Thursday, June 18, 2009

Thoughts on The Craft -- c.anne.gardner

“Thanks to the influence of Movies and Television, readers today have become accustomed to seeing a story as a series of immediate scenes. Narrative summary no longer engages readers the way it once did. [...] To write exposition at length is to engage your readers’ intellects. What you want to do is engage their emotions.” -- Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Uh ... so, by that statement readers are stupid, don’t want their intellect engaged, and we should take a more visceral approach. Am I reading too much into that? Oh wait, maybe I should turn my brain off.

This is why I love reading "how to" style guides. This one had all the usual suspects represented, so I won’t bother quoting any more. Why? Style guides can’t help you be a better writer because it’s market trend diatribe for the most part. The only thing that helps a writer is reading -- reading widely and discussing literature, its techniques, and its theories. This book has some of that, but the diatribe overshadows the true value of those pieces. So let’s get to the meat of it: The reason narratives don’t engage the reader anymore is because writers can’t write engaging narratives anymore. The well-written stylish narrative, one that engages both intellect and emotion, is dying a slow and painful death. Why? Because the style guides have instructed all writers to make their books read like screen plays for the attention challenged reading club.

When did literature abandon intellect???? Isn’t reading fundamentally an intellectual pursuit? We read because we want the words. We want to interpret them for ourselves. That’s what reading is all about, isn’t it? I want my intellect challenged. I want everything challenged, from my own opinions to my imagination. I want intelligent characters, subconscious motivations, and a cliché free world. That’s why I read. I want the story to invoke emotion, of course, but I also want it to be thought-provoking in some way, no matter how small. Even beach reads are intellectually stimulating to some degree. Reading is an active mental process. We all know the benefits of having an active mind: readers are generally more articulate; readers have a broader world view; readers have improved concentration and focus; they are cognizant at higher levels with improved memory recall; they tend to have higher reasoning skills and are generally more disciplined and creative ... the list goes on, and on, and on ... so I can't understand why a reader's intellect doesn't deserve the same level of respect as their emotions do.

We all need visceral engagement, but at what cost? Don’t we get enough twitter twaddle myfaceyspacey reality TV time? Don’t we? Books are the last vestige of intellectual sanity. I refuse to have my favourite intellectual pursuit reduced to a mindless diversion. Yea, I know what you might say maybe about erotica. Isn’t that mindless? Well no, not really. Scientific studies have shown that sexual gratification has mostly to do with the mind, not the body. If it didn’t, people wouldn’t read erotica, they would just go watch porn. And yes, there is a wide variety of reader levels we need to cater to, but the fact of the matter is, anyone who consciously decides to pick up a book wants their brain tickled just a little bit. So, when I want a mindless diversion, I’ll put my book down. Until then, I want a stimulating read, both intellectually and emotionally. I want beautifully crafted narrative, I want poetry, and I want engaging and revealing scenes. I want it all -- including some well placed adverbs, damn it.

On a final note: By now, everyone knows how I feel about "how to" writing books and style guides ... or Creative Writing for Dummies and The Idiot's Guides. I peek at them from time to time for shits and giggles, and they are a fount of inspirational quotes, like the one I started this post with, but in all fairness, if viewed objectively they aren't entirely worthless. However, they can be taken too seriously and stifle the creative anarchy that comes with the act and the art of writing. Writing is something that cannot be nailed down with a "how to" book, no matter what the ads say. So what do I recommend for writers who want to expand their knowledge and hone their craft? Well, aside from college level courses dealing with applied theory, I recommend reading. It's a no-brainer. I also recommend reading books that focus on advanced literary theory, ones which dispel the myths that the style guides perpetuate to no end. We aren't looking for practical here, we are looking for philosophy. That's the journey, and we all know it's about the journey not the destination. Here is one of my personal favorites: Deepening Fiction. You can find this on Amazon, of course, or, you can rummage your favourite used textbook outlet; either way, you won't be sorry.

Cheryl Anne Gardner

4 comments: said...

My favorite how-to is "Writing Without Teachers", because it is about unlocking the writer within. Nothing more. I've given it to many people I know and they all found it far more useful than the books that tell you to break your stories into X number of segments and write everything down on index cards.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I will have to check that one out for my next critique. I love the ones that lean towards how to connect with your inner artist -- shake hands with your shadow type stuff.

I love the academic stuff as well. I could read theory all day.

Roger Sakowski said...

I’ve had conversations with writers about “books that make you think”. Most often my group of friends claimed that all books make you think if only that “this is a lousy book”. To push my point about thought to a better vantage point, I’d introduced terms like “creativity” and “art”. Then things got really murky. They would claim that creativity is an all encompassing activity as was art. In short, all books are creative-art that makes you think, It was obvious that some definitions had to be put in place or these conversations were meaningless at best. I offered this:

Creativity is the discovery of relationships between abstractions; art is the language (written, visual, audible, etc.) that makes these relationships realizable.

Well, that was the best I could come up with. To alienate myself a bit more, I suggested that external distractions influence this discovery/realization process. Concerns such as “audience”, “agents”, “word count”, etc are not applicable to process at all. The extent these influences hinder the construction and grammar of the language is not always clear, but I usually find that they neutralize the artist voice quite a bit.

In the end, I’ve come to the conclusion that the artists job is to give creativity a voice that is definitively his or hers.

I guess it’s easy to see that I’m in total agreement with Ms. Gardner article regarding style guides.

Brent Robison said...

Yes! Thank you Cheryl Anne for standing up for the cause of intellectual/philosophical engagement in reading and writing fiction. If I wanted nothing but action-drama scene-scene-scene I would write, and read, screenplays, not novels and stories. And I feel no obligation to cater to the growing mob of ADHD victims. Yet I get suggestions often, even from writers I respect, that that is what we must do today if we expect to have an audience. If I were to write a "how-to" I suspect its main message would be: write what you love to read, write what feels true for you, write in whatever style expresses your unique self. If it leans toward cerebral, so be it, marketplace be damned. There are still some of us who read such work, and we don't want it to disappear from the world!
--Brent Robison