Hawking Up Hairballs

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Same Old, Same Old

There’s an old saw that says, if it’s not one thing, it’s another. One response to that says that the real trouble with life is that the same thing over and over again. The gist of the latter is that we keep encountering the same sorts of problems because of the nature of our character and temperament. I have found that to be true in writing as well as the rest of life.

I grew up oriented toward science and math. My college degree is in math, and I worked for a long time as a computer programmer, so I tend to be good at thinking logically. That can be a handicap when writing a novel. For example, in “Buster Bungle’s Big Top”, my current project, the protagonist joins the circus and is assigned to sleep on a bus that has been converted into a rolling dormitory. The interior of the bus reeks of dirty laundry and stinking feet. When my protagonist goes to put his stuff away for the first time, the odor really gets to him and he vomits out onto the ground just as he gets to the door. The logical Chuck told me that I needed to explain why no one would notice the vomit on the ground. He also told me that, since I didn’t want anyone who mattered in the novel to see him vomit, I had to explain why they didn’t see it. I spent better than thirty minutes laboring over these explanations until it occurred to me that they were inconsequential. My logical mind wanted an explanation, but the narrative didn’t require it, especially since this was at the end of a chapter. I encounter this sort of problem again and again.

I am also a bit of a perfectionist, and I started out writing poetry. Hence, I continually have to fight my desire to really labor over and polish my prose before I really know where the narrative is taking me. “Buster Bungle’s Big Top” is my third try at a novel. The first two foundered on just this tendency. Right from the start on the first draft, I really agonized over my prose. In the middle of each of those previous novels, I realized that it wasn’t going where I wanted it to go, and that I would have to substantially rework the narrative. However, I had spent so much time working on my writing, that the prospect of such a task was just too daunting, and I ended up abandoning both of them. I have since learned the value of preliminary notes, and also of a quick first draft or two that is only concerned with nailing the narrative flow.

There are other minor problems that I keep encountering that could also be said to arise from the way I tend to think. I am not a person who is big on absolutes, since I have come to the conclusion that there are damned few of them. As a result of this opinion, I have to fight the urge to qualify my descriptions. For example, in terms of a character, I might describe him as aggressive, but then I’ll get to thinking that there are times when he isn’t so aggressive, and I want to describe him as kind of an aggressive person. It is generally a big mistake to do that, since such qualifications make for wishy-washy prose. (Never mind the fact that it would probably be better to show the character behaving aggressively and letting the reader draw his won conclusions. I’m just trying to make a point.)

For some reason I also have a lot of trouble with perceptual verbs, in that I have an inclination to include them where they aren’t really needed.. For example, I keep wanting to put things in this form, “He heard the sirens, and saw the fire engine scream past.” There’s no need at all for “saw”. Something like the following is better, and creates a sense of greater immediacy. “He heard the sirens. The fire engine screamed past.”

Another saying, attributed to Socrates, tells us that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. The same general idea applies to one’s writing. It pays to understand your own foibles and inclinations. A lot of wasted time and effort can be avoided if you do.


Blogger David Matthews said...

Some points here I would do well to keep in mind with my own writing, particularly the impulse to unneeded explanation and overuse of perceptual verbs.

Maybe you should consider a how-to writing book. There seems to be a market for it.

3:24 PM  

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