The Tragedy of the Common

Not infrequently, I find myself reading fiction penned by aspiring authors. Perhaps “attempting to read” would be a better description of the process — dipping into manuscripts or glancing at Look Inside pages on Amazon, and then suppressing a shudder and moving on. “Aspiring” is a catch-all term I like to use because it avoids the connotations with which words like “amateur” and “novice” are freighted. And “penned” has more than one meaning. A writer’s idea for a story, be it ever so noble or shining, can be constricted by the writer’s inadequacies.

Not to sugar-coat it, all too often my reaction is, “Oh, god, this is awful!”

I’m reminded of Tolstoy’s observation in Anna Karenina. In some sense, all good authors are alike, but there are so many different ways to be bad! “Alike” may not be quite the right word, though. There’s as much distance between Mark Twain and Henry James as there is between Boston and the Mississippi River. The similarity lies in good authors’ mastery of their art and craft.

Today I’m challenging myself. Rather than being repelled, outraged, or exhausted by bad writing, maybe I ought to have compassion for aspiring writers. After all, they’re doing the best they can! Yet somehow their best efforts miss the mark. The seagoing vessels of their imaginations sink, leaving only bubbles. The corpse does not pick up its bed and walk.

My purpose in mentioning this is not to boast. I’m not a great writer. On good days I write very serviceable prose and put together stories that have reasonable plots. I also have stories on my hard drive that are, for one reason or another, failures. And I’m sure I have my blind spots when it comes to technique. I don’t know what they are, but I’m sure they’re there.

What is it that separates me, if anything does, from the legions of writers who not only pour their inadequacies into sentences and paragraphs but thereafter feel justified in sharing the harrowing harvest with readers?

I suppose we could talk about talent, but talent is an intangible. We sense its presence (or its absence) only when we look at the finished work of art; as a term, “talent” is strictly retrospective. In the absence of a finished work, or at least a good rough draft, talent can’t be perceived, and there’s no definition other than “whatever it was that produced this.”

I can point to at least five factors that are more specific than “talent,” and that it might be more helpful to talk about.

First, I’ve had the benefit of more than 25 years of on-the-job training as a full-time staff writer and editor. True, I was producing nonfiction, but it was for publication and public consumption. I’m quite accustomed to sitting down at a desk in the morning with the knowledge that my job is to get it right. To choose the right word. To cross-check facts. To come up with a good lead sentence. I have a professional attitude.

Second, when I started writing fiction, many years ago now, I realized that I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. There were, and are to this day, many books packed with tips about how to write fiction. My strong suspicion is that many of the writers who, despite their fond hopes, are failing to produce good work either don’t know about these resources or think they don’t need to dig into them. Some people are afraid that reading how-to-write books will hamstring their talent. They think their natural talent will shine through. ‘Tain’t so, McGee.

Third, to write fiction well it’s necessary to immerse oneself consciously in the dream world of the story. I’m pretty sure this skill can be learned. You have to be in the scene with your characters. You have to see what they’re seeing, hear what they’re hearing, feel what they’re feeling. I sometimes get the impression, when reading a story that isn’t working, that the author is trying to steer the reader’s impressions, or perhaps trying to apply techniques picked up from a better author, rather than settling into the scene. When pundits say, “Show, don’t tell,” they’re suggesting that you need to be inside the scene — a movie camera with telepathy, if you will, to catch both the details of the action and what the viewpoint character is thinking and feeling.

Fourth, you have to be willing to revise! That may mean cutting whole scenes that aren’t working, and that can be painful. It means going through the prose again and again, asking yourself on every line, is that the right adjective, the right verb? Should I put a comma here, or use a period and start a new sentence? Is this the right place to break to a new paragraph? Have I used enough dialog tags to make it clear to the reader who is speaking?

Fifth, when a novice reads and is inspired by a wonderfully written novel by a justifiably famous author, the craft that the famous author has poured onto the page is largely invisible. If you take an art class at your local community college and decide that your first work will be a painting of your cat, your eyes will tell you, within milliseconds, that your painting is not very good! It won’t look anything like what you envisioned. If you want to put the bell on the cat, you’ll have to learn the techniques that painters know. But when you read a novel, the technique is hidden. The prose seems to flow very naturally. As a result, the amateur writer thinks, “Ah, that’s the secret: I need to write with a natural flow.” On observing the result, the amateur simply doesn’t see the profound differences between his or her hopeless scribbles and the work of the master. Your reading of prose doesn’t work the way your eyes work.

Observing another author’s craft while you read is a skill you have to learn. It’s partly intuitive and partly analytical. It’s like mixing gasoline and air in a carburetor: If you want your vehicle to go, you need both.

All of this is prior to any observation one might make about specific techniques — the sagging plots, the jumbled opening scenes, the shallow characters, the clichés.

The tragedy, and it’s painfully common, is that so many aspiring writers fail to do these things. They lack a professional attitude, they’re not willing to learn about techniques and craft, when they read the work of fine writers they don’t see the story engine or hear its purr, they don’t immerse themselves fully in their scenes, and when they get it down on the page they think their job is done, when in fact they’ve only just begun.

More than 40 years ago I interviewed a recording engineer for a story in Guitar Player magazine. His name was Fred Catero. I only remember one thing Fred said, but it has stuck with me. “A lot of people,” he said, “when they get a record deal, they think they’ve got it made. But when you get signed by a label, that’s when the hard work starts.

So, you had an idea for a novel, and now you’ve spent months writing a complete draft? That’s great! Now the hard work starts.

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2 Responses to The Tragedy of the Common

  1. George Oliver says:

    hi Jim, I’m curious, what are your favorite books on how to write fiction?

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