Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Writerly Wonkiness

Read the title. You've been warned.

When I got the notion to work on a couple of new short stories, before picking up my novel again, I thought I'd try to shake things up, do a couple of things differently than I had been in writing stories. I figured I'd try writing them in the first person, and I thought I'd try to allow myself to digress more, let in a little more chaos and life.

A few months ago, I spent a lunch break at the Barnes & Noble down the street reading bits of fiction in a dozen or so lit magazines. Filtering out the avant garde-ish stuff (it never changes; I'm not trying to be funny), one thing stood out to me. The preponderance of stories -- something like 60-70% -- were written in the first person.

Now, based on what I've published, you might not know I'm sort of conservative about point of view. Of the handful of stories I've published, one was in first person, another ("Sap") in second person imperative. The twist in the tail of "The Glanton Gang," which is written in third person, is a shift in POV characters, a fairly audacious move in such a short piece. But to me, third person limited has always seemed the generic choice. The first thing in the tool box. If I choose some other POV, it is for some specific purpose, as with "Five Trees," my sole published first person story, which has to be told that way to convey the irony of a character looking back at his unknowing childhood cruelty. When you pull out the first person POV, you've got to think about things like the circumstances under which the character is telling the story. You've got to consider how reliable the narrator is. You've got to worry about how smart or dumb your narrator is. I.e., if you're so smart over here dear narrator, how come you don't pick up the same connection I (the reader) do over there. Are you trying to make me feel sorry for you? And so on.

Except, it appears you don't really have to worry about any of that overmuch. First person seems (based on my unscientific analysis) to be the new third, with the advantage that it quickly involves the reader and allows an easy way for the writer to get a spoken quality, some "voice-iness," into the writing.

A cheap trick some part of me grumbles.

But since when have I been against cheap tricks? If it keeps somebody reading . . . . So I thought I'd give it a shot for these interim stories I'm doing between drafts of the novel.

As for the other thing . . . more life, more chaos. Well, when I first got serious about writing fiction, my stories were more open. I'd spend a few words to deepen the reader's understanding of the relationships between characters. I'd range back and forth in time, not worrying overmuch about stopping the present action of the story, if the back story was necessary to understanding the characters or story -- hell, even if the back story was just interesting. And I did all this in prose that aimed only to be transparent, fluid, and natural.

At some point, though, along about the time I started work on my MFA at VCU, I got more interested in form and words. Not so much sentences, the obsession of seemingly everyone else at the time. Words. The way you feel the knots, smell the fragrance, of a word like "pine." The hot breath and cold nose of a word like "dog." The way you can put together simple words in simple sentences to tell really compressed and intense stories. See "Woodpile" for an example.

At about the same time I got into the headlong velocity of Bukowski's short stories, of Airships era Barry Hannah. You can see this obsession in stories like "Gas Station Rose" and "The Glanton Gang."

The result of this was my stories kept getting shorter and shorter and shorter. Like the salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross, I was an ABC writer -- Always Be Closing. I had to be, because the intensity of what I was going for was difficult to sustain, and since I now had something of a phobia of digressions that might slow down the story, I didn't have much room to develop characters. I had to get in and get out.

As a further consequence, I avoided telling certain stories, because they just didn't lend themselves to this quick and telegraphic approach. At the time I didn't really see that I was avoiding stories. I was so myopic, I didn't see the limitation.

Then I wrote a novel. Too overwhelmed by the size of the task, I couldn't be too self-conscious about the prose, and I had to allow digressions. It's a novel, after all. And in writing it, I sort of re-discovered my interest in the characters about whom I'm writing, as opposed to the surfaces that interested me for so long. With the shift in prose, I got more interested in the sentences and the ways they join up into paragraphs. You know -- complex sentences, "flow."

So I decided I wanted to get back to some of my old virtues in short stories, maybe try to synthesize them with what I'd been doing in grad school.

And in conclusion, what do I get for my troubles? A really long story by a long-winded girl named Katie, who just won't shut up. Yep, I'm at that part of the journey, where I'm scratching my scurvy sores, scanning the horizon, searching the sky for a bird, the water for a bit of wood, a leaf, a dead possum. I'm really hoping to get to the end of this story sometime this week. Then I'm going to have to figure out how to get it down to a manageable length.


  1. Lee,

    Reading this, I'm left with the impression that your technical knowledge of writing may be getting in your way at times. Imagine a renowed psychologist trying to rationalize an arguement in real time with his or her spouse. They would torture themselves analyzing every utterance for meaning and purpose - second guessing their motives, rationalizing and peeling away layers. Would they ever have an outcome?

    How do you think you might write if you didn't know the names of all the different point of views?

  2. If I didn't know the nomenclature for point of view (which I learned over 20 years ago!), I'd have to invent it. It's a fundamental aspect of prose fiction.

    Anyway, the vocabulary is a handy way to talk and think about the craft of writing, something for post-mortems (as here) or to help get a handle on what is going wrong with a story. Sometimes, it's useful as a goad to get out ruts, or to explore technique, break new ground for yourself as a writer. I don't know any writers who don't set themselves technical challenges from time to time. It's just a starting place.

    But I'm sorry I gave the impression that I'm thinking about this stuff when I'm composing, because I'm not. Composition is more like a waking dream (actually, at 5 a.m., not all that waking!). I have to hope that I've sufficiently internalized the conventions of fiction to work with them (or against them) in my fiction without thought.

    A hoary analogy from writing circles: A writer is like a professional athlete, a basketball player say. He watches tape of himself, of other players. Breaks it down. He practices moves. Practices parts of moves in isolation, sometimes these days drawing on biophysical analysis of efficiency and work. He does all of this to perfect his play and to understand what he does. But when he plays, he tries to put it out of his mind, to react. He doesn't have time to think. He needs the insights from tape and study to be automatic, internalized. The great benefit of formal study (by some definition of formal) of the techniques of fiction is the same. It's almost like training your instincts.

    Of course, writers have the great advantage of revision. So the analysis comes back into play there.

    I don't see any of this as a problem, by the way. I'm happy with how the writing is going right now. It may look messy, miserable, inefficient. But that's just how writing gets made.

    Hope you've enjoyed your tour of the sausage factory!

  3. Lee,

    Thanks for putting yourself out there. I do understand that you apply these techniques rather than allow yourself to become paralyzed by them in an unmitigated bout of navel contemplation.

    This was good - I hope you'll continue to take your readers behind the curtain.


  4. Great entry! The fact that you're always evolving, looking for ways to improve and change your writing, is a good sign. I sometimes feel like a get in a rut, writing the same way, in a hurry to just get the damn story told.

    Funny thing about PoV -- I'm in the process of changing my current novel's PoV from 3rd to 1st right now, and it's really changing the characters and voice, in a good way. 3rd person limited can get so... blah, sometimes, I guess.

    I do think my 1st person stories are more effective than my 3rd person. Not sure about the novels...

    What really makes me crazy is using present tense instead of past. Now THAT feels gimmicky... :)

  5. Ha! My new one is actually in present tense, too. Not something I really thought through. The sound of the voice was in present tense when I started trying to imagine it, so I went with it. It's not the kind of present tense that tries to convince you that this is happening right now. It's meant to read the way people sometimes tell stories in present tense. "So yesterday, I'm walking from my car into work, and I see everyone is wearing green . . . ." Like that.

    I know what you mean, though. And the tense is something I'll revisit in revision. I'm not sure what it's buying me, and if it turns off some people, I may change it back. I guess one thing it buys me, is the back story (which is considerable) gets to be in simple past tense without the game of sprinkling in past perfect. Bluh. We'll see. I've gotten kind of used to present tense, there's so much of it out there now. It doesn't bother me.