I owe a great debt of gratitude to The Real Cal for everything you've read thus far on this weblog and in The Total Manageability of Everything, not just because his own proclivity for writing was singularly inspiring, but because he has kept me in good supply of helpful books on the craft of writing itself. I've written here about Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and On Writing by Stephen King, but both of those books are subjugated on my bookshelf by a neat little piece by James Wood called How Fiction Works.
There are a lot of books that I don't take seriously. I don't like commentaries on other work, I prefer primary texts, and I'm not a huge fan of the autobiographical "Here's how I write" books, so I was surprised to find so much value in Wood's treatment of fiction. Following someone's advice (not The Real Cal,) I downloaded a copy of Reading Like a Writer and disliked it so much that I put it down after a couple of chapters. Brann says you are only obligated to give a book fifty pages minus your age before deciding it isn't worth your time, and my problem with Reading Like a Writer was that it consisted primarily of the author gushing about passages of prose she was particularly passionate about.
Now, there's nothing wrong with sharing passion, especially for well-crafted literature, but as a writer, I picked up the book to inform my writing practice, and How Fiction Works delivered on those goals far better. Wood presents his fair share of favorite passages, but he approaches it with an analytical mindset to try to illuminate the techniques the authors are using to create such meaningful prose. The first thing he taught me was the value of "free indirect speech," which he distinguishes from direct or indirect speech with the help of three different ways to describe the same event.
a. He looked over at his wife. "She looks so unhappy," he thought, "almost sick." He wondered what to say.
He offers us one final rendition of the scene: "He looked at her. Unhappy, yes. Sickly. Obviously a big mistake to have told her. His stupid conscience again. Why did he blurt it? All his own fault, and what now?" This happens within the first nine pages.
While I was editing The Total Manageability of Everything with a red pen and typing up the adjusted passages, I was reading Wood and learning how to make my writing more evocative, more descriptive, and more transportive. This encounter with "free indirect speech" opened my mind to the implications of every word choice, reminding me of the tension between putting my reader directly in the head of my characters and adding so much detail that the reader withdraws again, forced to consider the fact that someone had to write all of this down. If the work is too detailed, too precise, it can actually remove the reader from the story, making it too obvious that some author holding some pen had decided to describe it in just this way instead of letting the reader have a direct encounter with the story and its elements.
Woods writes that "the tension between the author's style and his or her characters' styles becomes acute when three elements coincide: when a notable stylist is at work,...when that stylist also has a commitment to following the perceptions and thoughts of his or her characters;...and when the stylist has a special interest in the rendering of detail." There's a fine line between capturing a character's consciousness and over-indulging description to the point of violating the reader's suspension of disbelief.
Compare these two passages from The Total Manageability of Everything. My earlier draft is on the left and the finished passage is on the right.
In the first passage, I got so carried away describing the entire history of Steven's narrative that I forgot my main character, Jason Fuller, was responsible for the content of the scene. How could he know so much about the land conspiracy, the childhood chores of a friend he barely knew, and the myriad of tiny details that surrounded the house at the end of the street in the middle of the night? By that point, he had been driving straight through since Flagstaff, a twelve hour journey, and would not have had the wherewithal to think about anything other than the prospect of sleep or stimulants.
When I first wrote it, I justified the inclusion of such details by thinking to myself it indirectly explored some of the conversations Jason and Steven would have had at some point in their friendship, showing that they had a close relationship and full understanding of their respective histories. Wood made me question that display of descriptive prowess, asking me if I wanted to show the reader how well these characters knew each other, or if I just wanted to show off how well I could describe things that may or may not have to do with the story.
Finding that description of an undeveloped cul-de-sac in Amarillo challenged me to go back through my work and remove other extraneous description. Before the Fourth Revision, my book was roughly nine hundred pages long, and that length was partly the result of not knowing the line to walk between free indirect speech and overindulgent narration.
Another component of that insane length was my inability to leave dialogue well enough alone. Wood cites a talk any Henry Green, who argued that "dialogue is the best way to communicate with one's readers, and that nothing kills 'life' so much as 'explanation.'" I was determined to make sure my readers knew everything that was crossing the mind of every character they read in my book, but that meant delving into things that were, realistically, unknowable. Green says, "We certainly do not know what other people are thinking and feeling. How then can the novelist be so sure?"
I picked over my scenes again with a fine-toothed comb, removing not just extraneous description, but also pages of speculation on the drives of other characters who were not my perspective protagonist. The entire novel is couched in Jason Fuller's perspective on what happens and what's important, and The Real Cal was right to rebuke me in an earlier revision for delving too deeply into the minds of the surrounding characters. Here's another example:
The result was much shorter, punchier exchanges between my characters, with plenty of unspoken subtext that would give the reader space to draw his or her own conclusions about what was motivating them to say and do the things they did. The rest of the exchanges between Jason and Cal, the primary interlocutors of the piece, were similarly culled to ensure the only perspective I could know for sure made it on the page. And even then, Jason Fuller is an unreliable narrator, his head is so full of mind-altering drugs that none of us can know for sure what really happened.
Wood goes on to cite Barthes in an attack on the complacency that the modern novel has instilled in us as readers, urging the would-be author to avoid taking certain conventions for granted:
"Avoid cliché" has been reiterated so often that it has become cliché itself to say, but I felt personally rebuked by this challenge to my fundamental assumptions about how fiction works, and I resolved to tear through the jungle of my book with a machete and slay all of the familiar tropes, along with a few more that I added in the form of sticky notes about my writing desk.
Never address "you." Nobody in the history of humans ever "made way for." Never say, "first order of business."
The Fourth Revision resulted in six hundred pages falling by the wayside, omitted in the service of making something readable of my long meandering story, and I owe that accomplishment more to How Fiction Works than to any other book on writing I have read.
Next week, I'll be talking about the self-publishing process, the last entry before I release the final chapter of The Total Manageability of Everything. The whole novel will be available for free, here on my website, until September 9th, 2016.