford County Collection. Random House Publishing Group. 

Okay, so that exquisite bit of humor built on ponderous writing tweaked me.  Surely, not my vocabulary, though.  Right?  My wife just smiled, which brought on the next act of realization: a vision of sitting long ago in my college writing professor’s office.  He had asked what I was trying to say in a particularly tortured passage.  I explained in much plainer English.  He looked up from the paper, puffed his pipe and said, “Why don’t you just say it that way?”

The last event came at a meeting of a writing group.  Tim, a fine writer, editor by day and thus person one listens to carefully, read out these lines from my work-in-progress, Skins and Bone:

It had started as a simple statement that as a good trader, he was simply trying to do the best for his company. Over a couple of days, it had morphed into a full-fledged tragic exposition. In Ross’s perfervid imagining, the judge would surely understand how Ross’s desire to do good had been taken advantage of by dishonest, ungrateful people.

“Perfervid,” he said.  “Great word, but it drags the reader away from the character who’s speaking and reminds us there’s a narrator.  You don’t want to do that.”  But I love the word, a marvelous conflation by my cousin, Gamble, a consummate story-teller.  You won’t find it in the dictionary, but it has a pretty clear meaning. However, Tim’s right — it’s showing off, and it weakens the passage.

I need to think simple language, or at least not orotund (oops!).

Soar like an eagle, but don’t forget typography

I have an exasperating problem. Here I am writing (rewriting, actually) an exciting novel, capturing great thoughts, basting it in the oral tradition, riding high. Except the quote marks keep coming out wrong.

There are two kinds of quote marks: straight up and down (like a typewriter) and curly. As the Chicago Manual of Style notes, straight up and down quote marks are ONLY for legal documents and philosophical treatises. I learned the difference right quick when my first edited piece came back marked up because my much-loved Scrivener software seemed to have salted my Times New Roman with straight quotes.Typography

I won’t bore you with the details, but after about four hours and several pounds of expletives later, I know the source of the problem, and I think I know the solution. The reason is I found a wonderful site covering many aspects of the appearance of a printed work. The site is Butterick’s Practical Typography.

When your protagonist’s voice is clear and consistent, when the metaphors and similes draw gasps of appreciation from your writing group, when you have taken out the grammatical gaffes and turgid prose, then you need to resort to Butterick’s.  Before you get shredded by your editor.