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arhyalon

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09:47 am: Just Words On A Page

 

When I was young, there was nothing I loved more than to disappear into the world of books.  I would bike down to this magical place called the library and come back with a backpack of books. Then I would curl up in my room and disappear into Wonderland.

 

I loved all books, but some were especially marvelous. They captured the imagination and did not let go. They introduced ideas or painted images unlike anything I had conceived before. These books moved into the secret place of my heart and stayed.

 

For years, I thought this was done by some kind of magic. These authors that I loved had some secret, some mystical insight, that let them express amazing concepts through their books, and no one who did not have their spark of genius could ever understand what they had done.


Then, one day, I had an amazing insight. It occurred to me that each of these books that I loved—every scene that moved me to joy, or tears, or to think new thoughts—they all had one thing in common, one unbelievably simple thing.


 

They were just words on a page.

 

No psychic power reached down from heaven to strike the idea in to my mind. (I make an exception for the Bible, which many people feel is a Living Book that does talk to you.) No magic conveyed the images directly into my emotions. Each scene, no matter how extraordinary, was conveyed in its entirety by words on a page.

 

If we took a passage from the book and copied it in our own handwriting (or typing), it would say exactly the same thing—with the same brilliance—as when the author wrote it.

 

This was borne home to me one day when I talked to a dear but mentally ill relative who began to tell me what he has ‘sensed’ about the characters in my story.

 

  He would say, “I can sense that Mephisto is such and such a type of person.”

 

  And I would say, “Yes. That’s because I went way out of my way to carefully convey that impression.”

“No, no,” he would say, “I am sensing this about him. And I also sense that Theo is like such and such.”

 

I could not convince him.

 

But, of course, I had done it on purpose. He was picking up on subtle clues I had placed into the story using words on a page.

 

Now that I had discovered this mind-boggling amazing secret, what to do with it?

 

I began to apply this grand secret to critiquing. So often, we read something that we do not like or that seems not quite right, and we do not know why. But now I knew the secret. I was just reading words on a page. The answer to whatever it was that was disturbing me had to be in those words, right? I would think: “Okay. All that is here is words on a page. Which words are creating the impression I don’t like?”

 

The more I tried this, the easier it became. Once I could identify the exact words creating a certain impression in others’ work, I found I could do it for myself, too—read a passage I wrote and pinpoint the exact words that did not convey the impression I wished.

 

This has been so useful, not only for me, but also for friends. It is heartbreaking to read something a friend wrote and not be able to give them any useful guidance. At least this way, I can tell them exactly what troubled me. If it does not trouble them, they can ignore it. But I have often had friends thank me for my insights, so I like to think that someone is benefiting, at least some of the time.

 

If all impressions in reading come from words on a page, then by understanding which words created any given impression, we can learn how to create the impressions we wish to convey. We can learn how to locate the words causing impressions we do not like. And, we can learn how to identify what exactly creates an effect we like in another author’s work, so that we can learn to do something similar ourselves—not by copying the other person, but by understanding the principle that let them do it.

 

Basically, this one insight can help us write a better book.

 

So there it is. The great secret of the literary world.

 

I am sharing it with you, but do not spread it around too widely. For one thing, no one would believe you.

 




Comments

[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:April 14th, 2010 03:39 pm (UTC)
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This is one reason I recommend pastiches. Trying to get your words to sound like another writer is a good way to learn how to get them to jump through hoops.

(Do not, however, try to submit them; pastiches are writing exercises.)
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:April 14th, 2010 05:03 pm (UTC)
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While I was thinking more of something like learning how so-and-so does action scenes, you make a very good point!
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:April 15th, 2010 02:30 am (UTC)
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Style and substance are not so easily dissevered. Pastiches usually imitiate subject matter for good reason. (Imagine trying to write hard-boiled detective novels in the style of Lewis Carroll.)
[User Picture]
From:dirigibletrance
Date:April 15th, 2010 12:16 am (UTC)
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Unless you are writing comic books. Pastiches are... industry standard, in those.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:April 15th, 2010 12:27 am (UTC)
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They have their places. One can write novels with that, too...but it's different from doing it as a writing exercise alone. ;-)
[User Picture]
From:dirigibletrance
Date:April 15th, 2010 12:17 am (UTC)
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Oh, and Dark Fantasy/VampRomp/UrbanFantasy. They're all pastiches of each other, but manage to get published all the time. So there's that, too.
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:April 15th, 2010 03:21 am (UTC)
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That's because their styles are hardly as distinctive as, say, Lord Dunsany's.
[User Picture]
From:cdenmier
Date:April 15th, 2010 01:43 am (UTC)
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Okay...I have no idea. What is a pastiche?

Before I consult the all-knowing Internet, I'll ask here...
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:April 15th, 2010 02:01 am (UTC)
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I'm not sure of the official definition. In this context, it's writing in the style of another author.
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:April 15th, 2010 03:18 am (UTC)
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Imitating another writer, particularly his style. Like writing tenth-rate Lord Dunsany imitations-- no one writes better than tenth-rate Lord Dunsany imitations, he's unimitatable, but even that teaches you lots about getting words to jump through hoops.
[User Picture]
From:cdenmier
Date:April 15th, 2010 01:01 pm (UTC)
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Thank you!
[User Picture]
From:cdenmier
Date:April 14th, 2010 05:09 pm (UTC)

Example?

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Could you maybe give an example or two of what you're talking about?
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:April 14th, 2010 05:19 pm (UTC)

Re: Example?

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Hmm...

Okay. I read a story and I think, "Gee, that main character seems whimpy."

Then, I sit down and study what is in front of me until I can point out to my writer friend who read the story exactly which words are giving me the impression that he is whimpy. Which specific passages or phrases.

Now, this may seem simple, but if you have ever been involved with critiquing, you will know that it is very rare to find someone who can do this. Many people can find spelling mistakes or point out cliches, but being able to pinpoint "gee, this idea isn't working and here's where it isn't working" is much rarer.

It's particularly useful when dealing with John. I'll say, "I don't like X in what you are writing." He'll say, "You are crazy. X is great." Then I need to sit down and think really hard, until I can pinpoint the very specific thing about X that is rubbing me the wrong way. Usually, when I can do this, he agrees...that wasn't the part of X he thought was working.

Does that make sense?
[User Picture]
From:cdenmier
Date:April 14th, 2010 05:30 pm (UTC)

Re: Example?

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Yes, it makes sense, but I was thinking more of an example in terms of an actual paragraph of text that demonstrates the point (like if you showed a few lines from the imaginary story above that pinpoints why the character is wimpy). I think I understand what you're saying, I just wonder how to actually do it.

I'm sorry...providing an example of that nature may be too complicated if you don't have something pretty recent in mind. Your point is pretty clear as is.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:April 14th, 2010 05:44 pm (UTC)

Re: Example?

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It may take me a while to find a good example. If/when I find one, I'll post it as its own post sometimes.

I like the idea, it just has to be the right thing.
[User Picture]
From:cdenmier
Date:April 14th, 2010 06:00 pm (UTC)

Re: Example?

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Thank you!

I imagine that this is not something that authors always do on purpose, but that probably happens quite accidentally. It's always strange to have a character that you think you've written one way only to find someone who gets another impression--them being able to nail down exactly HOW they got that impression is critical.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:April 14th, 2010 06:23 pm (UTC)

Re: Example?

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That happened to my yesterday. A character of mine said: "“I do not entertain solicitors, but I will accept a free sample of your wares.”

By which he meant samples of the good you are selling (so he could cast a spell on you.)

A friend reading the story thought he was propositioning the girl...probably be cause 'free sample of your wares." is the way romance villains would talk.

Really took me by surprise, but once I could see why she thought that, it was kind of funny. ;-)
[User Picture]
From:jjbrannon
Date:April 15th, 2010 07:28 pm (UTC)

Re: Example?

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Probably because "solicitation for prostitution" has become, in modern police cant, associated on crime shows as "charged with solicitation".

Ergo, in your story "entertain solicitors" adopts a different meaning than you intended.


JJB
[User Picture]
From:jjbrannon
Date:April 15th, 2010 07:15 pm (UTC)

On Viewing "Maude"

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My cousin RBS, whose Poe-revolving novel has recently piqued the interest of a publishing house, once watched a primetime episode of Maude in the happenstance company of his baby sister's friend's father.

The friend's father laughed outrageously at Bill Macy's quips. "He's so funny! He makes the funniest jokes!"

"You mean the writer writing the gags is so funny," RBS amended.

"No! No writer could be that funny. It's him! He's the one making the jokes. He's funny!"

RBS, for the first time in his life, in his early-20s and a writer since his boyhood, realized that many -- if not most -- ordinary people could not distinguish between reality and surface effects.

JJB
[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:April 16th, 2010 07:11 pm (UTC)

Re: On Viewing "Maude"

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A man was hired by George Burns to write jokes. When he told his family, he was asked why he didn't work for Gracie, since she was the one who said all the funny things.

OTOH, delivery is, after all, important.
[User Picture]
From:jjbrannon
Date:April 17th, 2010 08:12 pm (UTC)

Re: On Viewing "Maude"

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Yes, as the classic scene in one of my favoritist movies -- My Favorite Year -- illustrates.

Anyone can tell a joke. Or, alternatively, take accordion lessons. :>)


JJB
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