Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for May 28th, 2013

A writer’s phase change

with 2 comments

Samuel R. Delany

Last week, the website Brain Pickings posted some observations on the art of writing from Samuel R. Delany, the legendary author of Dhalgren and other classic works of speculative fiction. I haven’t read much Delany, but his track record is one that any writer could envy, and the article gave me a lot to think about. Delany begins by drawing a distinction between good writing and talented writing. The former might best be understood as writing grounded in the principles of Strunk and White: it’s clear, unambiguous, mindful of such matters as structure and pacing, and skilled enough to understand the virtue of simplicity. The latter is harder to define. Delany writes: “Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind—vividly, forcefully—that good writing, that stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.” He goes on to list some of the attributes of talent, which include the ability to articulate sensations and insights that we’ve all experienced but never been able to verbalize on our own. And I was especially taken with this observation:

If you start with a confused, unclear, and badly written story, and apply the rules of good writing to it, you can probably turn it into a simple, logical, clearly written story. It will still not be a good one. The major fault of eighty-five to ninety-five percent of all fiction is that it is banal and dull.

This struck a chord with me, because I’ve often asked myself to what extent it would be possible to redeem a bad story by simple application of the technical rules I’ve found consistently useful. Cut the first draft by at least ten percent, start the action as late in the story as possible, trim beginnings and endings of scenes, overlap moments of transition, structure the plot as a series of clear objectives: these are all tricks that can be employed more or less mechanically once the raw material is in place. (A few of these tools, especially the last one, are more useful when implemented during the planning stages, but you can also get away with it later in the process, especially if you’re willing to fake it a little.) And although I haven’t tried it myself—unless you count the hard work of turning one of my own rough drafts into a readable story—I’d like to believe that I’ve acquired enough technical proficiency to take a bad story and transform it, as Delany notes, into something clear, simple, and logical, or what Stephen Sondheim might call “a proper song.”

Phase change diagram

The question is whether this is enough. Delany goes so far as to say that good writing “produces most bad fiction,” and while it’s a little unclear what he means by this, it’s best understood as referring to bad published fiction. Bad fiction that doesn’t even rise to the level of good writing is likely to remain unseen, but we’ve all seen published fiction that hits the necessary marks while remaining otherwise forgettable. And Delany is right when he implies that this is a real risk for otherwise capable writers. When we visualize the arc of writer’s progress, most of us like to think of it as a slow, steady ascent from one level of skill to the next. In reality, though, it looks more like the phase change diagram I’ve posted above: as the writer gains heat, once he learns the basics, he’ll go through a dizzying period in which he seems to get better with every story. At a certain point, though, usually after he’s figured out the rules to his own satisfaction, he enters a kind of holding pattern, and he continues to produce fiction that bubbles along on the same level without breaking into the next.

This is where merely good writing runs the risk of becoming a trap. Delany isn’t that far here from Norman Mailer, who compared craft to the cask of brandy under the neck of a St. Bernard that rescues the writer when he wanders too far into the wilderness. I’ve noted before that craft, with its purely technical solutions to problems, can prevent a writer from fully engaging with the implications of his own material, when he might have been forced to deal with it more honestly without the safety net that good writing provides. And as essential as they are, it’s all too easy to settle for the virtues of clarity and logic, which are challenging enough for most aspiring writers. The real question is what causes the jump from good writing to talented writing, and unfortunately, the point at which each phase ascends to the next level isn’t nearly as clear as it is in physics. But if the analogy I’ve used here works at all, there are two big lessons: 1. Most of us need to pass through one phase to get to the next. 2. You can’t turn down the heat, even, or especially, when you think you’re bubbling along quite nicely.

Written by nevalalee

May 28, 2013 at 9:11 am

Quote of the Day

leave a comment »

Written by nevalalee

May 28, 2013 at 7:30 am

%d bloggers like this: