Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Spooky Subtext

Just in time for All Hallows Eve, a big full moon rose over the mountains last night, a reminder that there’s no better time to talk about subtext. At Halloween, the subconscious comes forward, and we confront our fears in gruesome detail. It’s a time to celebrate haunting, which is how subtext works in a narrative.

In The Art of Subtext, Charles Baxter explains the ways in which subtext haunts a text: hyperdetailing of what’s not fully known, the unbidden return of certain aspects of the story, the half-noticed and half-heard. He describes how subtext is often rendered through super-vigilant observers, children like Harper Lee’s Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. In subtext, as in haunting, genuine desires are often hidden; the ghost that wants you to go away communicates in a barely discernable voice.

As hauntings horrify, so does subtext: any unthinkable thought qualifies, according to Baxter. Ghosts behave badly, and so do characters caught up in subtext. “Stories thrive on bad behavior, bad manners, confrontations, and unpalatable characters who by wish or compulsion make their desires visible by creating scenes,” Baxter says. When it comes to subtext, think poltergeist, not Casper with his jovial antics.

For awhile I was working on a novel that involved a ghost, which gave me a wonderful excuse to watch ghost shows on TV. I became quite a snob about it: all but the Syfy Channel’s Ghost Hunter series I deemed too hyped and far out. Week after week, I watched the Ghost Hunter team set up in haunted places and shut out the lights. They spent the night listening, watching, waiting, and occasionally cajoling the ghosts, expressing sympathy for their troubles as a way of drawing them out. In a recent issue of Author Magazine, author Jennifer Paros in “Being a Whisperer: Gentleness over Force” discusses how writers work best this way, too, to draw out the most haunting aspects of their prose.

Paying close attention to your text is one of the best ways to discover and maximize the subtext that haunts it. Watch for revealed, excessive detailing. Note the characters who refuse to go to the heart of a matter, who insist on their blind spots and mental bubbles and thus prolong their own anguish. Connect with your subconscious, which is often smarter than your ego. Rely on good readers and multiple revisions to find motifs and linked themes in your writing, and the subtext that haunts your work will make itself known.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Landscapes Revisited

With the words you’re reading here, the 49 Writers blog has featured a whopping 1281 posts. Figure an average of 600 words per post, and that’s 768,600 words, or enough for nine full-length books at an average word length of 85,000 each, a truly amazing collective accomplishment achieved by Alaska’s writers.

Blogger continues to beef up its stat reporting feature, and while it acts up once in awhile, it has overall become a fascinating source of information about who’s reading what on the blog. The top five 49 Writers posts with the most page views are an eclectic assortment that includes the “We have a key!” post announcing the opening of Alaska’s first writing center, a tribute to John Haines, a post on Amazon self-publishing, a Harper Lee Christmas story, and our most recent Ode to a Dead Salmon contest finalists.

It’s an intriguing assortment, but what’s of even more interest are some really great hidden gems that haven’t yet made the top five, or even the top ten all-time posts as measured in number of page views. One of my personal all-time favorites is David Vann’s piece on landscapes, posted all the way back in 2009.  It’s worth reading alone for Vann’s introductory comments:

The London Book Fair has been going on this week, and it’s one of those events that controls my future. I know nothing about it, though, except that my agents are there and several of my editors are there, and I do trust that they’re doing the most they possibly can for me. I’m extremely happy with my editors and publishers now, but I had a lot of frustrations with that first book.

All’s well that ends well, as one of the world’s best writers once said. That first book Vann mentions, Legend of a Suicide, went on to win numerous awards, including best foreign novel in both Spain and France.

But it’s Vann’s observations on landscapes that keep me going back to that post, because it’s there I first came to fully understand the objective correlative, something I’d been doing (sort of) without knowing the term for it. I’ll let Vann explain it, since he does it so well:

When T.S. Eliot used this term, he meant something larger (such as a sequence of dramatic events that, taken together, evoke an emotion in a reader), but in creative writing workshops it has come to mean this: by describing an exterior landscape from the point of view of a character, we are indirectly describing the interior landscape (the thoughts, feelings, and sensibility) of that character. This is the same, really, as what we mean most of the time by “vision” (how a character views himself or herself, the other characters, and the world), and since these are inevitably the most important moments in our stories, telling our readers what our stories are about, it’s also the same as “theme,” and because we’re saying something important indirectly, it’s also the same as “subtext.” It’s impossible to write a successful work in any genre without at least one of these moments. I mean that. If you don’t have a moment like this, of vision and theme and subtext, your work is not worth reading, and landscape description is the easiest way to create these moments.

For more of Vann’s observations, including how to see, how to describe a place, how to use landscape to build theme, and how to write a beautiful sentence, read the full post, which is partially a reprint of an article Vann wrote for Writer’s Digest. Whether or not it makes the top five all-time posts, you can be sure I’ll be reading it again and again.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What's Left Unsaid

I used to secretly cringe whenever I heard the commandment of Henry James, that as a writer I must be “one upon whom nothing is lost." I was all too aware of my shortcomings in this department. I’m not completely oblivious to what goes on around me, but I’ve been known to forget a face, or not notice what someone’s wearing, or wonder whether the leaves had fallen from the tree I walked past a half-hour earlier. Instead, I remember weird things, impressions really, like smudged lipstick or scuffed shoes or the wet smell of fall.

Years passed before I figured out that James wasn’t suggesting that writers had to be cameras, recording minutia and spitting it back for our readers. That’s boring and pointless. Readers want to get involved in the story. They don’t want the author to lay everything out, front and center. “Fiction is about the selection of details, not the accumulation of them,” says author Victoria Redel in Words Overflown by Stars. “Every detail, even the most seemingly random or improbable, must accrue, must finally as the details that thread and weave through the fiction become imbued with larger meaning.”

She goes on to explain that random looking, a kind way to describe my un-Jamesish way of noticing, accumulates into meaning. “Descriptions of the witnessed world are not important in fiction only to give the reader a feeling of where the characters are,” she says. “The details of the witnessed world are essential because, properly selected, they become vehicles for understanding the human experience.”

How do writers select the proper details? “One answer would be ‘very carefully,’” says Redel. “But I also think that another equally valid and not altogether different answer might be ‘randomly.’ The random thing looked at long enough and from enough different angles will become essential and vital.”

We don’t need all the details. In fact, too many will muck things up. Power comes from omission. By leaving out or strategically withholding certain details, by focusing tightly on a few and leaving others to the reader, it’s possible to create a purposeful ambiguity that encourages readers to participate with the text.

This isn’t an excuse for sloppiness. It’s certainly possibly to overdo ambiguity by making the reader work too hard, with few clues and little payoff. But hurling everything at the reader invites yawns and accusations of a different sort of laziness, where the writer says in effect to the reader: Here, have it all, and you figure out what matters.

Is omission the same as minimalism? I think not. The point is not so much to strip down or to be spare or to shun emotion as to make meaningful choices. “For the most part, to say a thing directly in a piece of fiction, to say it directly from the get-go, diminishes tension. And the fictive enterprise is all about maximizing, creating a whirl of tension,” says Redel. “I am proposing that there is a bounty, often greater bounty, in the partial, the suggested, the entirely left out.”

Even crucial literary elements can be omitted, if the writer is skillful and purposeful about it. In “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson leaves out motive; tension is heightened by the juxtaposition of quotidian details against the horrific.

Likewise, some of the most powerful dialogue involves what’s left unsaid, the responses people don’t make to each other. As Charles Baxter says in The Art of Subtext, “In truly wonderful writing, the author pays close attention to inattentiveness, in all its forms.”

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Scene and Summary

In shifting from work on a novel (almost done!) to a nonfiction project (researched and three chapters in), I’ve been thinking a lot about how scene and summary work.

There’s a certain luxury about scenes in a novel. You can invent them one after another, whole cloth, and cut them as needed, which I did in a few spots in my latest novel. That’s not especially efficient, I know, but sometimes I need to write scenes in order to watch my characters interact, even if those scenes later end up as backstory or summary or litter in my hard drive.

When you’re writing narrative nonfiction from history, scenes pose a bigger challenge. You have to snatch every opportunity where there are sufficient details to construct them. You’ll do some of what Joan Silber calls “sneaky summary,” using details to simulate scene, as here, where my historical protagonist, Tagish Indian Shaaw Tlaa (later known as Kate Carmack), enters her puberty seclusion:

She would drink through a straw fashioned from the bone of a swan or a goose so her lips wouldn’t touch water.  She would keep busy with sewing brought by the Crow women, but she was not allowed to do any of the cutting. To ensure she would always be light on her feet, she might blow on down from a swan. If she rubbed her teeth with white rocks, they would stay strong even when she was old. But she had to be careful. Spirit power could backfire if it wasn’t used properly.

Even in fiction, scenes don’t include everything that happens. “Elements are reduced to the service of the story,” Silber says, noting that selective concreteness – gestures, dialogue, and sensory details – make us feel that we were there “for the good parts.” When in The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald relays through Daisy’s friend Jordan how Daisy got drunk before her bridal dinner, he uses selective details instead of straight summary to render the culminating episode:

She began to cry – she cried and cried. I rushed out and found her mother’s maid, and we locked the door and got her into a cold bath. She wouldn’t let go of the letter. She took it into the tub with her and squeezed it up into a wet ball, and only let me leave it in the soap dish when she saw that it was coming to pieces like snow.

Summary isn’t simply the default for when we don’t have the raw materials for scene or for when we need a bridge between scenes. As Catherine Brady points out in Story Logic and the Craft of Fiction, summary can provide another level of intimacy with characters, allowing us to see how they perceive the world, as in this from my novel Cold Spell, where Sylvie speculates on why her mother became obsessed with a glacier:

The ice drew her mother, and Sylvie was helpless to stop it. Her obsession was absurd, an embarrassment that Sylvie struggled to justify. Maybe after her father packed his belongings into that refurbished Ford van and pointed it south, her mother’s head had swelled with palm trees and beaches and skimpy swimsuits that a woman like Mirabelle might still pull off.  That big frozen mass would have butted the tropical images right out of her head. Or maybe she simply aspired to the cold, regal power of ice.

There’s a natural tension between what’s told and what’s shown, Brady points out, so that summary can actually set up the stakes for an entire novel.

Scene is the close-up shot, says Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir. Summary is the long shot. She adds a third category: musing, offering this sample from the first page of her memoir Lifesaving:

The way I see it, the story is about my mother’s lifelong terror of the sea and my father’s pigheadedness. Or perhaps it is about the absurd pretenses of the British middle class, particularly the male of that species, whose dignity must be preserved at all costs. It might be in part about those costs – about the price some of us paid for keeping up that pretense. It might, too, be about a child’s lifelong yearning to save her mother. Inevitably, though, as I set out to tell what happened on the day of the race, the telling is also about the creation of myth and fallibility of memory. Memory lurking in the shadow of myth, waiting to be lost in the dark.

Barrington notes that beginning writers tend too much toward summary. As they gain experience, they tend toward scene, missing out on the power of summary and musing to build intimacy with characters, to set up the stakes, and to heighten tension. “Remember it is scene and summary that make for a good story,” she says, “while musing in some form makes it layered and thought-provoking.”

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How I Joined the Twittersphere

It started with pumpkins. Jack o’lanterns, to be specific. My son and his then-girlfriend (now wife) are alumni of rival universities, so they went one-on-one in a little friendly competition, carving their mascots, the WSU Cougs and UW Huskies, into jack o’lanterns.

“I’d send you a picture,” my son said. “But you don’t text.”

You could text pictures? I had no idea. That’s how Cro-Magnon I was. I’d shunned texting. What happened to conversation? If people had something to say, they should call. I was so anti-texting that I’d my phone carrier shut off the feature.

But there were those pumpkins. One thing led to another, and I got an iPhone. Now I text all the time, and I’ll never miss another jack o’lantern. But I re-drew the line at Twitter. Really, 140 characters? It made no sense.

Then I ran some analytics on my website. Fresh content was what I needed– more of it, more often. A Twitter feed was a whole lot easier than logging into my website every day and finding new things to say there. All I had to do was jump on Twitter and post or retweet.

It really was that easy. In two minutes, I became @debvanasse, and I discovered that – duh – there really is a reason for Twitter. It’s not an evil plot to destroy the world by promoting snippets and abbreviations over extended thoughts. It’s a way to share actual content, almost like skimming a whole shelf of books on your favorite subjects and by your favorite authors, only at hyperspeed, with the capability to instantly share the good stuff without having to worry about whether you’d get your book back.

In a flash, I get briefed by @GalleyCat and @PublishersWeekly about what’s going on in publishing. I get to know authors I admire (who knew @margaretatwood had such a passion for environment?) I get to chuckle at the ever-witty @donrearden (from last week: “That's odd. The #NFL just called and I've been hired as a Ref! Sweet!”) and my brother @lehmannchris (“Bidding on Jonah Lehrer-Mike Daisey spoken-word collaboration to begin first thing in the morning. slate.me/UR4M0f“)

Lots of tweets contain links to longer content. At first I fretted over the cute little URLs. No problem: Twitter shortens them for you. And those #hashtags – was that some sort of secret tweetspeak I had to learn? Nope. The #hashtag feature instantly forms mini-discussion groups on pretty much any topic you can think of. You can include them or not in your tweets.

I fell in love with the #hashtag feature when the first in a string of September wind storms (aka #Arcticane) knocked out my power for three days. Calling Chugach Electric was pointless –  there was no way to get through. But at #akstorm I got on-the-ground reports from around the city and updates from meteorologist @brettshepard, and the only power I needed to do it was an occasional charge of my iPhone at a coffee shop that still had electricity. Once the melee was under control, the power companies woke up and realized through social media, they could communicate with customers a whole lot more efficiently. Now I follow @ChugachOutages.

Twitter isn’t hard, and unless you’re a social media addict (and I realize some people are), it won’t suck up a lot of your time – I spend an average of two minutes a day in the Twittersphere. But my point is not to convince all of you to jump on Twitter. Rather, it’s a reminder that if you’re serious about writing, if you’re serious about your career, a social media strategy should be part of your business plan.

Earlier this month I attended the Publishers Weekly webinair “Develop a Winning Tablet and Mobile Strategy.” It’s a complex and rapidly changing market out there, Stephen Ryden-Lloyd of Innodata Consulting reminded us, a multi-screen world in which we simultaneously use multiple devices. I’m no techie, but I could have been his poster child. As I watched him on my laptop, I had my iPhone at my side (I could skim tweets if the webinair started to drag) and my Kindle close at hand (I’d just downloaded a free electronic version of a book published in 1884; I needed it for research on my Wealth Woman project, but there had been no librarian available to help when I tried to access it from the rare books collection at the local library).

Social media is so much a part of our culture that it will likely become embedded in books; the new generation of readers, Ryden-Lloyd says, will demand that social media capacity so they can chat about what they’re reading in real time. You can throw up your hands and say it’s all too much, you just want to write books, or you can keep writing those books but also vow to spend five minutes a day connecting with authors and publishers in real time.

If you, too, decide to plunge into the Twittersphere (or if you’re already there) join me in using these hashtags: #AKwriters, #AKbooks, and #AKBookWeek (which starts Oct. 6). It’s another way for us to connect, and to make sure the world knows what we’re up to. And if you follow us at @49writingcenter, we’ll follow you back!

@debvanasse crossposts at www.selfmadewriter.blogspot.com. To learn more about integrating social media strategies into your writing life, sign up for the three-hour 49 Writers Workshop “Building a Platform as a Writer” taught by @bigstatebiglife (Lorena Knapp) on Oct. 27.