Monday, December 29, 2008

Toward Unique Writing

In all art forms there is a line between method and content. It isn’t always easy to discern, but it is always there. A couple of days ago I showed you a stained glass window I have done. If you look, there are mistakes I made that wouldn’t be there if I had spent more time perfecting my technique, but the image you see, the Bible with the earth and the sun, is what makes it unique.

With writing it is a little more difficult to separate method from content. Some people are complaining that writing workshops and writer’s conferences are creating writers who are producing manuscripts that are too similar rather than standing out as being unique. Part of the reason for this may be that they are crossing the line between teaching writers how to improve their methods and telling them what content to choose.

People may choose to ignore the mistakes I made with the stained glass window. Others may be more critical, but all people will include the image as part of their basis for liking or disliking the window. As writers, we need to understand that, though it is important to improve our technique, the choices we make in how to apply that technique must be our own.

It is much easier to tell someone how to be like someone else than it is to tell someone how to be unique. To be unique one must have the freedom to create. When we rely on the experts at writer’s conferences too much we listen to what they say and then we want to go to them and ask “am I doing his right?” Any expert worth his salt will hand the manuscript back without looking at it and say yes because there really is no right or wrong way. There are guidelines that may be helpful, but we should never assume there is a right way to write. When we do we begin to lose the thing that makes our writing unique.


Dal Jeanis said...

There is too much emphasis on "right", but there is also too much emphasis on "unique". If you took your story and translated every third word into Hebrew, and reversed all the letters in every fifth word, and eliminated all the r's and t's, it would be unique, but unreadable.

I think that excellent teachers concentrate on illuminating what is effective, or ineffective, use of technique. Average teachers concentrate on rules, and poor teachers concentrate on exceptions or exceptional examples or genre conventions or personal peeves.

The fad of eliminating adverbs and adjectives, for example, is a concentration on a rule. To move from awareness of modifier use to mastery of modifier use, you have to be aware of all the other factors in play:

1) How well the reader knows the characters and situation at the particular point in the work - when characters are introduced, their mannerisms and attitudes need to be described more fully, while later, the reader will fill that information in automatically.

2) How sophisticated the reader is expected to be about human interaction - in a midgrade fantasy novel, there should be many more "-ly" adverbs, for example, than in an adult mystery.

3) Whether the pacing needs to be accelerated or slowed - modifiers slow down the pace, which can be useful to give the reader a break or set a different tone.

4) Whether the sound of the language, the cadence, the meter, the assonance or consonance needs to be modified to fit the emotional tone or theme of the scene.

There are lots of factors that go into the so-called "breaking of a rule". Really, an excellent author is juggling a dozen factors to achieve the best result they can, and an excellent teacher can illuminate some of those choices, and point towards more effective ones, without harming a writer's unique voice.

A poor teacher, not so much.

Timothy Fish said...

Dal Jeanis,

You make some very good points. I am sure that all who attempt to teach writing struggle with what to tell people that will get the point across without sending the person too far past the ideal. I am reminded of Mark Twain who said, "When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them--then the rest will be valuable." His admonition to kill adjectives is strong speech that I'm sure he used to get the full weight of his statement across, but even he saw a need to backtrack and say not to kill all of them, perhaps in fear that D. W. Bowser would take his words too literally.