Sunday, October 11, 2009

Writing Lessons Hard-Learned

I've been pretty much out of touch the last month or so for a variety of reasons. I've been extremely busy at my day job . . . so much so that on my way home from the university late one evening I actually fell asleep for about fifteen seconds at a stop light (a horn from the car behind woke me up and the song still playing on the radio clued me in as to the time gap).

Anyway, I'm close to the end of my temporary duty assignment and will soon begin to train my replacement so I'm looking forward to getting my life back.

Since I missed Friday's post, I figured I'd make up for it with a Sunday post on writing. Consider the following a list of things writers need to remember. And, please know, I have learned each of these lessons the hard way . . . by making the mistakes in question.

1) The importance of continuity. When I'm critiquing a full manuscript--mine or another writer's--I keep a little list of the characters and the plot lines beside me on a pad. That way, I can spot any thread that is left unresolved. Invariably, in every full I've ever read, some detail was left hanging. It's really hard for a writer to notice these things because s/he is aware of how all the threads are supposed to end. I know this because it's happened to me. I've been shocked when a critique partner drew my attention to something I thought I'd addressed. I meant to address it . . . I knew how it was going to be resolved . . . I just forgot to put it on paper.

2) Logic holes. I'm convinced the film industry is responsible for this problem. How many times have you sat in the theatre just glued to the story on the screen? Then you and your spouse or friend walk out into the light of day, and one or the other of you points to a huge logic hole in the story. Out of the theatre, away from the thrilling musical score, the terrific acting and the fast-moving camerawork, you suddenly realize there was a plot hole big enough to drive a Mac truck through. I call it the "Don't go through that door" syndrome. The protagonist has absolutely no reason to walk into that house or office . . . except that the story stalls if he doesn't do it. In real life, you'd be a fool to do what the protag does, but on the screen, it seems perfectly logical.

Unfortunately, reading a book is not yet a multi-media event. We're close to that day, but not quite there yet. Without the actor's dazzling smile or the crescendo of musical foreshadowing, the writer's plot holes leap off the page at the reader.

3) Coincidences. Yes, I know coincidences do happen in real life. Twins separated at birth and never told about each other do meet at college years later and hundreds of miles from either's home. But that's why these stories make the news . . . because they are so remarkable and rare. Don't depend upon coincidence to resolve your plot. It's cheating, and your readers will not forgive you for it.

4) Stephen Parrish sent me a link to Maureen Dowd's review of Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol in the New York Times here.

I need to point out that I have not purchased that book because it took me SIX . . . count 'em . . . six tries to get past the first fifty pages of The Da Vinci Code in hardcover. For that reason, I figured I'd save time and money and just wait for the paperback edition of The Lost Symbol or buy it used in another few months. (I should also point out that I purchased his earlier book Angels and Demons and really liked it, which was why I shelled out my hard-earned money for the hardcover of The Da Vinci Code).

Anyway, Dowd takes Brown to task for "metaphors and similes [that] thud onto the page." She gives the following examples:
­Inoue Sato, an intelligence official . . . “cruised the deep waters of the C.I.A. like a leviathan who surfaced only to devour its prey.” Insights don’t simply come to characters: “Then, like an oncoming truck, it hit her,” or “The revelation crashed over Langdon like a wave.” And just when our hero thinks it’s safe to go back in the water, another bad metaphor washes over him: “His head ached now, a roiling torrent of inter­connected thoughts.” You can practically hear the eerie organ music playing whenever Mal’akh, the clich├ęd villain whose eyes shine “with feral ferocity,” appears.
The lesson: restrain yourself when it comes to metaphors and similes. A single good one is much better than a half dozen overwrought ones.

That's it for today.

1 comment:

Ieva Melgalve said...

About 3. - I think that coincidences and weird things are an excellent way to start a plot (after all, why not write about a news material) but to end a story, *any* external element, coincidental or not, is cheating because we're here to see how the protagonist makes choices and makes things happen, wins or fails through her own actions, not to see how everything is neatly arranged by the author.