Friday, April 15, 2016

My Cherished Heresies of Writing

#3 made me vomit blood!

I’ll confess to a small degree of you-can’t-tell-me-what-to-do spite behind my transgressions, but the overriding rule is expediency. For instance:

I don’t outline.

My idea of a hard-partying Friday night is tanking up on bottles of cold pale ale by candlelight while dashing off notes on my work in progress on folded leaves of desk calendars, etc. I call this “Bring Your Beer to Work Night.” The ideas reveal themselves in sporadic flashes of varying degrees of metaphorical brightness as my blood alcohol rises and my favorite dad-rock tunes blast from the speakers on my desk. A cruise to the islands in a luxury yacht can’t top the pleasures of these glorious evenings alone with my mind and music.

Alcohol is involved, so every now and then I get frustrated over how long the writing takes me, and I try plotting everything to the end. Despite my booze-driven willfulness, something in me always resists taking things that far. 

As much as I like to have a general idea of where I’m going with the narrative, nothing can be set in stone until I type “The End” and zap it off to the publisher. The story’s logic often suggests better ways to go as that story evolves, rendering the best laid plans irrelevant. This has happened to me more than once. 

Also, what on earth is up with people who get off on that OCD-inspired listing by Roman numerals, then capital English alphabet letters, then lowercase...? 

Screw that hokey-pokey dance. You might as well be diagramming your sentences if you need to waste time that badly. Let’s get straight to the bullet-point and make things happen.

Or not. I’ll make a big mess and sort it out as I go. It’s worked so far, so good.
SPOILER ALERT, although most of the things I see in this sampler pile represent various narrative rabbit holes I’ve backed out of over the course of the last couple of years. You’ll find notes like these taped all over the walls in my office, when I’m not collecting them in the pockets of folders like the one you can barely see here.

I use semi-colons; sue me.

George Orwell, and Kurt Vonnegut, two writers for whom I have utmost respect, have weighed in against them. (Mark Twain is popularly believed to have disdained semicolons as well, but that’s bullshit.

I’ll see other writers from time to time make a show out of denouncing this useful punctuation mark, but they don’t have my utmost respect, so fuck them.

I summon the spectre of Shirley Jackson to the witness stand. The following is the opening to the greatest haunted house novel anyone will ever write, The Haunting of Hill House:

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Here’s what this sounds like as read aloud by Yours Truly:

What I like about semicolons is they serve as a typographical break for the eyes when you’re reading dialogue from the kind of person who likes to cram as many words as he can in one breath. People talk this way sometimes. I just did. 

Like exclamation points, semicolons tend to stand out, so it’s always a good idea to use them sparingly. In regards to Ms. Jackson, it pays to recall that she knew what she was doing. The rest of us can only do our best.
There is a brief, but nicely detailed article on the proper use of semicolons where this comes from.

I use exclamation points!

I understand that the overuse of exclamation points is a rookie error to be avoided. I’ve been that sinner. I’m in the process of going through my first two published books removing the excess so I’ll have a better completed product when the third book in the series is done, and an omnibus edition published.

That said, consider this passage from Chapter 6 of Bleeding Kansas:
The first shadows are stumbling forth into the street from between the buildings across the avenue. They’re far enough away; we’re buffered by a wide, brick plaza anchored by a center fountain. “We should kill the lights,” I say, but Tanner has them off before I’m halfway through saying it.

Just as I’m turned to walk back to the desk the elevator door dings and opens. The light in the elevator is blocked by one, two, now five figures stumbling hesitantly into the lobby.“Tanner.” I spring for the front desk.

I removed the exclamation point in this passage, and its absence sucks all of the drama right at the point all hell is breaking loose. When you’ve just watched the dead rise from mass graves on TV and realize they’re out in the streets surrounding your hotel—and now the ones inside the hotel have arrived in the lobby via the elevator—someone’s gonna yell. That yell will have an exclamation point after it.

“‘Tanner,’ I shouted,” won’t cut it, because I’d be violating a rule I actually prefer to observe, namely, using only the unobtrusive “said” to describe speech. I’m sure I’ve violated this from time to time in my books, but I honestly believe it’s a good rule to follow.

Then there are the people for whom exclamation points are part of their natural speech, like, say a news reader on a Good Morning Glorious Empire show. Hell, you notice it when they’re gone, as in this passage on page 12:

“And while we wait for this thing to run its course,” Stefani says, “it turns out that, for some, the illness is just getting worse. This is just for some people, though, the numbers are inconclusive. We’re not in the business of spreading rumors. Count on our team to keep you updated with the latest.” She coughs primly into a handkerchief just as they cut to commercials.

Normally you’d hear an exclamation point after that last sentence. That’s because—normally—Stefani! Dunham! of Cable! Morning! News! is fully invested in what she’s selling.
Yeah, I had a little too much fun with that last sentence. Again, you have to be careful with exclamation points. While you will need them from time to time, their value increases with their scarcity. Just keep it cool, yo.

Sometimes I just have to use “just.”

People who sniff and screech about the presumed “uselessness” of this efficient, monosyllabic synonym for “simply” and “merely” are just inventing excuses to look down on other people because, deep down, they know they’re pretentious, boring, and ultimately insignificant people, and no one wants to read their shit. Moving on....
...because I have enough on my plate as it is, and I’m counting calories.

I don’t write every damned day.

Or every blessed day, either. Sometimes I’ve got other things to do. Of course, there are also the days when it simply isn’t happening.

To me, forcing writing is like forcing a bowel movement. You’ll only compound your miseries.

The Great Bukowski spoke of letting himself “fill up” during his dry periods. Take a hike, catch up on your reading, or sort your digital music and photo files. I disdain the “writing is mystical” view, but I recognize I’m in the minority, so let me put it to you this way: how dare you attempt to force the mystical? You deserve every bad thing that happens to you for your insolence in the face of the divine. Or something.

Get away from your writing space. I love my office; it’s my sanctuary from a world I prefer at a safe remove, but if I don’t get out onto the nearby greenbelt for a powerwalk, or drive to the library to read random junk in a corner, or even drive to the grocery store, I’ll start to...I dunno what to call it. Attenuate? I do get the curious sensation of disappearing into myself.

Sometimes, it’s simply time to catch up on your reading. It’s often the best medicine for what ails you, anyway, so why not?