Tuesday, September 24, 2013


6. Pace
Much of screenwriter William Goldman’s wonderful Adventures in the Screen Trade can be applied to other types of writing. Goldman advises getting into each scene as late as possible, and out of it as early as possible. Faulty pacing in almost any work can be corrected with this advice.

There’s no need to begin scenes by laboriously explaining how characters arrived there, or to open an article or essay with excessive setup or introduction. If you find you’ve done this, chances are a more interesting way to begin follows just after what you’ve written. Similarly, many writers put an empty paragraph at the end of a scene or section. When revising my novels, I experiment by cutting the first and last paragraph of each scene. Suddenly, a sequence that dragged can become speedy. Arrive late in a scene and leave early. The reader will fill the gaps.
7. Unity
One method for creating a sense of unity in a piece of writing is the use of selective repetition. A detail or remark or even just a unique word mentioned early in your piece can be echoed later, creating a sense of wholeness through the reader’s recognition of the previous mention. That recognition also imbues the repeated element with a resonance, not unlike a coda in a musical composition. The reader enjoys a satisfying sense of progression, of having moved from one literary moment to another.
Reread a piece you’re working on with an eye toward finding that element you could repeat in a subtle way, and then look for a place later in the piece where you could drop it in. If you’re unsure which one would be most affective, experiment by trying several. Ask yourself: If you had to cut all the details or images and retain only one, which one would you keep? That’s the one you want.
8. Sentence Structure
Well. I don’t know that any writer in the 21st century worries about subjects and predicates. Or believes that one shouldn’t begin a sentence with and or but or or. Or thinks contractions are slang. So I don’t have much to say on this matter.
But this is important.
Generally, I don’t like rules for writers. The First Amendment doesn’t, either. But the English language is democracy in action. It responds to its users. If it didn’t, we’d still be saying “prithee” and calling taxis “hacks.” Hence, my 30-minute recommendation is to sit down and write whatever moves you, following only one rule:
Don’t bore anybody.
9. Word Choice
The poet Frank O’Hara is rumored to have given this advice: “If you think in pictures, write. If you think in words, paint.”
This turns out to provide some guidance on word choice. If you’re stuck on a word, sketch what it is you’re trying to describe. It doesn’t matter how good you are at drawing. What matters is the employment of a different skill set, a portion of the brain distinct from the one that has been searching for the mot juste.
Or consider a soundtrack for the scene. Let the scene play out in time along with the music, or read it aloud with the music as background. When you employ a different depictive medium than mere words, different associative threads (or synaptic connections) can be brought to bear on the task.
10. Rhythm is the subliminal soundtrack in writing. To explore options for moving a reader along, choose a dramatic passage from a published piece you admire. How do you feel when you read it? (Notice your breathing, heart rate, posture and emotions.) How did the writer provoke this response? How do word pairings and sentence and paragraph structures contribute to its momentum? How do these rhythmic choices serve the piece’s meaning?
Now, write a passage that echoes the patterns you’ve discovered. If the first sentence is three short words, yours should be, too. Where a descriptive image blossoms for a paragraph, let yours do the same. Communicate emotion through your rhythm. You might let rage stutter through the syncopation of words and halting punctuation, or stream through run-on sentences. Notice how these choices support or squelch the surrounding narrative. Just as a musician practices scales until they become second nature, your attention to the mechanics of rhythm will help you improvise over time.
11. Inspiration
In my
writing classes, I devote a session to daydreams, which are spontaneous messages from our subconscious. After one of my presentations, a puzzled member of the audience raised his hand and asked what a daydream was. Others were surprised, but I wasn’t. Not everyone has a daydream-friendly mind. In fact, some people have been taught to repress daydreams as mere distractions.

As writers, however, we should not only welcome daydreams, but train ourselves to be aware of them. In fact, the cores of most of my novels have come from daydreams. Daydreams are our primal storyteller at work, sending us scenes and topics that our imagination or subconscious wants us to investigate. Each day, we should devote time (I usually do this before sleeping) to reviewing our daydreams and determining which of them insists on being turned into a story. Don’t push away those daydreams that make you uncomfortable: The more shocking the daydream, the more truthful about us it is. Embrace that truth.
12. Balance
Creating a sense of balance in your piece is similar to creating unity (see the opposite page), but the repeated element is even more obviously connected to its earlier use. A classic example: In The Great Gatsby, as F. Scott Fitzgerald introduces us to the Buchanans in early summer, he emphasizes the breeze blowing through the room, billowing the curtains and the women’s dresses. Later, the same characters seated in the same place are shown in the heat of summer as weighted down, dispirited, languid. The connection between these descriptions creates balance and gives the reader a keen (if not necessarily conscious) sense of progression. It also implies that the characters are no longer free and airy, but encumbered by the circumstances that have arisen.
Set aside 30 minutes to reread your work, looking for a description, scene or metaphor that you can repeat later with some aspect changed to serve as a counterweight to the first usage.

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