For too much of my life I had the impression that writing was something that happened to you because the gods of inspiration had chosen you, not something that you did.
The result was helpless frustration. I sought ways to make my elusive moments of inspiration visit me more often. I wanted to know how to trick, entrap, and seduce them into being my servants, not coy and elusive ghosts.
The culture of writing fueled my obsession with mystical phenomena like talent and inspiration, but there was too little mention of a greater power which is entirely controllable: process.
No writer wants to hear that his story is “predictable.” It one of the worst criticisms you can give a writer. It suggests tedium and dullness. At the same time writers are told that characters should be consistent, that they should never lurch from the rules that govern their personalities – in other words, characters should be somewhat predictable; otherwise, their life-like illusion breaks down.
A simple example is Cookie Monster. Cookie Monster is about as predictable as a character can get. He loves cookies, he always loves cookies, and the farther Cookie Monster is willing to go in pursuit of cookies, the more lovable he is. No one wants to see Cookie Monster drop cookies for cauliflower – unless in the end he realizes the error of his ways and comes home to his true nature: Cookie! Om, nom, nom, nom!
Cookie Monster is predictable in motive, but he is not dull. He is endlessly creative when it comes to finding new and unpredictable ways to appreciate cookies.
Writing is the next best thing to telepathy. It makes up for something we lack in nature: the ability to truly feel what it is like to be another person.
Sympathy aside, everything I experience, I ultimately experience alone. This will always be true. No one else will ever literally feel my pain, my bliss, my disappointments, or my triumphs, just as I will never know exactly what it feels like to be someone else. But by reading, maybe I can come close.
When reading, I draw on personal frames of reference to understand other viewpoints. All is Quiet on the Western Front gave me a horrifying sense of what it felt like to be a German soldier during World War I. The Slave Narrative of Frederick Douglas triggered in me personal feelings of injustice as the author showed me what it was like to be an American slave before the Civil War.
Sometimes I have the thought, “I have lost my way.” It always alarms me. It suggests that at some point in my life I must have had a WAY so perfect that if I had only continued to follow it without straying, it would have led to eternal bliss, infinite wisdom, or enlightenment.
At times I may have the thought when it is not really called for, when I am only having a bad day. But there have been times in my life when I really did lose my way, times when I moved away from who I really was and toward some alien substitute which left me desperately unfulfilled and confused.
The first time I lost my way, I was a chronically confused nine-year-old who had been repeatedly teased for being shy.
My short story “The Age of Erring” would not behave.
I had ordered it to be a short story, but it tried to become a novel. I wrote at least 50 pages with no end in sight until I realized that the story was mushrooming out of my control. To contain the explosion, I reduced it to about ten pages. In the end I was happy with it, but it took me so long to write that it delayed publication of my new story collection by almost two months.
The collection, which I released last week, is The Age of Erring and Other Tales.
I used to write my novels defensively. I was terrified of there being any page where the reader might possibly be confused at any moment, so I would try to cram in as many explanations in as short of a space as possible: my terminology, the history of my world, cultural idiosyncrasies, and geography, for starters.
I wanted to show readers I had done my homework, that I had created a sensible world, that I had fortified it on every side with unassailable logic. As a result I felt less like a fiction writer than a graduate student defending a doctoral thesis.
I forgot that I was not on trial, and that my primary goal was to make readers feel. Information does not need to be rushed, and information not directly related to the story can be omitted altogether.
A famous quote of advice by author Stephen King is “Kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little heart, kill your darlings.”
In other words, cut passages of writing, even the ones you love, if cutting them benefits the story as a whole. Cutting superfluous text can help writers achieve a leaner, more focused, and more interesting narrative.
When I first read “kill your darlings,” I did not like the advice, not at all. I was fine with cutting passages I considered truly abominable, but parting with passages I loved and had worked hard on felt like cutting off my arm. If a passage worked on any level, I was reluctant to let it go.
When I first began writing fiction, my characters tended to be too passive. Horrible things happened to them, but they never knew exactly what to do. When they did react, they reacted too little.
A student in my college creative writing class had the same problem. His story began with a father losing his toddler son to a senseless murder. The next scene skipped forward a couple of years without ever showing how the father reacted emotionally to this harrowing event. The father, adrift, focused on other things. The father only occasionally thought back vaguely to the “bad years,” with parsimonious allusions to the shattering event that must have transformed his life.
To say that the author wasted an opportunity is an understatement. When characters suffer emotionally, readers sympathize, and sympathy builds an emotional bond between characters and readers.
A common complaint about novels is “too many descriptions.” As a reader I have made the same complaint in cases where I was eager to see what happened next in a story, only to end up entangled in a painfully detailed description of some bucolic farm setting.
Question: Please, tell me, does the baby whose stroller is teetering on the edge of a three mile high precipice live?
Answer: Shh, not now. Here. Look at this grassy field. It has a cow. And grass. Did I mention the grass was green? Emerald green!