If you look at the stories that have rooted themselves into cultural consciousness, starting a story in medias res – the middle of things – is understood in a very particular way. But is it how you understand it?
There’s a huge difference in the way great writers begin stories and the way it’s done by the rest of us.
Let’s have a look at how we poor amateurs approach the middle of things.
A writer has a story idea in mind and wants to find a really good place to begin. The sweet spot. The heat, as it were.
Say the story is about an aging spy who is called on to undertake one final mission. Today’s writer might start the story with the protagonist (a Daniel Craig type, of course, buff, gruffly suave, in control) waking up beside some hot dumb-as-bricks supermodel, contemplating in detail his predicament so the reader knows exactly what’s going on. There might be some flash-backing to signal the danger yet to come.
Some might have him already in the middle of the caper, with all the stakes pressing in on him. Or right in the middle of/after a shoot-out.
What’s the problem, you might ask? Isn’t that in the middle of the action? Isn’t that what any creative writer would do?
Not John Le Carre. Le Carre knows the difference between plot and development. In The Spy Who Came In From The Cold he starts his story developmentally at a point where Alec Leamas is on the verge of his biggest screw-up yet but doesn’t know it. He’s no Daniel Craig. Mid 50-ish, he’s not fit or buff. He’s unkempt. And he’s a problem drinker (that’s a nice way of suggesting “drunkard”).
There are no heroics. He’s just washed-up, waiting at a heavily guarded East-West German checkpoint for his contact to come across, trying to salvage this one Cold War assignment (of many that have gone sideways on him). In this moment he has nowhere left to go personally or professionally. He’s in the middle of a major disaster in the making. It’s already happening but Leamas refuses to see it or the entire scope of what’s happened to his career. Everything rides on his man coming down that road. Where they are physically and geographically is symbolically significant. The chapter is called “Checkpoint”.
He’s at the checkpoint of his career and life. See what Le Carre did there? Checkpoint? Get it?
Le Carre starts the story, not in the middle of the plotting action or the most exciting or dynamic part of the story. That would be closer to the end when he’s being held by the East Germans and attempts to escape.
Rather, he starts in the middle of things. The lens is pulled back from the action of the story – the spy action and the plot action – to make the opening circumstances reflect the developmental context of Leamas’ life situation, the very conditions that have brought him to this point, and which will drive him straight into the mess he will find himself in later.
But none of it can happen without this opening snafu. None.
What happens on that bridge t-bones what’s left of Alec’s life, sending it on its collision-course.
The place where he begins is more than just the middle of an action or the story. It’s the crossroads of every facet of his life. Note:
He’s a screw up but it’s not all his fault. He’s surrounded by screw-ups and betrayal. The weight of this impregnates the opening scene, but becomes more apparent and consequential as the story unfolds, driving Leamas to the final scene. This is especially obvious when his true lack of control over the situation is revealed. He’s not only hamstrung by the fools and liars who surround him, but what they’ve done to him has put him in the exact position to be used, manipulated, and inevitably betrayed.
Middle-aged. His youth and strength are gone. All he has left is gut-level instinct. And even that is questionable. This is the precise vulnerability that makes him easy prey for his handlers as well as his targets. Had Leamus been younger he might not have invested so much in Liz Gold, which would have changed the outcome in which Gold becomes pivotal; any older and he would have been unable to handle what his controllers knew would be facing him in East Germany, making his placement in that mission unlikely and unsurviveable.
A loner. His life in duplicity has made it impossible to live as a normal human being, but built into that is a deep sense of his lifelong lack of connection to anything – that whoever he was before becoming a spy was exactly what made a life of espionage possible. He never had anything (or anyone) to lose, and this is what inevitably makes Liz Gold so important to the story. Le Carre accomplishes this sense of Leamas’ past with master strokes – Leamas’ transience, his comfort with squalor and rough living, drink, bad neighbourhoods, no mention of family or friends. He was an expendable cog from one system that became an expendable cog in another system, only with higher stakes. A life of too much dissimulation, too much absence (in more ways than one) is the life a loner who comes from dissimulation and absence gets. Yet his loner status and how he musters everything he has left in him as a human being just to embrace love is exactly what leads to the tragic outcome. It’s used against him, but it also becomes the final heartbeat of his humanity. It saves him on the only level left that matters to him.
A drunk. Le Carre evokes a strong sense that this was written into Leamas’ very DNA, but given his age and what’s become of his life and career it’s the only way left to cope. It’s also what makes him right for the ruse necessary for his final mission. The line between Leamas and the role he is required to play as a disaffected agent ripe for Eastern-bloc harvesting is barely visible, thus making the ruse credible.
He thinks he knows what’s going on. Leamas prides himself on his ability to get the lay of the land, but somehow the landscape has changed under him without his having been aware of it. This peril in knowing is what turns everything inside-out.
Everything rides on his work. Until it doesn’t, and then, in the end, he realises that what matters rides on the choice he makes on that wall. He can choose the agency, himself, or Liz, but whatever choice he makes presents a dire double-bind that will cost him dearly.
To choose Liz is to lose his life. To choose anything else is to lose his humanity.
That the story begins on a bridge and ends on a wall is incredibly astute use of metaphor.
Everything about this story mirrors what we already intuitively and instinctively understand about the human experience. We might understand nothing at all about being a middle-aged alcoholic agent but when Le Carre makes a move everything in our gut tells us it’s exactly as it is in the part of the human story where we are all participants. All the internal cogs fit together, meaningfully, and because they do, the machinery powers up and runs on its own momentum.
All because of what goes into that opening scene.
This is what opens the door through which we and Leamas must enter the story. In this opening Le Carre pulls off the other definition of true:
- 1.bring (an object, wheel, or other construction) into the exact shape, alignment, or position required.
As writers we should all aim for that kind of true in fiction. It’s not an inert noun, but a verb. It’s dynamic. It requires something of us, writer and reader alike. Readers care because we recognise in this story and other masterpieces the exact shape, alignment, and position required to communicate human beingness back to us.
Leamas’ moral victory, the most important of his life, must come at the cost of his world (and life), the very conditions set up right at the beginning of the novel. Smiley and The Circus get what they want. Mundt gets what he wants. All this comes at the cost of Leamas and Gold, but even they, too, get what they want: to know love in one another.
What’s so beautiful about it all is that while it’s inevitable, it’s neither predictable nor prescriptive.
Writers – especially those who have come up in the age of narcissism – haven’t figured out how to get much past themselves to offer readers something about themselves. Writer and reader connect when the writer expresses something that also communicates meaning for the reader.
Because that moment – that perfect, beautiful set-up at the beginning of the story, the in medias res – ?
That’s the writer preparing us, not just the story. It’s saying: this is what true looks like. Buckle up.
The next time you’re done reading a novel, go back to the opening scene and check out how contextually relevant it is to what went on in the story. If it’s a particular genre, compare it to a masterpiece of that genre, and how those stories open. Guaranteed the masterpiece is the set-up of a world at a collision point, out of which the character has evolved and the destruction of which proves the test of everything the character had understood about Life and her/his own life.
It’s that in medias res set-up that determines how the character will face it, and what the outcome must be. It’s all interdependent. If it isn’t, nobody will want to read your story because it simply won’t be true.
So how will you create in your in medias res the exact shape, alignment, and position to tell a true story?
If you’re using writing prompts to help fire up the creative synapses, they are likely doing more harm than good, especially if you don’t understand why.
Confession: I hate prompts, if you haven’t already guessed. I despise everything about them.
And because I google the term for research, the gods of algorithm think I must like them a whole lot because suddenly they appear in all my feeds, and not being all that tech savvy I have no idea how to cull them. Seeing them makes my teeth hurt.
Prompts make me want to use the F word. Normally I reserve the F word for unique situations prompting my raging, blood-coloured wrath. And now, prompts.
There. I said it. (Please don’t think less of me).
I’ve increasingly become of the mind that writers must be zealously protective of their own voice, and defiant about outside influence to the point of phobia.
For that reason, prompts are like one of those amoebic brain diseases you get when you’re minding your own business enjoying your tropical vacation. Then – BAM! – half your brain is gone and suddenly you can’t do your own taxes anymore.
It changes who you are.
Prompts come from someone else’s mental space, someone else’s story, someone else’s experiential and perceptual scaffolding.
Someone else’s voice.
As soon as you start answering to a prompt, no matter how benign it might be, you’re moving away from your own voice and individuality, your own originality, your own story, your own possibilities.
Next thing you know you’re Star Trek‘s USS Voyager lost in the Delta Quadrant and, like the hapless Federation vessel, while it took nothing to get pushed tens of thousands of light years from home it will require a potential lifetime, a series of improbable misadventures, luck, and a major con job perpetrated by Future Old You against the Borg Queen just to get back to where you started, and if some unsuspecting redshirt ensign has to die along the way, it’s going to be you.
Writing is not like a parade where some clown broadcasts fistfuls of candy while we toddle around like drooling idiots hoping to get more than the next kid.
We’re bloodhounds on a scent trail. That scent trail represents the stories that are in us to tell. Prompts act like some perp planting false scents to take us off the trail so we never find our mark.
If you’re unable to find anything to write about unless someone prompts you, you need to ask yourself if this is the right road for you. Any teacher who thinks prompts are actually helping (because any writing is good writing, right?) is probably not very knowledgeable about issues around Voice and originality.
Writers should be following our own instincts, our own storylines. Everything that exists to pour into a story should well up from within our own internal resources and personal inspirations. It’s the only hope we have to earn Voice, and thus our uniqueness and originality.
Try picturing Graham Greene responding to this: Tell the story of Hallowe’en from the perspective of a piece of candy. (Thanks, writingprompts.tumblr.com).
Having said that, if you must use them here’s my take on how to avoid allowing them to become developmental poison to you as a writer as well as your projects.
Never use anything but a neutral, non-intrusive prompt. If you have a teacher trying to strong-arm you into anything but, refuse.
Don’t do it.
A neutral prompt is one that introduces minimal outside influence or undesirable voice, ideas, style, or tone into the writer’s work. These would mostly be one word prompts, and are so nondescript they can be easily inserted into any story idea.
Even that seemingly innocent prompt could take you away from the story that’s waiting inside you to be told anyway. That prompt could end up being a creative McGuffin, a false lead that takes you on the wrong scent trail, the wrong conclusions.
That’s not even the scariest part. Most of the time there’s a prompt list made available as though giving you an option among many is the good part.
- Outside the Window
- The Unrequited love poem
- The Vessel
- Eye Contact
- The Rocket-ship
(courtesy of thinkwritten.com)
That. That right there is a narrative brainworm. All those specific words – together – came from someone else’s subconscious core, biases, and perceptions. Those words have a deeply subconscious meaning to the prompt creator, not you. They will never be about you or your own originality and Voice.
Prompts are always about the prompt creator. As a result your mental space has just been subconsciously hijacked by someone else. Whatever your story is, this annoyance is now in your way whether you like it or not, whether you’re conscious of it or not.
Say you’re writing about your expedition into the Amazon in search of your grandparents’ story after they died of gullibility in the great mythic rubber fields of Fordlandia. But say you’re all bunged up creatively and you enroll in some writing class hoping to git ‘er done.
So you sit down eagerly rubbing your hands together awaiting instruction. Teacher says, “I want five hundred words on the writing prompt he suffered from personal anarchy. Go.“ (taken directly from @writingprompt on Twitter).
Oh, I’d go all right. Straight out the door.
I mean, seriously, people?
(Serenity now, serenity now.)
That’s not just an intrusive prompt, it’s patently awful. It’s highly suggestive of someone else’s (very questionable) voice, thinking, ideas, and tone.
No prompt should ever take you away from the possibility of telling your story your way. As soon as you let someone else’s voice dictate anything in your work, you’re doomed.
And what if it is a simple prompt like bread? What if it starts you thinking about food symbolism, and you go off on this tangent about the body of Christ and breaking bread with someone?
What effect does that have if a circle metaphor would have worked far better to support your story and characters?
Deep down, those are very different symbols with different allusions. Getting it wrong could throw the context of your entire story off kilter. Readers have a gut instinct for wrongness even if they can’t pinpoint its sources.
It’s so easy to lose your voice, and so very, very hard to regain it.
If you need inspiration, trust your own gut and your own developing Voice. Just look around your world, what matters to you. Use anything that speaks to you when you’re stuck. It’s that speaking part that’s coming from the core of who you are that matters most, and it will lead you on your own journey.
Because then, what you’re writing about – whatever it is – has already begun taking you to the next part of your journey, and because you’re bringing that speaking part along with you, it will add itself as a vital part of the whole, assuring that not a single step in your personal journey as a writer has been wasted.
Do that, and the story inside you will begin to emerge right alongside your authentic Voice.
Before you can tell a character’s story, you have to understand how context creates that particular kind of individual with the specific power to influence the world they inhabit, and thus drive narrative.
Take a look at the list below, then try to identify the novel it describes:
- Alluring, dark-haired protagonist born into the best of society goes against her culture’s conventions
- Tall, dark, handsome, and charming narcissist opens the door to ruin in the name of love
- With his encouragement she becomes an outcast when she decides to live on her own terms, by her own rules
- She refuses to see any unpleasant reality for what it is
- An act of brazenness and defiance at one particular social function outrages society
- They have one daughter together
- The end of a pregnancy almost kills her
- Their love is mutually destructive in ways they never seem to understand
- Influential people in their social circle turn their backs on them
- She has only one genuine friend who stands by her side
- Others pay a heavy price for their choices
- His spirit is broken by the ruin of their love
- In the end they face a terrible reckoning for their choices
Now, with a few tweaks on the details this could describe just about any romance novel out there. But this isn’t just any novel out there.
In fact, it’s not even just one novel, it’s two very distinct narratives, one occupying the literary end of the spectrum, the other genre.
How can this be? How can a single, very specific summary fit two totally unique novels?
And get away with it.
And produce two masterpieces.
If you haven’t already guessed, the two novels are Anna Karenina and Gone With The Wind.
How did this happen and still work?
Every single detail of both novels bears specific and perfect working agency for each particular narrative. Agency is a kind of inherent power to influence, in this case in a fictional context.
So how does context work in fiction? Say you took the same narrative summary and superimposed it into Hollywood circa, oh, just now. How would those summary details muscle through?
For laughs, let’s call our fake novel Anna Kardashian and take on context point by point.
- Alluring, dark-haired protagonist born into the best of society goes against her culture’s conventions: … so, um … going against Hollywood’s conventions would take our Anna into the realm of .. morals? and sexual decency? Okkaay, sssure.
- Tall, dark, handsome, and charming narcissist opens the door to ruin in the name of love: Let’s call him Brhatt Pittsky. He’s an amoral/immoral frat boy she meets at a kegger. Brhatt’s been with some whores in the past but he doesn’t really need them because he can always find girls willing to do the same things for free, so he saves a ton of money that way. To complicate things, one of the girls he uses for booty calls loves him and might/might not already have a child with him. Brhatt’s sole objective is to take Anna’s virginity even though she’s in love with a narcissistic rapper, Kanyley Welkes, who she thinks is totally fabs because of his pseudo-religious prosperity rap message. Unfortunately, although Kanyley is hot for Anna, he doesn’t really love her and wants to marry his cousin to keep it in the family. Brhatt goes after Anna with everything he’s got.
- With his encouragement she becomes an outcast when she decides to live on her own terms, by her own rules: Ooh, this is getting sticky already. So Brhatt does everything possible to get Anna to let her guard down, showing up at parties and getting friends to manipulate contact until she responds to his intense pressure. He super wants to video himself taking her virginity and gets her alone unchaperoned one night and convinces her that anything that feels so goooood has to be approved by God. When he goes to tape it, he accidentally presses the wrong button on his smartphone and instead of taking a video he ends up with a very blurry nightvision image of his butt crack.
- She refuses to see any unpleasant reality for what it is: Her motto is: WTF? LOL!
- An act of brazenness and defiance at one particular social function outrages society: she goes clubbing and, unlike everyone else, is not taking obscene selfies of public sex acts, nor snorting mountains of coke. Once their social circle finds out she’s a virgin, from then on that’s all anyone posts about on FB. Brhatt’s friends make up some pretty funny memes about it too, using Photoshop to superimpose Pepe the Frog’s face over hers to show how virgins have to be ugly to be virgins. None of the memes go viral, though.
- They have one daughter together: Of course, she gets pregnant her first time, and of course he denies he’s the babydaddy and demands a paternity test. And of course because the Bible says once you fornicate with someone you’re bonded to them for life, she realises she loves him and dedicates herself 100% to the relationship.
- The end of a pregnancy almost kills her: When her latest pics of the nursery and her mason jar crafts on Pinterest do not go viral she can’t deal and goes on clonazepam. Guys, it was super, super hard.
- Their love is mutually destructive in ways they never seem to understand: Because they’ve already fornicated, she moves in with him figuring it’s as good as marriage in God’s eyes. She tries to withhold sex so she doesn’t feel bad about herself for continuing to fornicate but he pressures her to do gross stuff that makes her puke and also causes such severe sphincteral atrophy that she needs rectal surgery to prevent excrement from continuously leaking out, but at least it’s not technically fornication. Her frigidity drives him to shag (that’s what the cool kids are calling it these days, right?) his booty-call buddy more regularly, and Anna starts getting paranoid about how much Brhatt truly loves her.
- Influential people in their social circle refuse to receive them: Obvs! She smells like feces all the time. His rapey frat-boy friends hate her guts more because she thinks they’re a bad influence and won’t let them in the house, thus preventing them from gang-raping her for a rape-fantasy porno they want to post to PornHub.
- She has only one genuine friend who stands by her side: A mousy sister-in-law whose only interest is children and housekeeping. She doesn’t actually so much as stand by her side as just not get all judgey.
- Others pay a heavy price for their choices: Her friends say she makes them feel bad and guilty and shameful about all their out-of-wedlock pregnancies with different babydaddies and the drug use, and they wish she would stop being so high and mighty. And also do something about the rectal leakage. His friends are sick of them both for getting in the way of their viral-porn careers.
- His spirit is broken by the ruin of their love: After trying for too long to undermine her morals and get her to finally do that porno his friends think they can sell on PornHub, he finally does rape her in earnest, then sends pics out in an act of revenge porn. She finally realises that even though they’ve fornicated God will forgive her if she breaks up with him. Probably. But then in an epic turnaround Brhatt realises he likes Anna a little. It makes him sad, but not really.
- In the end they face a terrible reckoning for their choices: she requires years of therapy and corrective rectal surgery but otherwise just coasts along, eventually getting ultra-religious and distributing L. Ron Hubbard tracts for Scientology. He never finds fame and fortune with his revenge porn which, buried in an ocean of horrific, galling sexual imagery, never, sadly, goes viral. He blames her for his failure. She spends the rest of her life and her family’s fortune hiring lawyers to get the revenge porn images off the net but even after years and decades somehow they always manage to surface. The guy she’s living with, though, is super, super supportive and so sweet. LOL!
Yeah, pretty much the same, no?
The worlds from which Tolstoy and Mitchell drew not only created their particular heroines and all the bit players, those worlds made it possible to drive powerful narrative through context. The characters have agency because the contexts have agency and thus provide it to them.
In a Hollywood context – morally, spiritually, politically, economically – Anna Kardashian could not have been created in a way that might have driven her to Anna Karenina’s particular end. Hollywood has no moral or spiritual or social power to realistically or even hypocritically control, ostracize, and destroy one of their own over an extramarital affair and having a child out of wedlock, or for a defiant need for autonomy when that’s the accepted norm. This strips away the agency of any possible suicide, as well as its power as an end. Oh, Anna Kardashian might still have committed suicide but not with the same causal agency derived from the institutional pressures that snuffed out Anna Karenina’s freedom to choose as a human being and as a woman. Her world had her completely boxed in to an impossible corner, out of which suicide was the only truly autonomous choice she had left, and the only freedom. That’s not within the realm of Anna Kardashian’s story at all, and couldn’t be.
You could try working the morality/sexual decency angle against the business-as-usual moral degeneracy of LaLa Land but a socialite with money in today’s Hollywood has more power to turn away from that influence than anyone else in this life. She is not trapped anywhere by anyone, even if her parents or a trust controls the purse strings. If she finds degeneracy too overwhelming she can find belonging and a moral home elsewhere. Anna Karenina, on the other hand, kept ignorant and uneducated by her society, was powerless to survive alone without her husband’s or her lover’s wealth, nor the isolation of a social world that rejected her absolutely.
Now, make her a Muslim woman in ISIL-controlled Mosul or Saudi Arabia and we can start talking about the power social, economic, and cultural conditions have to control a woman’s autonomy when that woman isn’t even allowed to set foot in the street without a related male chaperone, nor drive a car, nor hold her own passport.
Not in Hollywood, though.
Similarly, the contrast between the decadent antebellum South and the Civil War’s brutality (as well as its devastating economic and social effects) create then drive Scarlett and all the others in the story toward their outcomes. Just as the combination of her low Irish and aristocratic coastal French lineages provide her with the “gumption” that allows her to both understand and navigate her rarified world then survive when it falls, the inbred Southern aristocracy of Ashley and Melanie makes it impossible for them to survive on their own when their world is stripped of its beauty and grace. Rhett, too, as a reject of that world, becomes detached from its value and autonomously survives on his own terms, allowing him to manipulate Scarlett into doing the same except with consequences he doesn’t foresee (because she is not entirely like him, and he is not as entirely unlike his world).
Not even the LA Riots visited the total destruction of a way of life represented in GWTW to provide a modern equivalent of Mitchell’s complex statement about character and survival.
It’s the conflicted pressures of those contexts that propel Anna to her final scene. The antebellum/post-Civil-War South contexts created Scarlett O’Hara, and for the same reasons Anna is driven toward her suicidal end, context makes that same ending for Scarlett impossible.
In fact, in great fiction the opening lines and scene become the absolute nexus point of all those contexts, out of which the story runs like a torrent on its own power.
Take context away and the only power a story has left is plot and writing style, and those are almost never enough to carry a narrative without leaving the reader feeling like they just ate a meal that was mostly carbs and empty calories.
Why is context so important? Because it’s the way life works, and the best stories tell us the most about ourselves and our world in the best possible ways. Every single experience we have, our history, our culture and social/familial conditions create the context from which our very being arises. And because they create us, they create the directions in which we’re pushed and pulled, and they create within us the agency (or lack of it) to either react from basic animal instinct or respond as conscious beings to whatever happens to us.
Get context wrong or ignore it, and you signal to readers that you don’t understand much about life or people, or that you’re a simple-minded fool.
Take a look at how context has worked in your life and in the lives of the people you know. How are you giving your stories the contextual substance necessary for the kind of agency and self-propelling momentum that can get readers truly engaged with your story?
Necessary parts? Check. Snazzy image of what it’s supposed to look like in the end? Check. Tools? Check. Handy-dandy instruction manual? Check. Armchair generals? Check. Know-how (you’ve used a hammer before) – aaand check.
Yet somehow it’s not working. Where’s the disconnect between the job you think you’ve done and the one you actually did? Where does it all go wrong to make publishers’ veins pop, and drive readers straight to Netflix?
- COMPONENTS: Having all the necessary parts is not the same as understanding what they’re for and how they all fit together. Most writers are task literate (composition) but process illiterate (narrative), which makes getting from beautiful image to beautiful finished product extremely challenging if not impossible. Putting a story together doesn’t make the bits and pieces mean something developmentally, whether the plotting dominoes seem to all line up or there’s minimal plot. That’s what writers get so wrong. But don’t feel bad. Most published fiction demonstrates the same process illiteracy (yes, even famous writers), which is why a novel might tank; the writer’s high-level task literacy blinds publishers to the novel’s deeper infrastructural deficits. Sometimes, the publisher mistakes a pile of random garbage for a highly experimental and non-linear work of art. Readers know otherwise, though. In the aggregate, they know the difference between a pile of random garbage and, say, The Sound And The Fury.
- PERSPECTIVE: You don’t have the right perspective to understand how the image in your head will become the thing itself. This is not your fault. You came to the project impeded by the notion that as long as you had tools and instructions you could get results, but nobody taught you how to see holistically and strategically like an architect and engineer instead of just a putterer or, at best, a builder.
- TOOLS: The best tools in the world mean nothing if you don’t know what you’re doing or how to get them to work for you. But what if the project calls for tools you didn’t even know existed: you don’t know what they are, where you can get them, or how to use them. How can any project come to fruition with such an impediment? Most possess only the most rudimentary tools. For writers the toolbox might contain lexical, syntactical, scenic, and symbolic tools. What you really need in order to do well, though, is not even on the radar or in your budget (because, believe it or not, projects of this nature require a certain amount of investment). So you end up taking a short cut trying to use a Phillips head when you really need a spline drive, with all the expected results. For writers, that means having minimal (but mostly zero) developmental or narrative tools available.
- INSTRUCTIONS: Instructions are always torture because they’re generalized and have been filtered through the mind of someone who isn’t you, therefore your specific process and task illiteracy are contaminated and obstructed by their general process and task literacy. In the end this difference will cost you in terms of excess or missing parts and a poor quality outcome. And why wouldn’t it? Truly, the project isn’t really yours anyhow, is it?
- ARMCHAIR GENERALS: What armchair generals see is based on what they know, not on who you are or what your project is about. Unlike instruction-makers, the problem with armchair generals is that they likely don’t know more than you, and possibly less. They’d be shouting the same things from the comfort of their armchairs no matter what, so any advice will not likely help you be more knowledgeable or produce a more meaningful outcome.
- KNOW-HOW: Maybe this is about skill, maybe it’s about talent. Or both. Take a look at some of the DIY web sites out there (I’m looking at you Hometalk, you endless click-baity letdown) and you’ll notice some people who put an excruciating, unconscionable amount of effort and time into creating something awful. All the know-how is there but what they do with it and the direction they take it is just mind-bogglingly senseless, adding nothing to the sum of things for anyone but themselves. Well, writing isn’t a project hanging on the rec room wall for personal pleasure. Sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as long as that eye is yours and yours alone – or the five people in the world with your exact aesthetic sensibilities or sufficient pity for your dedication and passion. No. Writers must share, and relate, and make others see the worth and meaning of what they see and what they’ve created. If you can’t do that, if you’re the only one who sees it or you can’t make anyone else see it, maybe you’re just not made for this work. You should not be making this dang thing in the first place. So just slowly back away before someone gets hurt. Chances are, it’ll be you.
When we go to the grocery store we can never really tell if the fruit or vegetables are bad until we sink our teeth into dry, pulpy disappointment.
We all have books on our shelves we’ve loathed, books that make us mourn the trees sacrificed for nothing and that we’ve judged not worth the time stolen to read them.
If you believe this Nielsen data graph (courtesy of ingenta.com) on the performance of fiction in the marketplace, you have to know it represents people increasingly becoming disappointed in fiction.
And yes, that’s a nearly 50% drop you see there in General Fiction over the course of a mere decade.
You also have to know that the true statistic would be far worse if they included readers who keep buying books that keep on disappointing but there’s no way to count disgust or disinterest after good money has already been laid down.
Just for funsies, how many of you out there have ever returned a novel because it stunk? It would be interesting to find out. But more importantly it would be interesting to find out why readers don’t return terrible books, so in the comments section tell us why you don’t treat rotten fiction like rotten fruit.
Should we be sending that message to the industry and to writers for failing readers?
A few posts back I published 10 Non-Negotiable Qualities Of A Timeless Story. Here’s another ten.
11. Narrative 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 fiction 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.
Narrative 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. Narrative 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 narrative. 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.