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.         

Thursday, July 4, 2013

1. Writing is easy. Writing is hard.

            No, it isn’t.  Writing isn’t anything in particular to different authors, or to a single author writing for different purposes and different audiences on different occasions.  
       When Ernest Hemingway (or Red Smith, or Paul Gallico) sat down at his typewriter and opened a vein, was it difficult for him?  Easy but painful?  Gratifying?  Or all four? 
       Writing isn’t a single skill, so even if one part comes easily – the conflict of a plot, a provocative character, or unexplored setting – the next can require time and effort, blood and sweat, to get the words right (as Hemingway said, for sure this time, to the Paris Review).   
       Writing fiction is a peculiar activity by any account.  You sit down in a room alone, ignore the actual world around you, and inhabit another instead of your own devising.  This imagined world may be far worse than the actual world, crueler or more frightening, but a writer chooses to linger there, constructing it image by image, sound by sound, word by word.
       To do this requires some generative ability to dream up new people, conflicts, and reversals, and some critical skill to select and shape those ideas.   A writer with ready access to his or her imagination may find the first task easy enough but struggle over the second; or a writer well versed in craft may have no trouble revising and editing but a hell of a time unearthing new ideas.
        Dialogue comes easily?  How about description?  Got a big vocabulary?  How easily do your sentences flow, phrase after phrase?  You might have your basic grammar down, but do you go with the proper word here or the way most people speak?  And is that expression current slang or the sound of your generation?
        Add to the mix the importance of observing human behavior and empathizing with feelings, and you have an idea of the range of abilities with which a writer will have more or less facility.      
        Then there's the difficulty of telling the truth, and the desire to see it in print.  It can be a snap to fill a page with something that needs to be said -- or excruciating to write one word in lipstick on a mirror, or in dust on the trunk of a car.