Monday, September 16, 2013

6. Write to please yourself.

Pleasing yourself is always fun, and there’s no point in writing something that doesn’t please you, but if you write just to please yourself you might find you’re the only one interested in what you’ve done.  Even Walt Whitman in his great work of self-expression, “Song of Myself,” wastes no time in pointing out he’s writing for more than himself,  since, “what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” 
                In Leaves of Grass Whitman has expressed a personal statement that resonates as the collective American imagination and experience.  That’s why we continue reading him.  For the rest of us, with humbler aspirations, the question becomes, How do we write so that the incidents and observations of our work belong to other readers as well as ourselves?
                “Craft” is the word we use to refer to all the techniques and strategies employed to provoke our reader’s interest and elicit a response.  The desire for self-expression can be gratified with a rude outburst over a stubbed toe.  Engaging readers in an emotional experience requires planning, imagination, and a sincere desire to please someone else.
                In this respect, some theorists have been more helpful to writers than others.  The New Critics viewed literary works as little machines making meaning that could be explicated for less adroit readers.   This elevated the significance of literary work but left its interpretation in the hands of the subtle few. Poststructuralists read for the gaps that revealed the absence of inherent meaning in a text; readers rather than writers produced the experiences they enjoyed.  Rhetorical theorists such as Kenneth Burke (and the Structuralist linguist Roman Jakobson) thought of communication of all kinds as transactional acts, designed by a writer to be interpreted by a reader, a planned collaborative expression and reconstruction of experience.   Not a bad way to think about the words you put on paper.
                Writing for yourself -- to vent emotion or to force yourself to observe the world carefully -- can be a rewarding experience, as pleasurable as a truly vindictive diary entry.  But if you aspire to forge in the smithy of your soul the uncreated conscience of your race (as James Joyce’s young artist Stephen Dedalus declares), you’d better start planning to please somebody else.

5. Never split an infinitive.

 Nothing is always forbidden in writing.  Infinitives are not atoms or hairs or follicle ends.  But you ought to know the general rule, so you can decide when to violate it.
                An infinitive is the to-plus-action form of a verb, such as to be or not to be, to sing or to dance.   In formal prose, a writer should avoid inserting a word between the to and the be, or the to and the dance.   The idea was carried over from Latin, where they can’t be split.  Simple enough – you write Alice hoped to win quickly, but not Alice hoped to quickly win. 
                The problem is that adverbs are not very particular as to where they fall in a sentence.  They can bounce freely around the syntax.  You can add the adverb sometimes to the sentence, Max likes to sleep, almost anywhere you like. 
So which of the two rules carries the day?
 In speech, the freedom of the adverb wins, especially if there’s any doubt about which verb in a sentence it’s modifying.  A speaker might say Mary planned to silently murder John, rather than Mary planned silently to murder John, if a listener couldn’t be sure whether the adverb silently refers to the first verb planned or the second one to murder.  Is she planning silently or planning to make the murder silent? Better would probably be either Silently Mary planned to murder John, or Mary planned to murder John silently, depending on how she did what she did.
                In formal prose the preference for the united infinitive can create awkward sentences, with the adverb placed awkwardly beforehand to modify a verb that is followed by an embedded sentence, like this one.  Break them up to find another way around.
                Modern stories rarely require formal prose.  We don’t see a lot of colons or semi-colons -- instead, dashes connect independent clauses.  In dialogue or interior monologue commas link complete thoughts, suggesting the speed with which words jumble together and thought follows thought. 
In a similar way, splitting an infinitive is always a choice when you want to evoke the sound of a voice or maintain the rhythm of a line.  Gene Roddenberry did pretty well with the lines, “to seek out new life and new civilizations … to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
                Anybody mind that boldly?    

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

4. Avoid the passive voice.

I was struck the other day by how often that injunction is wrong.  Take the previous sentence:  I could have written, It struck me the other day, but that’s hardly more informative and it describes the experience less accurately than the passive construction.   That It stands for A certain idea, but the idea didn’t experience anything.  I did -- so I ought to be the subject of the sentence.
                The passive voice allows for some slippery sentences, because the subject is no longer the same as the person performing the action.  John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln is active.  Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth is passive.  Nothing so wrong with it yet, but a passive sentence allows you to delete the by clause, so you can get Lincoln was shot, with no information about who pulled the trigger.  The guilty party has disappeared from the sentence and the theater.
                That’s one reason people advise writers to avoid the passive voice.  There’s also a rhythmic advantage to rapid-fire active sentences, in back-and-forth action for example .  Here’s William Blake  from 1793:

                I asked a thief to steal me a peach: / He turned up his eyes.
                I asked a lithe lady to lay her down:  / Holy and meek she cries.

So far, nice and crisp: the narrator asks one thing from each of them, and the thief and lady do another.  But look what happens next:

                As soon as I went /An angel came:
He wink’d at the thief,  /And smil’d at the dame;

And without one word spoke / Had a peach from the tree,
And between earnest and joke / Enjoy’d the lady.

                There are no by classes in the last stanza, but what happened?  The angel was given a peach by the thief and a warm reception by the lady.   Yet the thief has disappeared behind the tree, and the lady has been relegated to the direct object of the sentence. 
Why does this work so well?  Because indirection is the point of the poem.   The narrator asks directly and gets no satisfaction, but the angel merely winks and smiles and gets everything he desires.  How often do we find ourselves writing about situations in which we’re not sure which direction to take or who’s responsible?  To share an experience of uncertainty, the passive comes in handy.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

3. Write what you know.

Okay, there is a shaving of wisdom clinging to this old saw.  To evoke verisimilitude – the feel of truth – a writer needs details, and the easiest way to come by incidental details is to set your story in a world with which you are familiar.   But if you write only what you know, you won’t discover anything in the process, and neither will your reader.  So why bother?
                You need to write about something you don’t know,  ideally something nobody knows, making it new, as Ezra Pound insisted.   If the genre is too familiar to you, it’s probably too familiar to your readers as well, so find a way to make it unknown.  No movie genre is more thoroughly known than romantic comedy, but Ronald Bass found a way to make it new in the 1997 film, My Best Friend’s Wedding.  
                Ron Bass is a very smart guy.  Bed-ridden in early childhood, he taught himself to read at 3, wrote stories by 6 and his first novel by 17.  He went to Stanford and Yale, graduated Harvard Law, practiced entertainment law, and started writing.  He published three novels and wrote the scripts for Rainman, Dangerous Minds, When A Man Loves of Woman, Joy Luck Club, Sleeping with the Enemy, Stepmom, What Dreams May Come, and more.  
                Some friends of mine in the movie business at first considered My Best Friend’s Wedding a failure, structurally, before its impressive box office receipts of 127 million dollars domestically and almost 300 million worldwide in its first year of distribution.   The problem, they thought, was that Julia Roberts, a major star after her success in the 1990 film, Pretty Woman, failed to win the heart of the leading man in the end.   Michael (played by Dermot Mulroney) preferred Kimmy (Cameron Diaz) over Julianne (Ms. Roberts).   The film opens with the protagonist Julianne separated from her one true love by the prospect of his marriage to a lesser light in the Hollywood pantheon.  Shouldn’t the action of the film bring together the lovers who belong together?
                In fact the film does just that – but the lovers who belong together are Michael and Kimmy.  Julia Roberts’ character Julianne is the other woman, the obstacle keeping the lovers apart.  Ron Bass and the director P.J. Hogan demonstrate scene by scene that Kimmy not Julianne belongs with Michael, and they provide another character to console poor Julianne.  George, played by Rupert Everett, is the handsomest, funniest, most charming character in the film.  True, he is gay, so “there won’t be sex, but there will be dancing,” and who could really argue with that?  The original choice for Michael, John Cusack, was  cast instead with Dermot Mulroney, whose lesser star power might help the audience accept the idea that the protagonist of the film was not the deserving lover but the obstacle to overcome.     
                Ron Bass found a way to make a genre we all know too well into something new and unfamiliar.  Something unknown.  

Monday, July 8, 2013

2. You can't teach someone to write.

Sure you can.  This is something I’ve heard eminent writers say, and there is some truth to it.  You can’t teach talent.  You can’t teach someone to write Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses or Rick Blaine’s explanation for why he came to Casablanca (he was misinformed).  But writing is also a craft, and you can teach a craft.   People can learn to write better than they do.      
                Most of us need to.    I was once on a panel with Robert Crais, when I said I thought I was learning to write from one book to another.  Crais objected, presumably to the idea that my any of my books might less than perfect when I allowed it to be published.  But what was the alternative?  That my last books – even his – weren’t better than the books before them?
                If you aren’t learning from the corrections and emendations of your editor, if you’ve got one, you’re wasting a valuable resource.   The suggestions of your writer friends, the questions of sympathetic readers, even the caustic comments of jealous rivals can help improve your prose.  You don’t have to incorporate anybody’s half-baked ideas for improving your work, but you ought to ask yourself, “What are they trying to fix?  What’s the problem these suggestions are trying to address?”  When you hear the same doubt more than once, your text could be clarified.  So figure out a way to improve it.
                Of course, not all notes are on the mark.  When Michael Curtiz screened Casablanca for Warner Brothers, the studio’s notes included a complaint about the song.  Yes, about that song, “As Time Goes By,” sung by Dooley Wilson as Sam with his piano.  Curtiz was told to replace it.  The problem was that Ingrid Bergman, who played Ilsa Lund, had already cut her hair short for her next role as Maria in the 1943 film of Ernest Hemingway’s book, For Whom the Bell Tolls.    With short hair, she couldn’t reshoot the scene in Rick’s nightclub with Dooley Wilson, so they had to stick with the original.  And we all get to enjoy what may be the best song ever used in a film.
                The key is to learn how to learn from each note.  Sometime the lesson is what to do differently, and sometimes what to stand by.  But that is also a lesson we can learn from our teachers.