Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Reader's Experience

Art is a medium of communication. Every art form is a language. Each language has its possibilities and limitations.

Novelists work with words. In some ways this art form is least limited in the type of information it can convey. For example, though the visual arts (like photography, sculpture, and painting) give us access to the subject's inner person, only words can take you right into her head. Yet literature has its limitations, too. Since the advent of moving pictures this limitation has become a big disadvantage. Unless your novel really gives today's readers something more, something worth the effort of reading, they would rather watch a movie or television program.

If you flatter yourself with the notion that people who don't read books are just too unintelligent for your material, you are probably going to fail. It isn't a moral issue. People who truly appreciate art for art's sake don't think one should have to work at entertainment. So, it's perfectly natural for people to prefer entertainment they needn't make any effort to absorb, especially when it's a much more vivid and immediate experience than reading a novel.

Therefore, today, novel writing simply must make readers visualize immediate moment-to-moment action. Your stage/screen is the image-ination. It's a part of the reader's brain you must get and keep control of. By the power of suggestion, words paint pictures there. To make readers "get the picture" words must…
  • be nearly effortless to read
  • be visual
  • never disrupt the picture by calling attention to themselves.
To see how important writing this way is, consider how much a playwright or screen writer shows — instead of just having some character tell about.



Thursday, September 20, 2007

Wanna Be an Editor?

Has some small print publication flattered you by asking you to be an editor? Well, when you see the pay, you see why.

Even editors who know what they’re doing get their behinds chewed by authors. Editors who don’t know what they’re doing have a short life expectancy.

Wanna be an editor? Then learn the trade.

No, straight A’s through four years of an Ivy League major in English doesn’t qualify you. In fact, chances are that it has left you without a clue as to what professional writing is all about. Indeed, those “soulless” and “robotic” inferior intellects of the science majors probably know better than you.

Because it’s all about the reader, you see. Communication. Not self expression. Not for attention. Publication isn’t a public address system: it’s a service industry.

If you want to succeed in this business, as in any business, you must make your product as user friendly as possible. In other words, quit showing off and be considerate of your reader by not making your writing one bit denser than necessary. And if that seems some sort of comedown for you, you aren’t cut out for the job.

So get The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. Read it. Learn it. Do it. Then get Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing by Claire Kehrwald Cook. Read it. Learn it. Do it. Then get a guide to writing in plain English. You can even get some in PDF format free online. Read it. Learn it. Do it.

Now you know a thing or two about professional writing.

I am assuming that you already know standard English grammar and usage, but that isn’t guaranteed by a degree these days either. So, if you don’t know standard English grammar and usage, learn it. Everybody makes occasional mistakes – usually through accident more than ignorance. But when several of your edits introduce grammatical errors into a piece, you look bad.

Next, pa-LEEZE learn how to use the frickin’ software! Click “Tools.” Then in the menu click “Track Changes.” Turn on this editing function and use it.

I know it’s a close encounter with science, but that isn’t asking too much of an artist, is it?

The author has a right to see every change you SUGGEST clearly marked beside original language.

When you sneak your changes through by making it all but impossible for the author to catch them all, you greatly increase the odds of errors (both you and the author have made) getting all the way through the editing process and into print. Not the way to impress your readership.

And work from the original document through File > Save As… so that the author’s name remains as the author of that document and isn’t replaced by yours.

Be able to justify every suggestion you make. Use the Comments function to explain when necessary.

So what if you think struck sounds better than hit. Write your own article then. Because that’s an arbitrary change that can’t be justified.

Never, never, never change the meaning. The author is the expert writing this article, not you.

And don’t think that people in technical fields like sports or science are ignorami who can’t write as pretty as you do and need you to make their writing sound more high falutin.’ You are just asking to get embarrassed by people whose writing is strong, clear, and concise -- a breeze to edit by editors who know what they’re doing.

And once you've learned to edit like a professional, find a position at a publication that pays a decent salary.


Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Fictive Dream

Though a novel is a commercial product, like a drug or the performance of a stage play, it provides a service. So, the writer should think of novel writing as a performing art and a service industry. The key to success in any service business is a keen sense of what the customer wants. What he really wants — which isn't necessarily what he says he wants. For example, a tennis pro knows that his clients want, not just help, but also praise and encouragement. A divorce lawyer knows that his client wants, not just a big settlement, but also to make the ex suffer. Television executives know that in Europe and North America most people watch the news, not for the facts, but rather for "interpretations" of the facts that support their belief that their politics/political party is good and the opposition is bad.

So, you must be as perceptive about your readers as you are about your characters. What is the service a novel performs for the reader? In a word, transportation. Or absorption. James M. Frey, in How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, says, "As a fiction writer, you're expected to transport a reader. Readers are said to be transported when, while they are reading, they feel that they are actually living in the story world and the real world around them evaporates." In this altered state of consciousness, the reader can become so absorbed that you must shake him to get his attention.

Absorption is probably the better word: the reader is absorbed/transported into the story world. This experience is often called the "Fictive Dream," and that is as good a name for it as any. It's like a daydream, except that the reader isn't its author. It occurs at a subconscious level. Your success as a novelist depends largely on your skill at inducing it.
How do you induce the Fictive Dream? Through the power of suggestion.