Friday, July 23, 2010

Stone deaf and other cliches

As a long-time teacher of non-native speakers of English, I know how baffling a cliche can be. If you're learning a language, those well-worn expressions are new and interesting and often quite different from the metaphors and similes of your first language. This is also true for a young writer. In junior high, you haven't heard the expressions often enough to know that they're worn out.

Some adult writers pose a similar problem. Many people are writing today who aren't technically writers. By that, I mean they aren't well read and they haven't written a lot. To become a good writer, you have to do a tremendous amount of the first and a fair amount of the second. To recognize cliches, you alos have to do that.

You have to read good writers to notice that the only place a cliche will show up in good writing is in a character's speech and that it marks a particular kind of character, one who is not too original in his person.
Good writers don't use cliches in description or narration or interion monologue or documentation or exposition. They take the time and energy to create new similes and metaphors, to inject fresh poetry into their writing.

I've just finished reading another of the Willamette Writer amateur efforts. This fellow has an intriguing plot, but after the four cliche, I found myself finishing his pages only because I was paid to do so. Because of some other oddities of language, I suspect the fellow is a bilingual and therefore may be unable to recognize the cliches as such. This is where a good text editor comes in, one who knows her eats-like-a-bird and busy-as-a-bee.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What serves your story?

Each year, I serve as one of several manuscript editors for the Willamette Writers Conference. Writers pay a small fee and forward 20 pages of their work for editing and comments. These book beginnings typically run the gamut from great to horrendous and this year is no exception.

I'm finding that beyond certain difficulties with the language (some writers are excellent self-editors and some are not--it's an additional skill and not one that everybody has), the difference between the good ones and the less good has to do with how much the writing considers the story. You would think that would be self-evident, that writers would always consider the story but that's not the case. Just as many writers don't consider the reader as they're writing, many don't consider the story and what will best serve it.

If they did, they might well eliminate extraneous adjectives, meaningless dialog, excessive poetics, and abundant detail. I'm not advocating that every writer be a sparse writer--that's a matter of style and there's plenty of room for lots of different styles. But a good writer reads her own work and asks, does this detail, comment, fact, wrinkle in the plot, serve the story? Does the story need it to be all it can be?

Becoming familiar with what serves a story is best learned by reading great writing and noting how everything fits. In those pages, the story is well served.

Monday, July 19, 2010

"Kill off the little darlings" -- Stephen King

On the advice of Stephen King, I'm contemplating committing a murder. To be honest, I've already done it once but it was a complete stranger, a woman unknown to me or my characters. But now, it's time to take someone out.

I've got several good candidates. There's a character no one likes--a "piece of work, he is," one of my listeners said in circle recently. There's a wimpy wife who's not too good for much. But those seem such obvious choices.

I've got several heros in this novel. Several good guys. Maybe it should be one of them. Maybe the best-loved, the most sympathetic. But is that the way I want the story to go?

For it's the story that needs to dictate this. What will best serve the story?