Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Five more rules for writers

Time to wrap up Judith Fitch's Ten Rules for Writers so I can move on to other topics. Here are my thoughts about how these rules apply to me and what I'm working on in my writing right now.

Rule number 6 is Use the landscape. This is one I need to work on. I'm weak on landscape: in the real world I'm a person who hardly notices where I am half the time. When I'm writing a book I make myself a map and tape it to the wall, but that's not enough. There's a special skill to drawing a landscape so that the reader can see it at a glance. In my own reading I often find that even detailed description doesn't necessarily make a place easier to picture; and young readers are impatient with description. So how can a writer convey a strong feeling of place? Engaging the five senses helps; so does finding an apt metaphor. For example, at the beginning of The Beechwood Flute, as my protagonist stands on a bluff overlooking his village, he feels the bite of the cold morning air and smells the wood fires starting up in the cottages below, but he also sees the village in its wooden palisade as a nest beside the river.

Rule number 9 is Write in scenes. I know how to write scenes, but I'm embarrassed to say that I still need the occasional reminder that narrative needn't be continuous. In writing books I struggle with transportation and the passage of time. My characters are in one place and I need them to get somewhere else, or I need a chunk of time to pass. The problem is that getting from here to there is going to be boring, because not much will happen on the way. Then some critique partner points out that I can just leave the boring part out. Jump. Start a new scene. Let the reader's mind swoop quickly over the white space. Just give a marker that time has passed: sometimes a book will even put "September, 1922" at the start of a chapter. Nobody complains. The reader is happy to have reached a new scene.

Rule number 8 is Learn to write dialogue. A master at dialogue is the thriller writer Elmore Leonard. He writes fast, snappy conversation that echoes spoken speech in all its quirkiness and abbreviation. Nobody sounds stilted. One oft-cited measure of excellence in dialogue is that each character's speech should be so distinctive that a reader should be able to tell who is speaking even without an identification tag. I haven't yet reached that standard of excellence. Some of my characters appear to share the same verbal habits, habits I fear I may share myself. More work needed here.

Rule number 7 is Smarten up your protagonist: a perceptive, observant protagonist will invite the reader deeper into the story world. I'm not too worried about this one. I like the views my protagonists bring to bear.

Finally, there's rule number 10: Torture your protagonist. My fellow writers talk about this one a lot. Create a character you like and then let him suffer reverses, disappointment, danger, pain, disillusion... Strip him of everything. Well, I'm not so sure. Job is great literature, but I don't want to read it every day. Too much unrelieved misery and I may just set a book down and forget to pick it up again. Sure, there needs to be tension, conflict, down times... but I think young readers, especially, deserve an occasional interlude of happiness amid the world's turmoil. So sometimes I let my protagonists rest for a moment on a sunny hillside with white clouds scudding overhead before they descend again into the tumultuous world of hurtling plot.

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