Tuesday, March 4, 2014
The Writer as Architect, Builder and Interior Decorator: Part One
This is my first blog ‘series’. It is inspired by some oft-quoted words of Ernest Hemingway. ‘Prose is architecture, not interior decoration,’ he once said, ‘and the Baroque is over.’ He was taking a stand against that pretentious, egotistical writing which is more about showing how clever the author is than it is about creating real people and telling real stories. Characters are no more than caricatures, mouthpieces for the author’s own views. Writing is an opportunity for the writer to show the world how cultured he or she is. Hemingway’s assertion is a protest against literary excess and intellectual pretention. Anyone familiar with the Baroque style of art can appreciate Hemingway’s distaste for this in the field of literature.
It’s also important to remember that Hemingway came from a background in journalism. Journalism continues to influence other writing styles even today. In my opinion, however, it tends towards a certain minimalism and reductionism, which is not always desirable when writing fiction. As with all movements, the movement away from the Baroque can become extreme in turn, and perhaps we have lost sight, to some extent, of prose as a form of art.
Focusing on creative prose, and especially fiction, I want to argue for a more balanced position in which the writer is not only the architect, but also the builder and, indeed, the interior decorator of their work. To achieve the best writing, in my opinion, it is necessary to pay close attention to each of these aspects of writing: architecture, building and interior decoration. Of course, by interior direction I will mean something other than the pretentious excesses that Hemingway had in mind.
In this first part I will consider the writer as architect. I approach this both as a writer in my own right, and as an editor of the work of others.
As with a building, so with a story, there needs to be on hand some kind of overall design to guide the building process. The elements of the plot need to hold together. Often in a story there are two or three main narrative themes. These need to dovetail and weave together. The characters are part of this overall structure: their role in the story; their relationships to each other. All of these things need to work together, rise together, so that in the end there is a structure that is stable, cohesive and even (we hope) beautiful.
How and when you, as the writer, arrive at and conceive this structure will depend on how you work. Some people like to start with the entire structure mapped out, at least in outline. Before they write a word they know where the plot goes, from A to D, via B and C. They know who all the characters are and the precise roles they are going to play in the story. They have a complete set of architect’s drawings, to maintain the analogy. Others prefer not to work like this. They design as they go. They have a few sketches to work with, some broad ideas and outlines, but they prefer to let the story evolve. It’s not for me to prescribe the best way to work.
This is not about a chronological process. It is not a series of steps. It’s not about having a complete design before you write a word. Writing, for many, is a more organic process: the design emerges with the writing, rather than precisely defining its parameters. The point is that, whether you start with a design or not, in the end what you hope for is a structure that is cohesive and holds together. You don’t want to end up with a structure that won’t stand. You don’t want walls that don’t fit. You don’t want one part of the building to clash badly with another part.
This is where structural editing comes into its own. The job of the structural editor is to ensure that the whole edifice is sound. Are there inconsistencies in the plot? Do the characters behave in consistent and believable ways (within the context of the plot)? The structural editor helps the writer to remove ugly excrescences, to remove redundant or conflicting features. The editor will tell you that this gets in the way of that; that you need to underpin this or that point of the story more securely. I prefer to call this process manuscript assessment, because at this point I, as the editor, am not making changes. I am advising the writer about what works and what doesn’t. An in-depth assessment of your manuscript covers its strengths and weaknesses, and offers specific suggestions and advice for improvement. It will include comments on structure, plot, characters, style and format, among other things.
These are broad questions. I believe this is a process the writer needs to go through after the first or second draft is complete. There’s no point at this stage in polishing your manuscript too much. You might write a beautiful chapter... And the editor will suggest you cut it entirely, because it plays no real part in the development of the story. A beautifully written chapter might be entirely off point. You, as the writer, might need to omit sections, add new sections or entirely rewrite existing sections. If you polish too much at this stage you are probably wasting your time.
Consider these examples.
1. Plausibility. The actions of characters and their motivations always require a certain plausibility. This is the case even in speculative fiction, where the rules of this world and everyday life do not necessarily apply. Even in this context, there needs to be an internal, consistent logic. For example, if one character is the only one in an entire town not to be aware of certain facts, some plausible mechanism needs to be established to account for his ignorance. If a monster attacks our hero, that monster cannot be a randomly designed creature with no organic link to the world in which it appears. This fantasy world has to have its own ecology and biosphere. If a character travels through time, there need to be certain rules governing this activity that make sense within the 'science' of this world, and which can't be arbitrarily set aside if the plot requires it. Characters behaving 'out of character', implausible coincidences to aid the plot... A character, suffering from memory loss, who can describe the bedroom he slept in, but 'forgets' that he his gay. The editor, from a more objective distance, can identity these issues and challenge the author. And sometimes, yes, the author needs to be challenged.
2. Consistency. Consider a mystery in which a series of murders is committed. There are only two or three possible suspects. As with any good mystery, in the course of the story the author tosses out a few red herrings. While in principle this is a good idea, at the end of the story I am left with the feeling that some of these red herrings didn't really make sense. Why did the character do/say/think that if they were not the murderer? The answer seems to be: To throw the reader off the scent. And, when the identity of the murderer is finally revealed? The nagging sense that this person would not have had the physical strength to commit these murders. All mystery writers will cheat to some extent. All readers will allow the author some liberties. Sometimes, though, the edifice collapses when the final bricks are laid.
3. Following through. A major event occurs early in a thriller. The unfolding of this event occupies fully one third of the novel. Then it is never referred to again. Although it was a major source of trauma for our heroine, within pages it has faded from her memory. A thrilling cliffhanger at the end of a chapter. 'If he'd only known what Fred was going to do, he would have...' What was Fred going to do? Read on... and never find out. Nothing 'Fred' does lives up to the expectations raised. Ideas developed at one point in a story often fail to bear fruit later. A 'clue' in a mystery is never explained. Sometimes the story has moved on in the writer's mind. This clue, this hint, this teaser is forgotten, but remains there to frustrate the reader. The editor can spot these unfinished threads that the writer overlooks.
I don’t give these examples to suggest that these real or imagined authors are necessarily bad writers or that these are bad books. Far from it. You might be confident that you, as the writer, would have noticed and corrected these issues. Or that they would never have arisen in the first place. However, these examples are in no way exceptional. People are often so taken up with the story they have conceived that they forget to lay the foundations. Other parts of the narrative become twisted or blurred to accommodate this main idea. The author wants to get from A to C and hopes the reader doesn’t notice that B is missing. An underdeveloped character; an undeveloped idea. Plot inconsistencies and discontinuities. These are common, if not, indeed, abundant.
Writers will not always like to hear what the editor has to say at this point in the process. For many, conceiving and constructing this idea is the heart of the creative process. Writers find it very difficult to let go of a treasured chapter or character. Alternatively, they find it difficult to give more substance to an underdeveloped character in which they have no real interest. I try to present criticisms in a positive light; and I always provide suggestions for resolving the issues, rather than simply pointing them out. Nevertheless, it is always with some trepidation that I press the ‘send’ button when I have written a manuscript assessment. And it’s always with some trepidation that I press the ‘open’ button when I receive an assessment of my own writing.
It’s very important that the final product is structurally sound, that it will bear the weight of the words it carries. We hope for a harmonious structure, in which everything has its place. Of course, it is not only the design on which this depends. It also depends on how well the structure is built, and it is to the role of the writer as builder that my attention will turn in Part Two of this series.