Learning to unwrite, writing to unlearn

As I learn to write narrative fiction, what I find to be the most frustrating aspect and what I continuously ask myself, over and over, is:


I can write. I write rather well. But not narrative fiction. I was taught, primarily, to write expository argument. Essays, essentially. The dreaded five paragraph missive designed to vex every fifteen year old attempting to avoid failure of English, period 3, room 218. (I only just.)

Literary fiction is a whole other swim in the swamp. There are gators and flesh-eating bacteria and rednecks in there. And they all want their pound of flesh. And I never learned how to appease them.

So now, I have to unlearn all that factoid driven, introductory sentence followed by supporting facts followed by conclusion shit. Scrape that crap from inside my skull and then, with a bone clean slate, reintroduce proper, evocative, engaging, thriving narrative. Narrative with an impossible number of rules and nuances that must be learned before you can actually write anything that anybody would ever want to read.

Ugh! It’s the unlearning that is killing me.

I would have loved to have someone, thirty years ago say, “Here, Mole, follow this simple step for dialog — never break it up with exposition. Dialog needs to escalate the tension, back and forth quickly, peak and then release to build again. There’s a rhythm to it. Alright? Okay, let’s practice. Good. Now again. Better. Now again. Excellent!”

Phew! One lesson down. 999 to go.

Oh, wait. Before I continue, I have to get the bristle-brush and cleanser out in order to bleach-clean all the droll research paper trash that litters the inside of my head. Damn! Will I ever be rid of this shit?







Writer’s Log: 1354 Narrative Trust

Editors cannot trust the author.

Readers must trust the author.

[This is a reblog of this same post from February — testing the date alteration in WordPress as an experiment…]

Editors are there to seek out issues with the writing. They’re not there to get wrapped up with the story flow and character attachment. If they get too involved, if they begin to trust the author — while wearing their editor hats, they’ll miss mistakes that they are there to catch.

Readers are hoping to trust the author, to invest themselves with the writing and the characters, to abandon their doubts and get swept up with the energy and conflict. And if they attain this reverie they’ll gladly glaze over mistakes that slipped through the editing process.

Readers want to trust, but editor’s can’t afford to.

More specifically, narrative trust is the acceptance of the author’s skill that what you’re reading will not contain grammar, spelling, or cognitively jarring mistakes. It may take a chapter or five to slowly build up this trust, but once you’ve achieved it, you’ve given the author power over your immersive experience. The story takes over. The narrative quivers to life in your mind. You, as a reader are, in a word, hooked. At this point a reader trusts the author to not betray them.

Editors can never allow this aura of involvement to occur. They need to be on constant alert for errors — of any kind. Editors must remain detached, aloof from the seductiveness of the writing. Often this is not a problem as most writing lacks the perfection required to enter that reading nirvana. It’s a sad state for an editor; to blind their critical eye, to give in to a story, that experience can be blissful — that bliss is narrative trust.

Readers, on the other hand, want to suspend their distrust of the author’s ability. They want to believe the author, the writing, the story will unfold like a petaled flower, like a well crafted puzzle, like an exquisitely wrapped Christmas present. If it does, the experience is sublime. If it doesn’t, then the clunk the reader feels when shaken out of the narrative dream is unsettling. Tiny mistakes will often be overlooked by a reader in-the-groove. That’s why editors can never allow themselves the luxury of narrative immersion.

Achieving such a state of author trust is the goal of every reader. Creating such a narrative that induces such a state — the goal of every author. Editors ride the line between the two.

Narrative trust:

  • If you’re an editor, it’s a state that must, sadly, be avoided.
  • If you’re a reader, it’s a state that hopefully awaits your next page turn.
  • If you’re a writer, good luck evoking it for it is one elusive endeavor.

An associate, I’ll link his blog but don’t want to risk disparaging his good name on this controversial site, pointed out that there were additional aspects to building narrative trust, which had nothing — directly — to do with the actual writing. In response I penned the following…

Author credibility absolutely enters into the equation. And as you say, it would be the initial hindrance or impetus regarding attaining narrative trust, depending on initial impressions of the author, the publisher, the cost, the venue (hardback, softback, kindle), the source (recommended or random find), and the genre (is it a drama, sci-fi or mystery, a genre you’re interested in?) — all this even before you’ve cracked the cover.

New authors, like myself, have it doubly hard convincing any reader that they won’t, first off, waste their time reading our work, and secondly, they will achieve a sense of narrative trust, sometime (hopefully early) in their literary consumption of our stories. Having none of the credibility granted to any novelist already established, new authors must realize the imperative of presenting the epitome of a perfect manuscript to readers.

It’s rather a conundrum: fresh authors have little experience in producing perfection but must endeavor to do so else they’ll never get read. Experienced, credible authors have a reduced need to convince readers to trust their stories as, well, they’re credible authors, yet they’ve the experience to produce a higher quality product. Catch-22.

Informed, piqued, challenged

But not entertained.

Not fully. Not in the robust sense of being entertained, of enjoying entertainment.

To what am I referring? To everything you will read on the web during the day; during your arduous slog through your social, business and informational treading of life’s daily data toil.

Like this post for instance. I don’t overtly wish to entertain you. I do intend to swipe at your subconscious; bat around your interests; toy with your beliefs, assumptions and predilections. But I’m not setting out here to entertain you. I’d rather stick a wet finger in your ear.

And that’s what all the web, during the day, during my reading of news and articles and tidbits, should do. Inform me. Fill me with awe and admiration of the data you’ve compiled and arranged and elucidated — upon the behalf of your argument.

But don’t spend hundreds of words poetically couching your argument in narrative. I don’t want to be intentionally entertained by you while you write to me about the genome, or Mars, or why bluefin tuna are dying out, or how hard it is to build a Javascript library that lasts the tests of time.

No. Just give me the facts, ma’am! Don’t try to be a story teller. Just get to the bloody point.

I will get my expanded narrative entertainment reading what are presented and acknowledged to be actual entertainment focused articles, stories and novels. When I want to be entertained through the written word I’ll pick up a novel.

Therefore, if information transmission is the primary intent of your writing (and most daily web writing is these days) — don’t fluff it up. Don’t beautify it.

Like I tell the doctor with bad news, “Just give it to me straight.”