Narfling the Garthok
Ever noticed how most all the ‘net writing advice on offer is generally useless, soft focused if focused at all, shotgun style generic and a good bit of it pay to play and how most of that isn’t much better than the free stuff? There was a key word in that sentence. If you missed it, I’ll be back.
We are offered opinion. Often based on what I call “bullshit factology.” You know, where self-styled marketers and editors and writing coaches have percentages for everything. Dialog vs Narrative, Action vs Head Time, Violent Action vs Character Moralizing, per page reader economy and why do we need to see this through the character or show, don’t tell. Notice those last two are in direct contradiction. Not so long ago I got both suggestions from the same editor, in the same chapter! Don’t open a scene with weather, open a scene with weather for tone. Lead the reader, let the reader decide. Don’t preach but – what is your character’s motivation (preaching being the easy way out). Don’t moralize but humanize your characters, what are they feeling? Let the reader decide what they’re feeling…
See what I mean? All of those conflicting suggestions are backed up with “bullshit factology” claims. Be they in marketing numbers and percentages of books sold in a given format in a given genre or by examples of “successful” authors. Like politicians, always using an example that serves the seller’s point. A bunch of snake oil salespeople with “proven formulas for your success” are teaching people to write and publish, treading on the writer’s dreams with their “voice of experience” and allowing them to publish poorly written crap that sells to a dozen relatives, everyone in their writing group and a few unsuspecting strangers who are all too polite to say it sucks.
Well, they don’t suck. Stories don’t suck, skills just need to be addressed before cover reveals and interviews oh my golly gosh I wrote a book full of dystopian gibberish. With a cool cover.
I bring this up because I have recently been Narfling my writer’s Garthok. To do so successfully I returned to the tomes of real teachers, real editors, real rhetoricians. They ask the hard questions and show real-world examples without saying “this is the gospel according to me. Adjust and use to taste.” Am I the only one who wants those hard questions, and their answers?
I don’t like sports analogies but here I go – The quarterback, the guy running the huddle on the football field? I had that job in my distant youth and I can tell you he does not bend over in there and say, “Okay, you big guys block and you three speedsters go out there and run around and I’ll throw the ball to somebody.” Except Patrick Mahomes, and he only does that when the pocket collapses. Without skills honed by practice into second nature intuition and instinct, he’d be getting knocked on his ass in the backfield all Sunday afternoon by people three times his size, not going to the Super Bowl. The point. A play is called based on a number of factors presented by the defense and then recognizing the skills needed to be productive in the moment. Like writing, or any art.
Oh yeah, the keyword back there? Generic. One size fits all. ‘Splaining, usually their take on the formulas. Bull. Shit. Everything has to drive the story. Reader economy. Mandatory story arc. I could repeat the first paragraph but I won’t.
Where is the story in all that? All the way back to the Ancient Greeks and the canons of rhetoric (which are rarely discussed by the Indie writerly) we come to the hard questions – What is our story? Who is our audience? What is our style? No, not the formulas, our personal style. Our voice. And, like any professional speaker, do we have the skills to tell our story to our audience? Do we even know how to check for that? If any of our answers are in the vicinity of “I wanna be (insert author here)” and we want to write more Hogwarts or conspiracy theory spy novels or (insert genre here) just like the person who wrote them in the first place then stop, right here, because we need to decide who we are and find the skills to express ourselves.
Do we know how to ramp our work up or down for the project at hand? Classic example, and I have used her before. PD James can take two to four pages to describe a freaking kitchen. Longer for a garden. Half a book could be given over to describing a country house, interspersed with the story. But – I got a collection of her short stories as a gift. And man, you can see her taking an author’s axe to all that atmosphere and boiling it down to four or five words. She’s as good a sketch artist as she is in the mural painting business. She admits in the forward that it takes a concentrated effort to get there. Knowing what we need to do is a skill. Knowing how to do it is also a skill. James didn’t change her voice, she adapted her voice and style to fit the confines of the product. And that doesn’t come from generic formula bullshit factology. It comes from knowing the basics, and ourselves, well enough to tell our story, our way, in a given format.
Another one, and this is hilarious, Dashiell Hammett short stories? A Hammett novel minus everything but the violence. Wham bam boom, almost non stop shoot ’em ups.
My point(s) in all this, besides bad, muddle through it generic advice is winning over learning the basic skill sets is this – Story first. Content first. Voice first. Our chosen audience will tell us, sans bullshit factology, what they like. PD James sold a lot of books where for pages at a time the story was up on blocks and not driven anywhere, but readers were presented with an atmosphere. Personally, I can do without so much of that, but knowing it is a viable (and oft used) stylistic tool is one more thing in the toolbox.
We have arrived at that – The Toolbox. And my latest Narfling the Garthok. I am writing a first-person caper with too many players, on purpose. To see if I can do it without the classic info dumps inherent in first person because one can’t see what else is going on, how others are behaving. Everyone complains about them, the info dumps, everyone points out a “great author” who didn’t use them and again I say Bull. Shit. Hammett, Chandler down through the ages of Parker and MacDonald and Connelly et al, they all end up in someone’s house, or a restaurant, or a police station or an alley where “somebody” spills the beans on the layout and the players. Christie did it by assembling everyone in a room and ‘splaining away the MacGuffins and red herrings. Barnaby or Morse have their eureka moments, after 400 pages, and they decide it was the meek, glasses-wearing nephew who killed everyone. No. Not going there, either. This is a caper, and unlike so many who try lately, I refuse to have the gaping plot holes, to have someone say later, well, what happened to the Cadillac and the body? Where side characters are who we meet on the way through the adventure, not unlike a PD James kitchen or a well-drawn MacDonald character thrown in Travis McGee’s way. No lengthy moralizing, no is this good or bad, who is evil, what is evil. Is just is. Elmore Leonard excelled at it in things like The Switch. Only that was third person. First-person is a bitch without the dumps, but I know it can be done. I’m trying to do it the way I suggest we all write – without accepting the generic advice – and telling our stories, our way, to very best of our ability. Raise your personal bar. Narfle the Garthok.