On Writing: Voice and Theme

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To gain your own voice, you have to forget about having it heard. —Allen Ginsberg, WD

 

Some amateur writers launch into writing with a purpose, the determination to be heard by sharing their knowledge with the world and hoping to impart their ‘wisdom’ through their works. This might be fine when writing non-fiction, although it could border on preaching. As a writer, you might sometimes feel you are full of ideas that you need to share and want to share, so you try to cram everything you have to say about just about every topic under the sun into your writing. This results in several problems, the first being that the writer’s personality projects onto everything written and the whole tone of the work, including the characters, take on the writer’s personality. This eventually becomes boring and leads to bad writing because there is no distinction between characters, nor between the characters and the narrator, nor the works and the author, especially if the author has more than one work. One of the most difficult things to do, as a writer, is to achieve distance between you and your work, so that your work becomes an entity that is not you, the writer. One way to solve this problem is to learn to focus. Each piece of writing you create should focus on a single theme if it is a short piece, or a very limited selection of related themes for longer pieces. The less themes you include in your work, the more focused it becomes; limiting yourself to one theme automatically gives your work unity of theme. Many times, in fact, it is better to write a work of fiction without thinking of a theme first, because the actions and choices of your characters will carry the theme and neither you, as a writer, nor your narrator, will need to worry about sending any message at all. In many great works, the protagonist often personifies the theme or message the author wants to convey, and it is the protagonist whose words, actions, and thoughts say whatever it is the author wants said. The ability to do that creates a voice, the author does not need to explain any further.

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On Writing: Should you talk about your writing?

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I think it’s bad to talk about one’s present work, for it spoils something at the root of the creative act. It discharges the tension.  ~Norman Mailer

It’s called suspense. When you have a big secret and want it to be a surprise, the tension grows and everyone becomes more excited about what’s coming. Sometimes, I feel the same way about writing. I won’t say what I’m working on at the moment because I like running it through my mind over and over again, usually completing the work in my head before I even write anything down. For one thing, it makes the writing a lot easier, because then, the ideas just keep tumbling out. I’ve also tried writing from kernels or what seemed like a good idea, but did not let that foment in my mind at all, and to this day, they’re still just that—kernels. Well, maybe a few popped kernels, but not enough to complete a story. Maybe it’s superstition, too. Maybe some of us writers don’t want to jinx the work. If you’re all excited about what you’re writing and start telling everyone about it, your work might not turn out as good as you hoped or expected. Then, it becomes a big disappointment to everyone. I don’t like disappointing people, so I’d rather not tell until it’s there and ready to show. Maybe when my works are more widespread and well-known, and I’ve established myself as a great writer, then I’ll start talking about works in progress more. Yeah, okay, I do that a wee bit with very select people—okay, one person—but that’s also because I do have that lack of confidence and insecurity about my writing. I still can’t imagine my writing is good enough to put out there, but if I won a national competition, then I guess there’s something good about it. Still and all, I think I need to keep on practicing and improving on my work because I don’t feel it’s “up there” with my most admired works. Does any writer ever get over these insecurities? On the other hand, I have come across several writer-hopefuls who are confident that they’ve got a great story and write it and when I read it or, heaven help me, have to edit it, I find the most atrocious grammar and spelling, terrible sentences, poorly constructed characters, and a story line that’s either all muddled or going nowhere. Maybe I’m just too self-critical, and too critical of other works, as well, but I still believe in certain minimum standards in writing, and bad sentences, poor spelling, and highly detailed graphical descriptions of insignificant events make for poor writing. The only suspense there is in that kind of writing is when it will ever end!

3 Basic Plot Types

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Many critics subscribe to the idea that there is no original idea or thought anymore, hence, nothing completely original that anyone can write about. Themes or plots? There are books and lists discussing every possible plot there ever was for a story. Depending on who you want to follow or believe in, you can classify every story or plot as one of three, nine, thirteen, twenty, or thirty-six plots. In the years I have studied and taught literature, I find that all plots can be reduced to three very basic plots, which my senior high school literature teacher introduced to me, and which I later encountered again while taking my Masters in literature. I find that all other plots are simply variations or elaborations of these three plots, based on the actions of the protagonist. For my teaching, I have decided to modify them slightly to suit my personality and preferences:

  • Running Man
  • Standing Man
  • Trapped Man

Consider every possible motivation, action, reaction, and consequence you can think of putting into a story and you will find that your plot will always be one of these three. The RUNNING MAN plot is all about a person running towards something or away from something. It’s the classic action-adventure plot and, understandably, the most exciting. You should write with this plot if you want to keep your readers at the edge of their seats. The STANDING MAN plot is all about a person who hasn’t decided what to do and needs to make a decision. It’s the type of plot for anything cerebral or introspective. If you want to focus on a character’s thoughts, personal development, and reactions to external influences and use up your whole story waiting for that character to make a decision, this is your plot type. Remember that from a standing position, your character can sit, lie down, fall down, or remain standing, all of which symbolize defeat, regression, or retreat. On the other hand, your character can decide to move from his spot, either walking or running. If this happens early in your story, then your plot is really the running man. If this happens only at the end of the story, then your plot is the standing man. Many post-modern stories fall under this classification because of their focus on metacognitive thought. I would classify coming-of-age stories as having this type of plot, particulary when the main character is at a loss which way to go; the main character is “standing” figuratively because he is being affected by an uncontrollable (external) factor—growing up—and he doesn’t know if he really wants to grow up or change. Classically, Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye comes to mind. Finally, when your character has a problem or is in a situation that he actively or desperately wants to get out of and the whole story involves trying to get out of that situation or problem, then your plot is the TRAPPED MAN. Unlike the standing man, who sometimes doesn’t know he’s actually “trapped”, the trapped man is fully aware of his situation. Being trapped can be literal, e.g., your person is in a physical prison, captured, shackled, or what have you; or it can be figurative entrapment, e.g., a loveless or bad relationship, an oppressive home. All other types can easily be fit into these three types, which is why I prefer to teach just these three. However, for more mature students or more advanced classes, I will mention other plot classifications because they are more specific and more descriptive. As for the use of “MAN” in the names, I’m neutral in this use. I don’t subscribe to being overly politically correct or excessively feminist. I like the use of the word because it’s short and universal. If I ever were to change this word, especially in the light of inhuman characters as main characters or protagonists, I might resort to just using the adjectives or replacing “man” with “protagonist” or “character”—both of which are such unwieldy long words. I do like brevity in titles.

On writing and blogs

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Sometimes, I think blogs are a bane rather than a boon to writing. Anyone can start a blog for free and write pretty much whatever they want. Often, you find blogs with atrocious writing–terrible grammar, bad spelling, illogical structures–and lots of gratuitous sex and violence. The worst part is that a great deal of this incredibly cringe-worthy writing gets published as fan fiction, simply because of the number of people who follow that kind of writing. I sometimes wonder if half of their fans are not followers because of some morbid fascination over how horrible the writing can be, or simply because it seems like something they understand–because the language sounds exactly like theirs, the stories things they wished they could have told themselves. Rather than uplift the average or below-average reader by exposing them to better literature, this class of literature celebrates and perpetuates ignorance by passing off as fiction. True, they will never ever be good enough to win prizes or recognition from prestigious award-giving bodies, but they might occasionally creep into the New York Times Bestseller list by virtue of selling a million copies or more. Even fine literature falls victim to marketing and crass commercialization.

Be like a mosquito!

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Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will none the less get something that looks remarkably like it.

~Jack London, “Getting Into Print,” 1905

Inspiration is never the only way to start writing. If every writer depended solely on inspiration, then there would be much less literature out there. Writing starts with writing. Like any other trade, writing takes skill and practice which beget expertise. Granted, there are writers with a knack for churning out copious amounts of writing, they certainly were not born that way. They started with writing words, then sentences, then stories—simple, sophomoric ideas that became more sophisticated as they gained yet more skill, experience, and knowledge. What a writer must rather have is an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, never-ending patience, and the persistence of PEI mosquitoes. With enough perseverance, a skilled writer can become a master and a bad piece of writing can be re-crafted and revised over and over again until it is so unlike the original work it can be quite the gem. No diamond ever adorned a woman so gracefully that was not cut and polished into refinement and glory by the most patient of craftsmen. That is precisely because the writer is a craftsman, cutting, refining, polishing, until the roughest work is a masterpiece worthy of inclusion in the canons of great literature.

Writing is Nonpareil

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Writing can wreck your body. You sit there on the chair hour after hour and sweat your guts out to get a few words.  ~Norman Mailer, 1998

Funny, I never had any problem completing writing assignments, regardless of the format. Anything from poetry to essays to research papers were a breeze. Assignments for the school papers or magazines I could pump out. Articles for press releases and publicity I could churn out. But when I decide to sign up for a 1-month-50K-word writing challenge, or tell myself I need to write my book my collections my stories my poetry I come up with sweaty guts à lá Norman Mailer, so I guess I’m not in such bad company. Probably the distractions of survival have something to do with it. I think it’s probably the knowledge and realization that life isn’t just getting up and going to class and doing what is expected of you or asked of you or even what you choose to do because you know you always have somewhere to go home to, food at the table or in the fridge, a bed, and all the creature comforts you need. When you’re writing and hoping that it will bring home the bacon and pay the bills, then it becomes an immensely unreliable method for relieving worry or for self-expression because your expression becomes limited to your source of worry which is whether or not your writing will sell and how soon and how much. Anyone who wants to be a writer by profession or vocation should first take a course on how to survive on writing alone. The intellectual, psychological, and emotional satisfaction you get is nonpareil.

On Writing and Culture

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If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.  ~Anaïs Nin

What makes writing good enough for it to be significant to any culture? That all writing is a cultural activity, there is no doubt; however, not all writing is worth reading, and therefore, of no real use to any culture except to highlight the need to improve the state of writing. What makes writing truly valuable to culture–any culture and culture in general–is what the reader can get out of it. I’m going to dissociate academic writing or professional writing from literary writing, because academic and professional writing are certainly and always written with a clear and valuable purpose in mind–in most cases, to share valuable information, record events, or instruct readers. Literary writing, on the other hand, aims mainly to entertain; occasionally to enlighten or inform as a great deal of creative non-fiction does, but in its purest form, to entertain. There is no other reason for stories–short and long fiction, poetry, or drama to exist. That we should have such a rich culture of literary works is clearly evidence that writing is valuable, otherwise, we would not preserve and pass on our stories with such care and fervor. What does make writing–or literature–valuable to culture is its significance to humans and to civilizations. That significance comes from the ability of a literary piece to speak directly to each reader who comes across it, its ability to make that all-important and significant connection with readers that makes them feel every emotion and connect with every idea the author has tried to convey through the written word. In many ways, a writer’s words are a window to the writer’s soul. Only when writers pour everything–their thoughts, joys, frustrations, successes, failures–into their writing, does the writing come alive and become a reflection not only of individual writers, but of their lives, their  milieus, their environs–their culture, if you will, in little bits and pieces, because that is exactly what each piece of writing is: a piece of a puzzle which, when put together, reveals a whole cultural panorama that decorates history as it is being made and brings it to life for future generations.

How much of yourself or your life do you reveal in your writing? Share your thoughts on The Writing Pool.

The writer is a gardener and cook…

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The ablest writer is only a gardener first, and then a cook: his tasks are, carefully to select and cultivate his strongest and most nutritive thoughts; and when they are ripe, to dress them, wholesomely, and yet so that they may have a relish.

~Augustus William Hare and Julius Charles Hare, Guesses at Truth, by Two Brothers, 1827

I do not believe there is such a thing as a born writer. In the first place, writing is really a skill based on language acquisition and everyone knows how difficult that can be, especially if it isn’t your first language. How many languages you have mastered notwithstanding, people learn to write by (1) being exposed to a lot of writing, (2) learning to put their ideas into written words. Of course, I’m talking about creative writing, but I’d say that extends to any kind of writing. And that’s only learning. There is no such thing as a writer in a vacuum. Writers need a nourishing environment to flourish, and here is where we take the Hare brothers’s metaphor to detail. As a gardener, the writer needs to have a seed to plant: the idea or thought on which to build a composition. Like seeds, they need care and nutrition: they need dirt to grow in, which is akin to our massive bank of knowledge and experience–certainly not acquired in a vacuum–that gives us the words or language to work with. They need water to grow: we need to add to those words, let them expand, add to them, develop them into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, volumes. They need sunshine that allows photosynthesis: we need to provide enhanced language in the form of figurative, picturesque speech, adjectives, adverbs, idioms, and details that create cornucopias of colour in our writing, that make our writing exciting, vivid, alive, colorful. They need pruning and trimming so that only the best fruit and leaves are left: we need to edit, revise, improve, add, and remove, to make sure the writing we have is the best. And then, like many excellent chefs, we need to dress our product and serve it in the most palatable form, whether in verses or prose, in tidbits or tomes. All that care will guarantee a literary banquet that readers the world over are certain to enjoy.

Thoughts on The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

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I just realized it’s Friday. I really thought it was still Thursday, but everyone was wishing a happy weekend so I had to check my computer date and, of course, it is Friday. Again. I can’t imagine what happens to the days, where they go so fast, how little I seem to be getting done, and how perfect the weather is for just snuggling in bed with a good book! Speaking of good books, what good books have you read lately? You already know my preference tends to light, fast-paced reading, so adventures, mystery and detective/spy stories, fantasy, and science fiction. When I am in the mood, though, I will read history, a lot of historical fiction, biographies, and autobiographies. When I can get my hand on them, I will read prize-winning books, and I decided to do just that when I went to a literary trivia contest with a bunch of writer friends and we won first place (woohoo!), which gave us first choice of a varied selection of books donated by Indigo. I picked the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. That was several months ago. I finally decided to read it the goldfinch coverand am about three-quarters of the way done. I’m not going to present a summary here—you’ll have to read it yourself to find out the story. What I am going to say, is that one thing that came to my mind when I finally put it down a couple of nights ago (because I always read at bedtime), was Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. The parallelisms are definitely there: Both Theo Decker and David Copperfield launched themselves into the world at the death of the mother; both boys had to live in different places, not all of them welcoming; both had a little girl they adored; both are significantly affected and influenced by another young boy who is not necessarily the best influence in their lives. I can’t really say more because I’m still not too far past halfway through. Nonetheless, Theo’s journey takes him places the way David’s has, through New York and Las Vegas painted with as much careful and colourful detail by Tartt as Dickens did the England of his times. Tartt’s attention to detail and vivid descriptions, plus the care with which she develops her characters are certainly reason enough for the book to win the Pulitzer. And that’s just the language and writing style. One must appreciate the underlying themes and the way her plot unfolds, as well, but which I’m not going to delve into right now. I’m pretty certain the complex plot, struggling characters, and attention to detail Tartt has woven into this story are why NY Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani has called The Goldfinch a Dickensian novel. I can’t wait till bedtime.

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The Trouble with Writing

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Every writer I know has trouble writing.

                                         ~Joseph Heller

Why do writers have trouble writing? Let’s face it. Writing isn’t easy. Except, maybe, for my friend Patti Larsen, who won the 2014 World’s Best  Story Award and churns out about 17 novels a year. Writing requires great skill, a wide vocabulary, an unlimited imagination, and infinite patience and perseverance, not to mention guts. Writers who start out with lots of talent and nothing else don’t get very far, I imagine. They might be the one-book-wonder who disappears into quiet obscurity because they never completed another book. It really isn’t just skill in constructing great sentences and paragraphs, but skill as well in putting those together into a masterful story; the skill of organization, which helps you keep all your ideas in order and helps you develop your story in a logical manner–that is logical at least to you; the skill of observation, which provides you with an unlimited source of ideas and details that bring your writing alive. We’re already familiar with the patience and perseverance it takes to write and revise until a book is ready for publication; it takes infinite patience and perseverance to get the book out and published, and even more to get publicity and marketing up to decent levels so that you can truly say that your career is writing, and it’s not just a hobby or something you do on the side while you’re working at another job that will pay the bills until you make that bestseller or award-winner. Even before the publication stage, writers need to have the courage–the guts–and the density to push your writing out there and at the mercy of public who either love your work,  tear it apart, or ignore it. In fact, I might prefer that they tear it apart, because from a marketing point of view, that would still sell books, and controversy generates interest; whereas a cool reception would not sell a single copy. All that exposure is tied to the fragile, introverted personality the majority of writers have, so it really makes it more difficult to dangle your work out there.