Friday, April 23, 2010

Write the Reading Experience You've Always Wanted

Everyone, it seems, wants fame.  We want success.  And success, in writing, is measured by readership.  It's measured by exposure to the greater public.  It's measured in the connections we have to other writers and also to our publishers.  Yet the root of these connections is the work itself - the writing.
 Although successful authors and established publishers say it time and again, we often forget the importance of developing our stories.  Before the books tour comes the book, and long before that comes the promise of a fresh manuscript.

Ask yourself, for a moment, what kind of work you would like to write.  If you are a poet, what does it take for a poem to bring you back for a second reading, and third, and fourth?  What kind of rhythm would you like to hear in your words?  If you are a novelist, imagine the book that will keep you enthralled for hours.  What will be at stake in this book?  What is that will keep your eyes fixed to the page until the very end?

Now step back for a moment.  Think about a poem or story you've been worked on recently - preferably a work that you've finished, but any creative piece will do.  Ideally, it should be something that you've read over since writing it.  If you took a break (a couple days, a few weeks, a few years) between writing the work and then reading it, all the better.

How does this work make you feel?  And be honest with yourself - this isn't for me or for your readers, it's for you.  What I'd like you to see is not the story you wanted to write, but the piece that you did write.  Although a good freewriting class will tell you to ignore your inner critic, here I'd like you to turn a careful ear to that same critic.  If you can reread the poem or the story now, do your best to feel the beat of the lines.  And read these lines aloud.  Do you find your tongue tripping?  Do any of the words read like speed humps?  Underline these words.  Underline the phrases that don't feel spectacular.  And while you're at it, circle the lines that do feel good, the zingers that you'll repeat to your friends as if they might go out of style.

The point of this exercise isn't to reeducate yourself on sentence structure or grammar - that part comes later.  What I'd like you to do as a writer is to get a feel for the language that you yourself have been using every day that you sit at the keyboard.  And you'll want to ask yourself some questions:
Do the words on the page match the voice of the narrator?
Does the punctuation match the natural pauses?
Does each word flow into the next?
The trick here is to avoid the common writing habit of saying "oh, that sounds like how I speak."  We aren't necessarily looking to write how we speak - we're looking to write clean, smooth lines, the kind of lines that would easy for anyone to say.  Or nearly anyone.  When an undergraduate student in a lecture hall is called on to read, you want your sentences to flow in such a way that the emotional tone of the piece naturally emerges from the order of the words and the delineation of the punctuation.

To a certain degree, this skill is not taught.  And I don't see as a skill so much as a tuning of the ear.  Just as musicians develop perfect pitch to hear each individual note, so too must we learn to hear the full register of each word on the page.  There's the literal meaning of the words we've written - over this we paint the gentle brushstrokes of connotation.  To shift the reader's attention to just the right thoughts at just the right time, we arrange our words in a specific order.  We use commas and periods and dashes either to draw out pauses or to give the impression of a choppy sea of action.  Or we omit them to perform the opposite.  We place our prepositional phrases and our parentheticals with care, ensuring that they provide the necessary meaning without distracting the reader from the main idea.

As I have said, though, this is not exactly a skill.  It's a product of art and language.  You train yourself to hear each word the same way you would learn another language - you pick up the basics from the classroom, but true fluency only comes through hours of practice.  And this practice - if it's to help you - must be both extensive and rewarding.  You want to have fun with the language, to play around with it.  Try new words, new phrases, new arrangements.  Most importantly, keep writing.  Yes, it helps to revise - through revision we develop a self-awareness regarding our work - but it's the act of writing that cements the habits of language into our minds.

If you are a poet, this means writing poems - writing lots of poems.  I have met graduate poets who may spend or two on a poem.  I have heard of poet laureates who may start a poem, set it down, and return to it months later with fresh eyes.  And the results of this work are good - these poets are able to refine their ideas into the tight, disciplined language of rhyme and meter.  But don't let this be the only way you work.  Don't spend your hours mulling over a single poem making it "perfect."  There is no perfect poem, but there are many that brand themselves into memory with the deep imprint of hot iron.  And you may need to write ten poems before you find the one that's great.  Or it may take hundreds to find the one that makes you immortal.  And yes, there are poets out there who are best known thanks to the beauty of a single poem.  But that poem, I assure you, is a product of practice.  Of hearing each word.  Of years and years of writing poems which were beautiful, but not that beautiful.

If you are a fiction writer, this means sitting down and writing and writing and writing.  But you're lucky - prose is well-suited to the expansive practice demanded by language.  Anyone who sits down to write a novel will see this very quickly.  As with poetry, I urge you not to seek perfection, but rather to seek the next paragraph, the next word, the next scene.

As a writer, I believe that this practice is extremely important.  When I tell people that I learned as much about writing from the Army as I did as an undergraduate, I only partly refer to the experiences of Army life.  It is largely a product of time that I learned to finally hear what I was writing.  Four to eight hours a day I would write while deployed.  Times that my friends saved for books and movies I usually gave to writing.  During a ten-month deployment, I finished my first novel manuscript.  And it was a behemoth - 190,000 words of text encompassing a frame story interspersed with narrative from two past stories.  It was, as hoped, rather epic.  It was also rather terrible.  Filled with run-on sentences, excess adverbs, and a protagonist who only reacted to the world around him.

In a word, this manuscript is unsellable.  If I found it on the shelves of Barnes and Noble, I wouldn't buy it.  But that's not the point of practice.  The point of practice is that now I can write a sentence without having to stop every few minutes and wonder about the order of the worlds.  I still write run-ons - and I still have to go through and cut them down to size - but the sentence as a species is now familiar.  I can hear it even before typing that period at the end of the line.  And that is important.





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