Saturday, 19 March 2011

Honing Your Writing - How to Write on the Cutting Edge

I'm working my way through Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card as I revise my novel. The book is part of the Elements of Fiction Writing series, and I ordered it at a time when I was struggling to really the unique voices of the characters in my book.

As luck would have it, my muse kicked in just after I placed the order and I had pretty much resolved my voice issues by the time the book arrived a few days later. Because I enjoyed Card's fiction I decided to browse my way through the book anyway.

I'm glad I didn't immediately relegate it to the bookshelf. Thumbing through a few pages here and there has been helpful. Card is forcing me to reconsider details such as point of view, that I had probably decided in too much of a hurry when I sat down to write the first draft.

I still haven't made any life altering decisions - or at least decisions that would lead to a global rewrite! But I'm toying with individual scenes, reading more of Card's advice, and giving myself time to think about how I can best communicate my characters and their story to the reader.

Every few days I stumble on advice I hadn't expected to find in a book on characters. A good example is this passage about writing conventions, and how too many writers feel obliged to write something unconventional if they want to be taken seriously:
There are many young writers . . . who believe that good writing must be unconventional, challenging, strange . . .
This is far from the truth. Most great writers followed all but a few of the conventions of their time. Most wrote very clearly, in the common language of their time; their goal was to be understood. Indeed, Dante and Chaucer were each the starting point of a national literature precisely because they refused to write in an arcane language that nobody understood, and instead wrote in the vernacular, so that people could receive their stories and poetry in words they used every day.
It is often said that Shakespeare wrote his plays in the vernacular of his time, but I wonder how many of us would think the same of more challenging authors like Chaucer. This message will probably take a while to percolate into the minds of aspiring writers, precisely because works that have achieved the status of "classics" were generally written in an English that differs from our own. But as Card says, language evolves and so do the expectations of the reader.

We need to write for today's reader. The goal isn't to dazzle the reader with great feats of linguistic prowess, but to make our words seem so natural they are almost invisible. Then what shines through is the story we want to tell. As Card puts it, "Choose the simplest, clearest, least noticeable technique that will accomplish what the story requires." If you want to be on the cutting edge of writing, I suspect this is the place you'll find it.

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