A few posts back I published 10 Non-Negotiable Qualities Of A Timeless Story. Here’s another ten.
11. Story before writing
In the writing paradigm, writing comes first. Most often, it’s the only consideration. It’s a symptom of our narcissistic age where anything that serves the Self supersedes anything that serves the Other. So naturally we’ve moved away from any narrative approach that puts the reader’s interests on the radar.
You see it a lot at the higher levels of literary writing: the complex or experimental pieces submitted to a group for review, which everyone else feels too inferior or stupid to critique. Silence feeds the writer’s hubris about his/her own intellect rather than serving as proof of the work’s utter failure to reach the reader on any level. After all, everyone knows that if it’s incomprehensible the writer must be extra-extra smart and, well, there’s not much we doofus types can add.
Incoherence does not equal smart. If you’re a writer who thinks stream-of-consciousness means just yakking out whatever comes to mind until the last yellow drop of literary bile has drained out, then you don’t understand that stream-of-consciousness is just a story that’s been left to the reader to approach archaeologically or forensically. But it’s still narrative and there’s still has to be something there for the reader.
If you’re not reaching the reader through narrative, none of the fancy tricks of writing will help.
The best writers know that communicating with the reader comes before the way you use the language. If you don’t have a story to tell, then all the lovingly crafted language and lyricism or from-the-hip adjectiveless, adverbless plainwriting in the world might as well be left in a journal where you can admire yourself whenever you like.
Story is for the reader. Writing is for the writer.
How does this matter? Because as soon as the reader starts noticing the writing, the writer has failed. This has nothing to do with whether or not a writer produces quotable writing or beautiful passages. It means the writing can’t be an intrusive force. Writing should serve as invisible an element beneath the story as breathing, no matter the style.
The greats have always known this.
12. Story over ideology
Most writers use fiction as a platform through which their worldview can be realized. Often, they don’t even know this is what’s happening but even if they do they usually lack the objectivity or critical thinking to be bigger than their own perspective. They just want their characters to tell the world how it should be.
First-rate writers do this, of course, but they also simultaneously hold their ideals out at arm’s length, then brutally test them within the confines of their story world. They are able to boldly cope with moral, ethical, religious, political realities that are in direct and painful conflict with their own.
They remorselessly call their own ideals to task.
Great fiction is never an ideological screed or manifesto even when it takes a powerful stance for or against something personally meaningful to the writer. Ultimately, nothing is more important than creating the most honest kind of story, and the born writer knows that’s impossible if it’s filtered through a skewed and rigid ideological lens.
The truth within belief systems comes and goes. The truth that lies beyond that is forever.
That’s what great writers aim for.
Like a martial arts master aiming toward a point on the other side of a concrete block.
13. Humanity over ideology
Having said that, the best novels serve as public demonstrations of intensely personal values. That’s not a contradiction of the above point. The first concern is always the human story, not the screed that will be masked by a story. In fact, the human story is usually so richly expressed, and with such complexity, that even if there’s a position involved it just doesn’t seem like the important part for readers.
That’s because great storytellers don’t pit a particular Me against a particular You, even though the conditions of the story may be highly particularized. They do this by making sure that all their characters are threaded into the larger human tapestry, not just the ones that serve the writer’s value system. Villains exist (they must) but powerful writers approach Other without dehumanizing, demeaning, or demonizing.
Or by turning them into caricature.
Similarly, the characters representing the writer’s values don’t get the kid glove treatment either. The writer has the magnanimity to make their ideal pitiful, ridiculous, mock-worthy, or even contemptible, all without losing their purpose.
Strong writers write from – and to – an essential humanity against which no particulars of any ideology are able to survive. There is no Me and You.
It’s just Us.
14. Reader before writer
Similar to Story Before Writing, but not quite.
A good host makes sure their guests have the best time possible – even if the host has spent the entire party serving canapes and topping up drinks and whisking away dirty dishes.
Writers are inviting readers to a narrative party. Writers who put their own needs and ego ahead of the reader’s engagement is like inviting a bunch of people over then serving rain juice and sawdust crackers (because converting your guests over to your dietary morals was your true ulterior motive), and spending the entire time making sure you’re the one having the best time.
A really great host (even if not a great human being) will make an effort to give guests something worth coming for – and hopefully worth coming back for next time. Otherwise, don’t have a party. Sit at home with your rain juice and sawdust crackers and enjoy them the way they’re meant to be enjoyed – solo.
Give the reader something more important than what you want.
15. The second glance
This is a quality that adds longevity to a story. It’s a deep complexity that makes the story somehow different the next time you read it. And there always is a next time when a story is among the best. Read this post for a more detailed look at what goes into giving readers a chance at the second glance.
THE REAL DEAL
It doesn’t matter whether it’s lyrical or the flattest prose possible, writing that lacks clarity, control, and confidence is like listening to a third rate actor butcher an Australian accent. The agonizing effort and lack of skill and overconfidence scream out from the text.
The best writing just disappears into storytelling. How and when to use punctuation, vernacular, switching back and forth between voices and times and points of view – all happens like a great conversation that veers from news to the utterly private to politics and religion without awkward pauses or anyone even noticing the switch.
Don’t know if you have clarity, confidence, or control? Let’s give’er a go. This sample has everything I usually seen in manuscripts. Lots of adjectives and adverbs, time flips, over-the-top actions, digressions, regressions, unbelievable dialogue/vocalizations, odd metaphors.
Kimmie trudged her way heart-breakingly across the dark and creepy room screaming and crying, so hard it was like her heart had exited her body and was now in the room and it was going to beat her to death with its throbbing pulse. She trudged on, her feet like lead torpedoes, a fist in the air, her mouth in a hideous, malformed grimace, saliva slathering down her chin, tears pouring like a water spout.
“No, No, NOOOOoooo,” she kept crying.
With shoulders shaking with every heaving sob, she shook her clenched fist and lamented grievously, “DAMN YOU!!!!”, and when she reached the fireplace mantle she let out an animalistic “RRRRrrrr!” as she beat the fireplace mantle with both fists, screaming wildly and painfully, then sweeping the candlesticks and remote controls and vases off. They start falling around her sobbing shoulders in a rain of glittering glass and flashing metal and glowing plastic, and as her perceptions gear down into slo-mo, she stupefyingly watches the candlesticks fly by like existential nunchuks, end over end, their brass glinting in the twinkling light of the hot, searing sun.
The remote controls make contact with the gleaming marble of the old Victorian fireplace mantle made of hard wood, and split open like rectangular electronic skulls, their brain matter exploding off in every direction like the shrapnel that had hit Joe back in ‘Nam in the MeKong Delta when he served as a gunner in the Brown Water Navy and they used to patrol through snipers and booby-trapped sampans, and he’d tell her the mosquitoes and leeches were almost worse than the war itself.
Suddenly she sees the vase spinning through the air toward her, the beautiful, gorgeous yellow bohemian art glass vase in mint condition with hand-painted white roses that he’d bought for her at a flea market in Sacramento back in ’78 when they were still young and in love and he still thought about all the little things that make a relationship worthwhile, and it was such a good deal at forty five dollars and some change and went perfectly with her decor, so she reached out one hand like a ninja and saved the vase. Then she crumpled to the ground, still clutching the vase, and sobs incoherently, “why me, why me, why me? WHYYYY?”
You’re welcome. Indeed, why any of us?
If this sounds like you, start asking yourself if each word, sentence, phrase, paragraph, and scene answers to clarity (are you communicating something that serves the purpose of your story?), control (are you using only the most value-added words, sentences, phrases, paragraphs, and scenes?), and confidence (do your words, sentences, phrases, paragraphs, and scenes represent your authenticity and mastery as a human being as well as a writer?)
Just like memorable, effortless conversations are a rarity in life, it’s a rarity in fiction.
Writing is the expressed You.
Voice is just you.
If you were standing with a group of people at a party and you started talking like your writing, would people start inching away backwards, then spend the rest of the night avoiding eye contact with you, and every time you came near they’d hide out in the washroom until the coast was clear?
When you know who you are you have a voice. When you have a voice, you have the control and confidence to make powerful use of it. When you make the most powerful use of your voice you don’t need tricks to impress anyone.
A writer able to write from his/her own authenticity and mastery is a writer with a powerful voice.
19. Authenticity is internal
Related to voice, but not quite. You won’t find out how to become your most authentic self as a writer by letting other writers tell you what that should look like.
If you need prompts to write or you have to look to others for ideas, the road toward your own true voice will be a lot more difficult.
First-rate writers have the opposite problem: too many ideas and not enough time to make them all happen. That’s not to say there’s no writer’s block, but that’s something completely different.
The only way you can become authentic is by staring yourself down in your own existential mirror to find out what you’re truly made of, because this is where all writing starts.
It’s not good ideas. It’s not using the latest software or joining the hottest group or enrolling in the best writing program.
You are It. The Source. The Root. The Cause.
It’s all in there, and you’re the one who has to get it out.
That’s where authenticity comes from, and it’s where you’ll find your voice.
19. Allowable Input
The more serious/credible the writer, the fewer people they allow into their creative world.
First rate writers do not expose themselves or their writing to third rate talent. Or second-rate, for that matter. Sometimes not even first-rate, because who is worthy or not is so personal and subjective.
That’s because first rate writers protect their voices and their ideas with a jealousy bordering on pathological. There will usually be one or two people they can entrust with their work and their voices.
Take a page from their behaviours. Choose carefully who you let influence the kind of work you produce, your ideas. Ask yourself: can this person help your writing become the most you – or the most them?
It’s your voice.
It’s your voice.
20. Mastery is all DIY
Nobody can make you a better writer than you are willing to be – and it all comes from inside you, not from being around the right people or getting a hand-up. Even opened doors and knowing the right people won’t help if you don’t show up prepared with the goods.
It’s something you have to do for yourself.The learning curve is yours, it’s steep, and there’s no short-cut.
There is never a short cut.