Style, Substance, and The Wisdom of Nacogdoches
I returned from a week off to discover discussions of style. On the heels of several discussions about marketing and design and what amounts to curb appeal. As well as a debate with myself about the futility of why bother furthering this adventure because of my opinions (and choices) in regard to those subjects are often unpopular. But writing, or any creative adventure, (I’m a synthesist for God’s sake) is not about being popular, or conventional, it’s about discovery. You wouldn’t know that by all the discussions of mechanics.
I also discovered the internet is not the medium for writing anything of significance, either to an audience or ones self. He said, petulantly. Or, He said, nose thrust up theatrically in the universal pose of snobbery. Or the style choice of “point made, no attribution.” Or delete past “thrust up.” Choices. Everywhere. How we say what we say and what we don’t.
I read a lot of authors. Rarely entire books. Like listening to a song for the production values, not the song. I read some earlier P.D. James, before she became a franchise. Only two chapters for “style”. I learned two things. I had to read several pages of dialogue before I found any tags. Yay! I learned how to (my opinion) overwrite staging a scene. Something she was famous for, creating atmosphere. Down to how many dirty Kleenex were on the overly described flaws in the kitchen table. She would fail miserably doing that on a short attention span blog post.
I read J.D. Macdonald. I noticed he repeated a word, often in the same sentence, often in the same paragraph. Today Grammarly or an editor would say “You used (word X) three lines ago, third time on this page. Don’t you own a Thesaurus?” He evoked the same sense of place as James, in far fewer words. Less detail, no Kleenex, but as a reader you were right there. Do we need descriptions of filth or clutter? I don’t know. Fast food bags and a week’s worth of dishes in the sink does it for me. I do know he nailed Latin dance music of the 50s without a single bit of musical or musician vernacular, as well as the two people dancing to it, the night, the room, all of it in about as many words as I’m using here. BAM. Otherwise, his characters and their perceptions of each other vs who they were to themselves and their relationships was almost overwritten. No points off though, he was using all of them to beat the various forms personal condemnation might take while backstorying a murder. The murder of consequence only as a vehicle for all the character study.
I read David Foster Wallace. Okay, that’s literature. This piece was like Vonnegut, skating with one foot on either side of the absurd as if it were perfectly real. But that’s life, really. There are times that Wallace is excruciatingly detailed and hilarious at the same time. Like British comedy. Push the timing limit envelope as far as it will go. He is also invisibly poignant to the point of pulling your heart out. He has the angst of MacDonald lost in society, the atmosphere of James, internal and external. As an added benefit, you never see his education except when he flogs the entire academic/pop culture/publishing industries and tells a ridiculous story embedded in black comedy social commentary. If you find the opportunity to read “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”, do it. (It is not a discussion of the painting from 1861 by the same name.)
Did I mention I was out of town? Spent a day and a half in Mendocino, California. If you watched tv in the Eighties it was really Cabot Cove, Maine. Hometown to Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote. In P.D. James’ Devices and Desires her forward is a location disclaimer. Between two points in the real world she created a false, detailed location for her story. Wallace as well has us in a place so real yet unreal. MacDonald sets a fictitious house on a real lake. His characters occupy pretend places in real places. I think we should all do that, save for historical (yawn) novels. Build a sense of place out of a place. Nobody needs a Hollywood or Bermuda travelogue. As deep as P.D. James, as deceptive as Murder She Wrote, as un-real real as Wallace or MacDonald (or pick a big leaguer).
Got off topic there – What they all have in common (save Wallace) isn’t geographic misdirection, or the depth or lack of “atmosphere,” but the parade through character flaws of possible suspects. I discovered further down the road the following day that Raymond Burr’s winery had been sold. Perry Mason was another one of those parades.
It’s all style. Same formula. Flesh it out or pull it in. Deep content or cardboard.
Wallace alone writes stream of consciousness without “arc” or “formula.” Here they are, three strangers, not very sympathetic going through a hell of a boring day. On the surface. The good guys and the bad guys and the fairy godmothers aren’t wearing black or white hats or long tulle skirts and waving wands. They’re ad executives and rent a car counter agents and wife stealers and all kinds of people who can wreck your mind and your life if you let them, just like all the characters in all the other books. Only without being wrapped around a murder or an event. They just are. Like us. (Absurd) or touching Stories of People. Steinbeck does that on occasion as well.
I have seen Hemingway and Steinbeck and London bandied around as style models. All very different. A good deal of a Hemingway isn’t on the page. Steinbeck once said that Of Mice and Men was a way bigger story than a hack like him could write. (!) Clue – All the authors you remember force you into being with their characters. You go OMG, or WTF. Even if you don’t particularly like them, or they aren’t all that sympathetic, maybe they’re even jerks. But we follow them because –
There are no tricks. Since ancient times the Canons of Rhetoric will give you a work. Add Aristotle’s three major styles to work the scenes and draw your audience in. Work your characters and readers emotions up and down with language appropriate to what you want them to feel. No magic, no equations, no “style” copy. Say what needs to be said to put you and the reader and your characters in your scene, and delete everything else.
I think of style in terms of music. Music happens in the spaces between the notes. The story is told in the rhythm and pacing of those spaces. What’s not there is the reader’s, or listeners. And that’s why they’ve opted in. Not for our wonderous prose or flashy hemi-demi-semi quavers, but what we offer their imaginations with a story or piece of music.
My point – I think maybe we should be more concerned with how we sculpt our content than tricks and equations and curb appeal. There I am with those damn opinions. I will leave you with a true story from the music biz, names and all, as a parable.
Willie Nelson cut an album called Nacogdoches. In, of all places, Nacogdoches. At a studio in that same town owned by a friend and client of mine, Dana Woods. There’s a much longer story about that studio for some other time. Onward. Willie went to East Texas to cut a handful of standards with some old guys he’d known forever. Songs like “Stardust” and “How High the Moon”. Classics. Dana invited me for rough mixes night. The small control room is reasonably crowded, lights flash, the Mac screen scrolls. Willie is off to the side leaning elbows down on a rack cabinet, listening. First tune rolls by. Everyone nods, maybe a low-key muso only insider comment floats by. Dana’s intern ostentatiously effused, “Wow. That was a great cut.” Tunes and scene repeat, as do intern’s enthusiastic variations on “That was a great track.” After about five or six “Man, that was a great track” opines, Willie looks up, still in his rack lean, drawls in that unmistakeable nasally twang –
“Y’know, it’s hard to cut a bad standard.”