Rules for writing — Rule 12: End a chapter with a bang, not a whimper

My last post, on short sentences, reminded me that I haven’t been adding to my rules for writing, a somewhat randomly numbered series of guidelines that I try to follow, and you probably should too, if you’re writing mainstream novels.

The short sentence I discussed in that post came at the end of a chapter, which, as the Times article rightly pointed out, is a very good place to put a short sentence.  But what’s up with chapters?

Chapters are a nebulous concept.  If you were to ask me “How long should a chapter be?”, my response would be “I dunno.”  I don’t have a rule for that.  Sometimes you have a set piece that demands to be its own chapter, and the length is determined by the length of the set piece, but at other times you have a more or less continuous flow of action, or rapid-fire viewpoint changes, and it’s not at all obvious what function the chapter is playing, other than giving the reader an obvious place to stop reading, turn out the light, and go to sleep.

But you don’t want the reader to stop reading!  You don’t want the reader to go to sleep!

So the obvious thing to do is to end the chapter with something that forces the reader to keep reading into the next chapter.  And then I heard the screams. End of chapter.  What screams?  Who is screaming?  Better turn the page and find out.

This is the cliff-hanger approach to movie serials, and it’s such an obvious narrative ploy that I shouldn’t have to explain it to you.  Except that I keep screwing this up!  Twice so far in the first draft of the novel I’m writing I’ve ended a chapter with my narrator going to sleep.  That’s nuts — it’s an open invitation to the reader to go to sleep too.  If the narrator is safe in bed and nothing is going to happen till morning, there’s no reason to keep reading.  My writing group has had to gently remind me that the narrator shouldn’t go to bed at the end of the chapter — he should get whacked on the head by an unseen adversary, or discover a corpse, or fall into a bottomless ravine.  Or, you know, hear an unidentified person screaming.  And they couldn’t be more correct.

I’ll get this right in the second draft.  But in the meantime, I should print out this blog post and pin it next to my computer.  Let’s not screw up again.

Rule 9: Strive to eliminate skimming

Here’s another in my randomly numbered rules for fiction writing, which apply to folks who aren’t good enough to break the rules.  That includes you.  And me.

This rule came to mind as I considered the Ohlin/Giraldi bad review controversy, which I wrote about here (and which generated a lot of search hits–it’s a popular topic!).  First, there was the review itself.  When I read a book review, what I want to find out is whether the book is worth reading–not whether the reviewer is clever.  So I found myself skimming the first paragraph, which quotes Ezra Pound and throws in references to Middlemarch and Don Quixote and calls entirely too much attention to itself.  Just tell me about the book!

But when he finally does start to discuss Ohlin’s work, he makes what seem to be valid points.  If an author’s prose is flabby–if her descriptions and narrative are filled with clichés–then why bother reading that prose?  If I ever do read the book, I know I’m going to start skimming. (Of course, I did read the first chapter of Ohlin’s novel and didn’t skim, which makes me wonder if the reviewer was overstating his case.)

If readers aren’t going to read your words, why bother writing them?  The only way you’re going to find out if readers are skimming is to get yourself some readers–and that’s another rule, which I haven’t written yet–maybe because it’s so obvious. Short of that, here are some things worth thinking about–at least, they’re the kind of things I think about:

  • Have I eliminated all unnecessary words?  This is standard writing hygiene.  Make every word count.  Don’t say “in order to” if you can just say “to”; don’t say “all of” if you can just say “all”.  It makes the prose tighter and clearer.
  • Have I right-sized my descriptions?  This probably deserves to be yet another rule, but the idea is to make your description the length that is appropriate for the significance to the story of the person or thing or event you’re describing.  For example, minor characters don’t deserve fully developed back-stories; we don’t need to know exactly what they’re wearing or where they grew up or what their politics are.  If a meal isn’t a major event, we don’t need to know what everyone ordered and what kind of wine was served.
  • Are my descriptions too ordinary?  This is one thing Giraldi complained about. You can’t just say, “She was medium height, with brown hair, green eyes, and white teeth.”  Why bother?  Typically, a physical description has to merge into characterization.  For example, if you describe someone’s teeth are “impossibly white,” you are starting to say something about that person.
  • Have I de-clichéd my prose?  This is another Giraldi complaint.  If you’re going to say “Nice guys finish last,” you’d better have a good reason for it–for example, it could be funny or ironic in context. Otherwise it’s pure deadweight.

My first drafts tend to be underwritten–I’m too eager to get through the story and reach my destination.  I add detail and depth in succeeding drafts. But sometimes I overwrite, which will happen when you’re not sure of yourself–you’re describing a character for your own benefit, not just for your readers.  Then you need to prune ruthlessly.

I sometimes worry that I worry too much about skimming.  I recall taking out a lot of detail in the final draft of Replica, concerned that the pace was too slow for what was supposed to be a breakneck thriller.  When I re-read it recently in the process of turning it into an ebook, I thought maybe I had gone a little overboard.

There are no right answers; that’s why they call it art.

Self-plagiarism is one thing; making stuff up is something else entirely

The last time we encountered Jonah Lehrer, he had been caught committing the odd crime of self-plagiarism.  Things have now taken a turn for the worse. In fact, his meteoric career has crashed and burned, as meteors tend to do, with the revelation that he fabricated Bob Dylan quotes in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works.  This time he ran afoul of the relentless reporting of a journalist and Dylan freak named Michael Moynihan, writing for Tablet magazine.  (Tablet‘s website has apparently also crashed and burned, and I can’t link to the article.)  Here is a report that quotes Moynihan:

I’m something of the Dylan obsessive — piles of live bootlegs, outtakes, books — and I read the first chapter of Imagine with keen interest. But when I looked for sources to a handful of Dylan quotations offered by Lehrer — the chapter is sparsely and erratically footnoted — I came up empty, and in one case found two fragments of quotes, from different years and on different topics, welded together to create something that happily complimented Lehrer’s argument. Other quotes I couldn’t locate at all.

He finally got Lehrer to confess.  The result: his book has been recalled, and he has had to resign from the New Yorker.

I imagine that Lehrer thought he could get away with his fabrications because book publishers don’t do the kind of obsessive fact-checking that the New Yorker is famous for.  But it’s a terrible risk to take, especially when you’re fabricating Bob Dylan quotes for a public with any number of Dylan obsessives in it.  As with the self-plagiarism, it seems to be a case of cutting corners.  At least he came up with what sounds like a sincere apology:

The lies are over now. I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers. I also owe a sincere apology to Mr. Moynihan. I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed.

That’s pretty classy in a world of mealy-mouthed passive-voice pseudo-apologies. The classic in this genre is Newt Gingrich blaming his love of country for his adulteries:

“There’s no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate.”

Things happened–lovely.  Anyway, this blog is primarily about fiction, and in fiction you don’t have to apologize for making stuff up.  On the other hand, you do have to apologize for stealing stuff.  Don’t steal stuff. It’s not worth the risk of getting caught, and the more successful you are, the more likely you are to get caught.  Here is the sad story of an overachieving Harvard student who plagiarized passages in a big-time young-adult chick-lit novel she wrote.  Wikipedia tells you much more than you want to know, comparing passages from her novel with similar passages from half a dozen others.  The really sad part of the story is that a few years after the plagiarism controversy her parents died in a plane crash.

I hope she gets over it.  I hope Lehrer gets over it, although I doubt he will.  From the New Yorker blog posts I read, I’d say the guy knows how to write.  He just lost sight of the rules.

Rules for writing — Rule 3: Rewrite

This is another in my random series of rules for writing, designed for for those among us who aren’t geniuses and therefore don’t get to make our own rules.  This means you.  And me.

Let’s distinguish rewriting from revising.  Revising is when you tinker with stuff you’ve already written.  That’s fun!  Rewriting is when you throw away what you’ve written and start over again.  Start a new computer file.  Go through the whole story or novel again, typing it from scratch.  That can be intimidating.  It can be overwhelming.  It can feel like a complete waste of time, when you encounter paragraph after paragraph that, as far as you can tell, doesn’t need to change.  Why bother?  There are more novels to be written.  The Red Sox are on TV.

In my post about outlining, I stole an image from E. L. Doctorow of writing as a car journey in the darkness, with only your headlights to guide you as you make your way towards your destination.  What happens when you reach that destination?  Do you really want to start the journey all over again?

Well, yes, you do.  If you’re like me, you accumulate notes during your journey — should have made a left turn here, should have driven a little faster in this stretch, should have taken a shortcut to totally eliminate that stretch. Some of these notes may be the basis for revisions, but often they call for much more.  Generally, for me, they accumulate to the point that I need to start from the beginning.

The most obvious example of this was when I figured out that I had come up with the wrong murderer in Senator.  That required rejiggering the whole novel.  Everything needed to be recalibrated, from the opening sentence to the ending.  I’m currently rereading my novel Dover Beach, and I recall one ultimate plot twist that I figured out only when I had finished the first draft.  Without the twist, something basic about the book was out of whack.  The twist occurs at the very end, but I needed to prepare for it throughout the plot.  I can no longer tell exactly where I made the changes, but I figure that’s a good thing — everything in the final product needs to be seamless.

Rewriting is less fun than revision, because it’s more work.  But I find it deeply satisfying.  And it goes much faster than the first draft, which is what causes me to sweat blood.  I have never done more than three drafts — but maybe my work would be better if I had!  At some point I’m content to take the latest draft and revise it.  And revise it, and revise it.

And still I can look at it later and see where the thing has still fallen short.  Here is the famous quotation from Paul Valéry:

A poem is never finished, only abandoned.

This applies to novels, as well, except you have a hundred thousand words to tinker with instead of a hundred.  You can tinker forever, so at some point you have to stop.  But if you stop too soon, you’re not doing your story, or yourself, justice.

Did Shakespeare revise his plays?

We should all revise our work.  And we shouldn’t spend too much time feeling sorry for ourselves because Shakespeare didn’t have to revise his work.  His plays, we are told, are all inspired first drafts.  At least, that’s what Heminge and Condell said in their “Epistle to the Great Variety of Readers” of the First Folio:

His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that wee have scarse received from him a blot in his papers.

This has become part of the enduring image of Shakespeare — so supreme a genius that he he didn’t even have to labor over his masterpieces, like Mozart interrupting a game of billiards to jot down a movement in a string quartet. And, of course, this image is always paired with Ben Jonson’s envious comment:

“The Players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, ‘would he had blotted a thousand.'”

There was only one Shakespeare, and we’re not him.  And neither was Ben Jonson.

This image is under attack from modern critics.  Here is Stephen Greenblatt, interrupting his writing of The Swerve to write in the Wall Street Journal:

A number of Shakespeare’s plays survive in both the small quarto editions, inexpensively published during his lifetime, and in the first folio. Comparing versions of the same play, I and other scholars have concluded that many of the differences are probably due to Shakespeare’s own obsessive fiddling.

The Quarto

A particularly significant amount of fiddling occurred in King Lear, where there are extensive changes between the quarto edition and the First Folio.  As a result, some modern editions include both versions, instead of presenting a single edition that conflates both versions.  The Arden edition I own is of the conflated school.  It uses F and Q superscripts to indicate words that are only found in one version or the other.  Lear’s final line in the play, spoken over the dead body of Cordelia, appears only in the folio version:

Do you see this?  Look on her; look, her lips,
Look there, look there!   He dies.

Does he die joyfully, thinking Cordelia is really alive?  What was Shakespeare up to when he added the line?  Who knows?

Of course, there is no real evidence of revision, just of differences.  Maybe both the quarto and the folio are simply different versions of a lost original manuscript.  Maybe some of the differences are due to lines that were added by actors during rehearsals.  Greenblatt and others are convinced that Shakespeare fiddled, but that’s based on interpretation, not evidence.  The next generation of scholars may come up with some other interpretation — or decide that Heminge and Condell knew what they were talking about.

Still, it’s nice to think that Shakespeare was like the rest of us, adding words and taking them out and moving them around, trying to achieve some kind of perfection that is always just out of our reach.

Rules for Writing — Rule 2: Revise

Here’s another in an intermittent series of my randomly (and repetitively) numbered rules for fiction writers who aren’t quite good enough to get away with breaking all the rules.  If you’re reading this post, I’m talking about you.

First, let’s distinguish revising from rewriting.  The distinction is a little arbitrary, but for my purposes, revising is taking what you’ve written and making it better; rewriting is taking what you’ve written and writing it all over again.  On a computer, when you revise, you’re working on the same file; when you rewrite, you’re opening a new file and labeling it “Chapter 1 Draft 2” or something.

I’m inclined to believe that everyone revises; I’m not so sure that professional authors cranking out multiple books per year are doing much rewriting.  But anyway, in my opinion, revising is the most fun you can have as a writer.  Staring at a blank screen can be intimidating and discouraging; the blinking cursor seems to tick away the seconds of your life.  But once that screen is filled with words, it’s much easier, and more satisfying, to mess with those words and make them better.

As I mentioned in my post on Rule 0, it’s helpful to begin a writing session by revising your previous day’s output.  But there’s really no bad time to revise; it’s just a question of deciding when to stop.  Somebody once said that he knew he was done with a story when he’d go through it and take out some commas, and then he’d go through it again and start putting the commas back in.

Revising is mostly about style; rewriting is mostly about plot and characterization.  So revising involves applying all them grammer and spelling rules that you learned in Rule 7, but it also involves going beyond them; you want to make your prose sing (or, at least, to keep it from wandering off key).  How do you do that?  A good place to start is with George Orwell’s rules for writing (from his essay “Politics and the English Language“):

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I don’t know to what extent Orwell intended these rules to apply to fiction, but I’d say that Rule 6 is even more applicable to a novelist than it is to a non-fiction writer.  There are times when you’re striving for an effect that may require the passive voice, or a foreign phrase, or a cliché, particularly in dialog or a first-person narrative.  But it’s a good idea to be aware of Orwell’s rules, even if you decide to break them.

Orwell’s rules don’t cover something that is central to revision but that’s hard to put into into a rule: the rhythm of your words.  Sometimes, for example, you want to repeat a word for an effect; sometimes the repetition just sounds stupid or awkward.  Sometimes you want to start a bunch of consecutive sentences in the same way; sometimes that’s just an oversight that needs fixing.  I’ve heard of writers who read their words aloud to check how they sound — that’s certainly a good idea for dialog.  I don’t do it, but I sound out everything in my mind.

And there’s a related rule that I’ll talk about more someday: Show your work to someone else. Sometimes the words that sound just right to you will provoke a violent allergic reaction in your friends. Better to know that before you’re finished than after.

In which I issue a pre-emptory challenge

I’m listening to a course from UC Berkeley called “Punishment, Culture, and Society.”  It’s pretty good!  But I’m not going to talk about it!

Instead I want to talk about the professor’s grammar and pronunciation.  They ain’t that great.  He seems to think phenomena is singular; he uses hung when pedants would say he should use hanged.  (He occasionally corrects himself on the latter — someone apparently taught him the rule — but he can’t get it right consistently.)  And here are some of his mispronunciations:

  • Peremptory comes out sounding like pre-emptory.  And the guy’s a lawyer!
  • He says maelstorm instead of maelstrom.
  • He pronounces gibbet with a hard g — like gibson instead of giblet.  And the guy’s an expert on the death penalty!

Lectures are actually a good place to come across mispronunciations.  Where else are you going to hear the word gibbet?  I actually have no idea why I know how to pronounce it (I looked it up to make sure I was right).

It’s too bad we can’t easily track pronunciation over time, the way Google Ngram Viewer lets us track print usage.  How does a dictionary writer know that gibbet is pronounced with a soft g?  How is the poor law professor supposed to figure it out, without consulting a dictionary?

A long long time ago I wrote a series of vocabulary-building books.  One of them contained the word flaccid.  The dictionaries I checked all gave the pronunciation as FLAK-sid.  But literally everyone I asked actually pronounced the word FLASS-id.  (And I asked a lot of people — I have no idea what they thought of me.)  At some point dictionaries acknowledged the existence of FLASS-id as an alternative, and this article says some dictionaries now give it as the preferred pronunciation.

It seems to me that almost no one actually speaks the word flaccid, so some people figure out its pronunciation by applying some rule or via analogy — e.g., “flaccid is formed like accident, and I know how to pronounce accident.”  Or, if they can’t figure out a rule or an analogy, they try to intuit the pronunciation through some sense of the word’s meaning — e.g., “flaccid has something to do with softness and flabbiness, so it must have a soft, flabby pronunciation.”  What’s odd is that I now hear the soft acc sound in other words, like accessory.  What’s up with that?

Back to the law professor.  The Language Wars, the book I’m currently reading, describes the tortuous path English has taken to get to its current state of spelling, grammar, and pronunciation.  In the iptivist divide, it’s descriptivist, not prescriptivist.  Who cares how you pronounce gibbet, or if you use hung instead of hanged?  No one misunderstands what the professor is saying.  And yet, I can’t help getting the impression that the guy must be a bit of a lightweight.  Wouldn’t someone who really knew what he was doing manage to align his grammar and pronunciation with current standards, however arbitrary they may be?

That’s why writers would do well to heed Rule 7.

Rules for Writing — Rule 7: Aim for the right level of believability

Continuing our intermittent and randomly numbered series . . .

Believability in fiction is overrated.  P. G. Wodehouse novels aren’t believable.  Most of Shakespeare and Dickens isn’t believable.  Who cares?

The level of believability you want depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. If you’re writing a gritty police procedural aimed at readers who consume lots of police procedurals, you’d better make sure your police procedures are believable.  If you’re writing chick lit that involves a scene at a police station, your readers aren’t going to care very much about the details.

Accuracy is neither necessary nor sufficient for believability.  I recall John le Carré describing how he got the description wrong of the British embassy in some African country — probably inThe Constant Gardener.  Who cares, as long as the description he came up with was believable?  On the other hand, in early drafts of my fiction I’ve written descriptions and dialog that my writing group has found unbelievable — even though I took the stuff from real life.

You need to think about believability for characterization, plot, and setting.  In a realistic novel, readers will put up with outlandish plots, but the characters and setting had better ring true.  In a mystery, the plot doesn’t have to be especially believable, but the mystery and its solution had better work.

I find that my own reactions to believability are hard to predict.  In reading 1Q84, I was perfectly happy with a plot that involved all kinds of weirdness, including a parallel universe with an alternate history and two moons (hey, I’ve written a parallel universe story myself — who hasn’t!).  I was annoyed by the idea that Japan could have a short fiction contest that attracted national attention, but I gave that plot point a pass because I don’t know anything about Japan.  I was really peeved, though, by the main character’s reaction to seeing two moons in the sky.  He keeps wondering if this is a hallucination.  He considers asking other people if they see what he’s seeing, but he’s afraid they’ll think he’s crazy.  Dammit, I kept thinking whenever this came up: This character’s not stupid.  Can’t he just read a newspaper, where they give phases of the moon as part of the weather report?  Can’t he go to the library and look in an encyclopedia?   I also wondered about gravitation and tides and such, but I’m not scientifically literate enough to worry too much about that.  Anyway, this one issue periodically marred my enjoyment of the novel.

There are always place is my novels where I find it hard to maintain complete believability. People need to do things that aren’t quite in character; I  need to set up situations that may strain credulity.  The writing craft involves recognizing these problems when they come up; if you can’t avoid them, you need to be able to paper over the crack so that no one notices.

Replica is a complex thriller with a complex technological premise.  You can get away with more hand-waving in a thriller, trusting that the reader doesn’t want to be slowed down by details.  Here are a couple of believability problems that bedeviled me when writing this novel:

  • In the world of Replica, an android is a human clone with a robotic brain inserted.  How does that work, exactly?  You can’t just hollow out the clone’s skull and insert a hard drive.  Or can you?
  • Frightened by an assassination attempt, the president wants to create an android replica of himself to replace him at public appearances.  OK, but how do you create an adult clone of someone?  You can’t just speed up the clone’s development so that you get the equivalent of a 50-year-old man in a matter of months.  Or can you?

I didn’t really solve these problems, but no one complained.  Maybe no one noticed.  Maybe now they will.