Friday, February 22, 2008

How to Assemble a Literary Frankenstein's Monster

Reading Thomas Swick's great article on why so much travel writing is boring nudged me into thinking how I do my own. I don't write strict travel writing, which normally (and increasingly) focuses on where-to-go-and-what-to-do, but still...good article. Essentially he points out six things missing from many travel narratives;

* negativeness (e.g. too much emphasis on "delightful cuisine")
* the present (e.g. too much "this ancient city was once the center of a far-flung empire)
* imagination (e.g. too much emphasis on how much things cost)
* insight (e.g. too much description and not enough explanation)
* humor (e.g. when it does appear, it's normally predictable self-depracating humor of the 'stranger in a strange land')
* dialogue (e.g. the world is populated by billions, yet travel writers seem to talk to no-one)

These are generalizations, but boy do they ring true. I can't read travel magazine features or newspaper travel articles...everything's too clean, too legitimate, too quaint...take your pick.

Thinking about all this prompted me to think about how I write. It seems to be a process that takes chunks of impressions and stitches them together, as-best-I-can, like a literary Frankenstein's monster (that's OK, I like the monster and I just don't buy the idea of's a myth that leads to sorrow...) Anyway, here's what I can make of it:

1. Think--for weeks and months--until a clear, physical setting and scene take shape. For me the moment of crystallization is accompanied by the first sentence of the story: I rarely get that by sitting down and trying for it. It's impossible to know when or where the idea will form up, but it's often while I'm in the sauna, or walking or running, or riding the streetcar.

2. Sit down and hammer it out in one go. Normally, this takes about 8-12 hours of uninterrupted writing. By the second hour I'm entirely back in the scene, in my mind, and it's critical to keep the ball rolling because the sensations and feelings have all come back. I can't summon them on short notice (maybe I should work on that; I'd get more writing done).

3. Start editing. Word by word, punctuation mark by punctuation mark, as in the picture above. The first draft is a sketch, the final is months away. But after about two months, say on a 2,000-word item, I'm burnt out and can't read it any more. It gets filed away, perhaps to be resurrected later. It's never deleted. A lot of my 2,000-word items are doomed to be rendered down to a single paragraph in some later item...they're not garbage, they're fertilizer :)

4. Finally, take it to your writing group. If you write, and you're not in one, I'd say get in one. It's indispensible to have relatively-impartial folks read what you write, and say things like, "I just don't buy this sentiment," or "This paragraph is really struggling." I'm in a great writing group here in Portland, Oregon, and simply couldn't do without them.

OK, last thing: to Swick's comments about travel writing, I'd like to conjur in the following nebuli:

* evoke all five senses
* compare things and quantities to everyday things and quantities, not abstractions
* unless the detail is actually moving the story ahead, ditch it (e.g. does it matter that the rope is yellow? if not--if that doesn't come back up later in a significant way--then nobody cares
* nobody cares what time you woke up or what you ate for breakfast; get to the scene and the story

There are others, but this is a good shortlist for me. Since I can ever forget my own birthday sometimes, I'm printing all this to tape inside the manila folder in my bookbag marked "Current Writing."

1 comment:

Charles Sullivan said...

That's some good advice on travel writing.

That page with all the scribbling on it looks quite familiar. Didn't we co-author a few articles and a book together? That's where I've seen that kind of scribbling, when we critiqued each other's drafts.

On a serious note, there's nothing better than printing out a hardcopy of a draft in order to edit it by hand with a pen. It's almost impossible to edit as well just on the computer. Or so say I.