Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Three Rules for New Writers

1. You are not a new writer.

He had been writing since he learned to write his name, constructing narratives since his first daydream. What particular day he started doing those two together didn't really matter, he now knew; shit, the only thing that mattered was how skilled he was at it. And, well, hopefully being published and paid in proportion to that skill.

Given that he'd been writing for a while then, he couldn't be a new writer, he reckoned, just a skilled or unskilled writer, a published or unpublished writer, one of the four possible combinations. He'd realised that to think he was "new" was just using a notion of learner status as an excuse for being unskilled. Realised that he would always be learning. He'd realised that to think that he was "new" was just using a notion of amateur status as an excuse for being unskilled. Realised that he might never be published. The only way to graduate from learner/amateur status was to stop making fucking excuses like that, take that professional approach as the first step to being a professional.

He could have his unskilled writing published if he paid, of course. He could even be paid for his unskilled writing if he pandered. If that was what he'd wanted though, he wouldn't be looking for writing advice.

2. Any sign that you don't know the ropes, is a sign that you're not ready to go in the ring.

She picked up the first manuscript from the slush pile, found herself reading prose that wasn't even functional. So someone wanted to be a writer but couldn't even meet the minimum requirement, being able to construct words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs. She didn't have to read more than the first page to reject it.

She picked up the next, raised an eyebrow at the cover page. Rolled her eyes at the first page. She flicked through. Shit, how many conventions of manuscript formatting, also minimum requirements, had the writer simply failed to learn and apply? She didn't even have to check the prose to know she couldn't work with this, to reject it unread.

3. There is no story without style.

Writing a story is a test of style. Here is a sample paper:

Words are the only substance. The story is a fancy conjured by the narrative. That narrative is an articulation shaped in words -- words picked and placed in sequence according to the logic of effect. The style of that articulation is only the specific logic used by the writer, the strategies brought to bear in selecting and structuring words to a desired effect. Such strategies are applied not just at the level of sentences and paragraphs, but at the level of passages and scenes, chapters and acts. All levels of narrative involve stylistic decisions.

3a. Did that character walk, stroll or stride into the room? Do you end Act 1 with the trap or the escape, with cliffhanger or resolution?

The opposition of style and content is a false dichotomy. There is no content, only an articulation that will be illogical and ineffective if you neglect style at any level. Plot and theme are not content that can be carried by a crude articulation, thrown together with no regard for style. They are interpretations the reader makes of the story as it is conjured by the narrative, and your story will not be conjured properly if you cannot construct that narrative. Without functional sentences and paragraphs, you cannot build an effective passage -- the basic unit of narrative.

3b. Is that one paragraph or two, two paragraphs or one? If you were reading the opening of a scene to an audience, how many paragraphs in would you stop? That's a passage. Work on it as a unit.

Style is not an adornment of prose. Transparent prose is not the absence of style but a style in its own right, a strategy of selecting and structuring words by the logic of referential effect, the basic mechanics of meaning. It eschews the more complex dynamics of phonetic patterning and figurative use, the logic of poetic/rhetorical effect; but even in transparent prose the basic dynamics of sentence rhythm are required, or prose will fail as: a) clunky where it is too rhythmically uneven; b) flat where it is too rhythmically even. Passages will not flow.

3c. If you read a passage aloud do you feel like you're stumbling or trudging?

Style is not a surface finish. The opposite of a transparent prose style is not a decorative prose style, simply a notable one. It is any set of strategies that includes applying the logic of poetic/rhetorical effect, any style that highlights its own medium with phonetic patterning and figurative use of language. A notable prose style may be terse rather than lyrical, imagistic rather than florid. Improving one's style does not mean striving for poetic/rhetorical effect without logic, but more likely striving to excise it. A passage bloated by overwriting betrays a failure to think stylistically.

3d. Take the opening passage of a scene and inflate the desription of the setting and action with every superfluous detail you can think of, with multiple adjectives on every noun, multiple adverbs on every verb. Pile clause upon clause, sentence upon sentence, until the redundancies render the passage at least twice as long as it needs to be. Now gaze upon this corpulent travesty of description and ask yourself: how have I done this already in the original?

Style does not occlude content. You cannot mask story with words, only fail to conjure it properly. Where prose is overwritten to the point of being opaque, this is not a slathering of style obscuring content, but substance obscuring its own logic of effect. Purple prose is an excess not of style but of substance -- a surfeit of gilding words and phrases, padding verbiage, and clauses proliferating to accommodate such -- the mark of a writer with no real stylistic strategy. Structure in thrall to an indiscriminate selection, the result is a deficit of logic that confuses what logic there is.

3e. What is the function of this passage? Of this paragraph? Of this sentence? Of this word? Does it perform that function well enough?

Words are the only substance. Style is how you snip and stitch that material. Basic principles in selection and structure? Ruthlessness in one, rhythm in the other.

Answer any five questions from the above.

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