Friday, May 9, 2014

Writin' Lessonz - Part II: Peeling Through Layers of Abstraction

Whenever I write, I sit down, flip my computer screen open, and start typing. But I could, just as easily, describe it thus:

I go to sit down in a chair, take my computer screen and move it up so that the computer is open, and then I would start to type.

In fact, I realized not that long ago that I had a pernicious tendency to describe things in precisely that manner. Which is a big ol' no-no to a writer. Why? Because it introduces needless layers of abstraction into your writing. Let's examine this idea.

You see, your writing is fake. This isn't an insult. And it's true even for non-fiction writers. But especially for spinners of tales. 

Writing is a recorded impression of thoughts. Writers hope to arrange these thoughts so that they create similar impressions and thoughts in the reader's mind. Even someone reporting on a true life event is hoping to capture a fictional version of those events that approximates what they have perceived first hand. 

Not because they are liars, but because you can't shove events into a spatially and temporally distant person's head using written symbols. I've tried it, and not only didn't it work, but I am still working off the last few hours of community service.

So, no matter what, we are trying to use 'fake' thoughts to inspire very real sensations in a reader. No matter what you do, you're going to be battling against this buffer in the human mind. The best writing circumvents this buffer so that the reader is so caught up in what they are reading - more accurately, in the substance of thought being presented - that they ignore the fact that they are perceiving this alternate reality or 'fiction' through the medium of words, and perceive it directly as imagery, emotion, and thought. 

Remember: the reader is the writer's true instrument, not the words. You aren't showing off your prowess with writing, you're using the writing as a tool to show off the reader's powers of imagination to themselves.

Therefore, the best thing you can do is get out of your own way. In terms of the language, take as much stuff out as you can. I'm not talking about cutting whole sentences, at least not now. What I'm talking about in this article is just pulling the fluff out of those sentences, the meaningless garble-dee-goop that we tend to toss in unthinkingly.

"But then I started to notice that it had begun to rain, so I thought that I should go get my hat."

"I noticed it started raining, so I decided to get my hat."

There are ten less words in the second sentence, making it almost half the length. What did we lose? What would a grammatically correct sentence consisting of all the deleted contents of that first example read like?

"I then started to, noting that it had begun, so I thought that I should go."

This isn't a perfect process, since I had to keep some of the verbs that I retained in the shortened version to preserve grammatical soundness. And besides, it couldn't possibly be perfect because it makes no sense. I couldn't possibly visualize someone doing that. A reader can't empathize with someone who 'started to, noting it, and who then thought they should.' I mean...

"I then started to, noting that it had begun, so I thought that I should go."

That's what we cut out of the sentence? Dear lord! And just think what you'd get if you go through a page of your writing, cutting out all this bulking fluff. Through a chapter? Through an entire manuscript?

When I re-wrote my first release, August 2012's 'Critical Incident,' last summer, it was ridiculous. I cut out almost 200 examples of the word "had" and dozens of "was"-es. I mean "All that he had was his dog" is a fine sentence, though "His dog was all he had" gets us away from that pesky "that," but some of the things I rewrote were pure dreck. Certainly, searching through a manuscript for "has," "that," and "was" and rephrasing most of the more clunky occurrences isn't the worst way to start a re-write process.

And, beyond that level, there's a lot more you can do to eliminate this problem. Note the first example about sitting in a chair. You should only say 'sitting in a chair' if you're describing the chair. If someone is sitting, we'll assume it's on a seat. Only if they are sitting on a nail, a moldy log, or something else of interest should you bother describing it. Or if it's a chair made of skulls, squirrels, or ice. Or if sitting on a chair is against the cultural norms of the society in the story, such that sitting on a chair instead of a moldy log is a bold statement.

I think you get the picture.

So, I hope that by now you would begin to see that you should start to ponder exactly this sort of thing when you have a chance to get working on your next...

Ha! Had you going there for a minute, didn't I?

I hope you agree that thinking about this when writing (or, at the very least, re-writing) will help your reader think about what you're writing about. And that's what we all want, right?

Talk to you next time, kids.

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