Saturday, September 22, 2007

What's Going On?: The game

A black man and a black woman stand on a street corner in inner but not Downtown Portland. She is talking with animated, but not wild gestures. (This is where her racial background is relevant; blacks tend to use bigger gestures than people of, for example, northern European descent.)

I had the length of the stoplight to ask, Is she angry? At the man she's talking to? What's their relationship? What's his reaction?

By the time I got my last glimpse, I had concluded that she was talking about something that angered her at the time, but now was an entertaining story. She had a residue of anger, but it was not directed at the man she was talking to. She knew the man, but he was a neighbor, a co-worker whom she had happened to run into, not a husband, brother, anything close like that. The man was enjoying the story.

But because I had been reading How to Read a Person Like a Book, I could take a little extra time and ask what I was basing the conclusions on.

First, the relationship. They stood at a 45-degree angle to each other, "open" to others joining the conversation, and their foreheads were not tense. The man had his ear turned attentively to the woman, and he was smiling slightly.

The anger was in the gestures, forceful, chopping motions, not arm-waving. Movements that if she had been angry at the man would have had her poking him in the chest. But she deflected them downward at the last instant. The object of her anger was absent.

Reading body language is for me at the core of people watching, and for a writer it can be an asset in characterization. If the author wants a character to reveal something without saying it, he can say it in movement. It's all part of "show, don't tell," and if, for example, a the writer wants to reveal that a child is afraid of her mother, she can flinch when another woman reaches out to stroke her hair. She can tend to stay to the side and behind adults.

Attraction, revulsion, desire, skepticism, boredom. We're always talking, even when we don't say anything. And we're always reading, if we pay attention, even if we haven't made use of a book to verbalize results.

Just for fun, check out a couple of paintings, Breaking Home Ties and Nighthawks and ask the questions: Who are they? Where are they coming from and where are they going? What is their relationship? How do they feel? And how do you know what you know?

And then at the mall or on the street corner, the game continues, and characters say more than they ever could in words.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

I'm reading a book

More thoughts on my most recent post about entering fictional worlds.

When I -- and probably a lot of people -- am reading a book and not in the story's world, I'm evaluating. It might be grammar, story structure, character, whether the "facts" of the story are believable, whatever. The critical sense is antithetical to the dream state. And when new writers show somebody their story, they sometimes get critiqued on a lot of things that wouldn't be noticed if the reader had been in the story world. And it's not so much that the noted critiques are wrong, but if the new writer were to fix all these little critiques without addressing the world problem, then the next read will bring more of the same level of critiques, often telling the writer to change back the things he just fixed. If the story works, the critiquer wakes from the dream after some block of pages and says, "Oh, that's right. I'm supposed to be critiquing this."

But one reader's dream state is another's crock of mush. Although many of the Da Vinci Code's kajillion readers experienced that dream state, my memory of that book is white pages wrapped by a red cover. Ho hum. My memory of A Suitable Boy is sprawling Indian landscapes, Hindu festivals, the Ganges River, a Mumbay cemetery in the rain. Yes, also words on a page, but clear memories of things I've seen only through those pages.

At the same time, take a writer like Umberto Eco. I love his books. I love his writing. And though I often lose myself in the world, frequently, he kicks me out with a sentence that makes me want to walk around the block and think about how the world is organized. I had to start marking the text of Baudolino with referents to his thoughts about the nature of truth and lies, what's real, and the "reality" of story. Eco reminds me that I'm "reading a book," and I don't mind it. It's part of what I enjoy about him.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

On beginning a novel

I've been thinking a lot lately about stories about crossing over into other worlds. It's a staple of the fantasy genre -- if the character is not born in this alternative universe, he has to get there somehow, whether it's by falling down a rabbit hole, stepping through a magical post in the train station, finding an opening in the back of a wardrobe or an invisible door into the London Underground. In fact, there are too many such stories to mention, and I'd like to try to understand what they mean.

But I think one thing that is true about these doors into elsewhere is that they're a metaphor for the story itself. What every storyteller does, when we do our task, is draw the reader/viewer/listener into this other world -- whether past or future, a locale exotic or mundane, set among the glittering wealthy or the seamy underside. The story reader is in a sort of dream state. He doesn't see what's around him but instead sees Hogwarts or Middle Earth or a space odyssey or Edwardian England, sees them so clearly, in fact, that he remembers them as if they happened to him, as if they are happening to him.

It's why overwhelmed and overworked agents and publishers can tell in a page or two -- or even a sentence or two -- whether they're going to be interested.

The author has to drag the reader, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the story. He does that by creating a world and giving the reader a reason to stay and see what's going to happen next.

The world is created by the texture of sensory details and the incantation of language. The world is the basis, but the question holds a reader in an ill-drawn world better than a well-drawn world with no story.

The question comes from characters -- who want something, need something, face trouble of some kind; and the magic world promises that the answer waits around the next corner. But behind that answer waits an even bigger question, and so on and so on until the questions are answered.

When the dream breaks, when the reader wakes and thinks, "Ah, it's only a dream," and the story, the world, is imperiled. When the reader observes, "Oh, yes. I'm reading a book," it may bring about the end of the unwinding of the story in that person's universe.

Of course readers "know" they're reading a book, and I'm not literally asking them to lose touch with reality (although I've missed an occasional bus stop because I forgot about the world I was supposed to be navigating). But back to the practical implications for the author.

Every word, every detail from the beginning of page 1 should conspire to envelop the reader in the story. The text has to be real, sensory, emotionally evocative. The characters must be there from the beginning, with their fears, their danger, their terrible trouble.

The following are some items of advice I've gleaned from years of unsuccessful noveling. If they can be of help to anyone else, that's great. At worst, they will be a reminder to me of what to look for on the next draft.

Don't start with the character's name. The reader has no reference for it, no emotional content, so it's just squiggles on the page. Let us be curious about the person's name before we get it.

That's why it works so much better to start with a flyover concept: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Pride and Prejudice). "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" (Anna Karenina). "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice" (One Hundred Years of Solitude). Not only is it broadly true -- or at least debatable -- but it hits at the depth of our own experience (OK, most people haven't faced a firing squad or remembered the day we discovered ice, but we can identify with our childhood memories coming back to us at the hour of our death -- a nice twofer by Marquez). Not everybody can write one of the greatest sentences in literary history, but we all can aim high.

Marquez's twofer above captures a character in trouble. It's been a while since I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, but I don't thing he got back to Col. Aureliano Buendia's facing the firing squad for another hundred or more pages. I didn't care. I was hooked into the world that I can still see when I remember it.

The character needs a goal or a problem or a goal and then a problem or a problem added to a goal complicated by another problem. If everything's OK, why do you need me along? the reader thinks, and goes back to the television -- or real life.

Not an exhaustive list, but it's all I know right now. Maybe I'll get back to it later, when I learn some more.

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