Thursday, August 25, 2011

May I Have Some Wine To Go With That Cheese?

First and foremost, I would not mind a glass of sweet Riesling after a full day back at school.  Summers are beautiful and evil devices that trick teachers into forgetting the regimented working world waiting for us from September through June.  But that's not really what this post is about.  Feel free, though, to grab a glass of wine before you continue reading.  

Instead let's talk about the super fine line between deep, pithy moments wrought with emotion and those horrid, Danielle Steel-like lines that leave most readers and writers rolling their eyes for mercy or a vomit bag.  How do we, as authors, peer down into the emotional chasm and craft the keystone scenes of our works without plummeting into the world of cheese and cliche (and men with thick flowing hair who just long to be, well, longing?)  

Romantic relationship drama always creeps into my stories.  And the relationships never quite fit.  Someone is a few degrees out of tune with the other, and often that minor slip ends in a declaration of how unlivable the relationship has become.  I arrive at those scenes, those statements, and I wonder how much do I need to tell the reader without becoming preachy or predictable?  Should the hero, or often in my case heroine, stand at the door of her apartment flushed and screaming from the top of her lungs 'I'm free of you, scumbag?  And yeah, never date me or my sister again!'  

Or is that too much?  Um, yeah.  Probably.

And if the reader was playing close enough attention to what had preceded the moment of heartbreak, shouldn't he or she have already gotten what was going on internally? Instead is it enough for her to slam the door and sigh, head against the door frame, the air in the room taking on a pleasant chill while the stairs groan under the weight of scumbag's self and baggage dragging to the exit?  (As I'm writing, I realize that this blog is far more question than opinion, but that's ok.)

In fact to be more precise, this isn't really about overly cheesy scenes but instead overly overt scenes.  How much do we spell out for the reader of the emotional inner workings of our characters so that he or she gets it?  One of my favorite books (and authors - shout out to Maeve Binchy) Circle of Friends finds a way to express all of the stress, misery, love, and friendship a group of girls offer to one another without long stretches of sappy dialogue.  Or hugs and embraces every other page.  By no means is it a high literary romp, but the book's heartfelt and warm.  And never once did I shake my head and think, wow, that didn't really need to be said.

In my own works I try very hard to leave the payoff sentence to the last paragraph.  Perhaps that placement in and of itself is cliched and doesn't need to always be at the end, but I don't like dialogue or statements of summation for the reader during the core of the story.  I want the readers to figure it out from the quiet, tiny moments.  My characters don't reveal their feelings often in dialogue or grand sweeping motions.  And that's great, right?  Show, don't tell?

Well...not always.

Think about Poe and other drama mavens brave enough to make those overly emotional, brooding statements.  It works for those authors.  It sets a mood and tone the resonate with readers and linger well past when the cover of the book shuts.  As with most of the writing issues I approach, studying the masters will help.  And studying the non-examples, the awful Twilights of the world (ha, got in my digs for the blog) will help, too.  

I wish there was a simple test.  A stick I could insert into each sentence that would emerge with a clear label to let me know if I've gone too far or not nearly far enough.  I tell my high students daily to avoid drama at all costs, but maybe going too far to avoid drama in a story sterilizes it from the gritty goodness of a good brawl and a few nasty names screamed in the heat of the moment.  

My goal this evening?  Start a story for the Good Housekeeping Fiction Contest with pure drama.  A full paragraph of over-the-top-ness that ends in a scumbag and at least something being thrown.  Not a glass vase, though.  Now that would be just too cheesy.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Liar Liar Pants on Fire

My son is going through a lying phase.  Relentlessly.  As he breathes.  I'm fairly sure that if I creep up next to him while he sleeps, he's lying between snores.  (It's funny.  I just read a friend's blog on the violent honesty of her little one, and I am missing those days like crazy right now.  The days where my son would point at women's bellies and say baby when clearly nothing was percolating inside.)

And then I think about being a writer, and that we are paid to lie.  Encouraged to lie.  And I'm trying to remember when I was little if I did the same thing.  Is he a creative genius trying out so many different stories in his head that sometimes they blur the lines between fiction and reality and it's impossible to give a straightforward answer?  Or is he an evil mastermind planning to take over our house and rule with an iron fist?  Nah, most likely he's ten and a kid and all the wonderful and bad things that go with that age.

It did, however, make me smile because as fiction writers we are not liars.  We are embellishers.  We are exaggerators.  We take the truth and twist it like a pretzel, shake some salt on top, and sell it as fiction. I've blogged before about borrowing other people's lives.  But in any reliable fiction class we are told to thumb our nose at reality.  Connect with the reader, but take reality and push it two degrees to the right where it is recognizable but not the same. Subtly blow your reader's mind.  I think that's why I like Neil Gaiman so much.  (Who doesn't?)  Take Coraline, for instance.  All children want to escape to an other reality where parents are better, but then Gaiman does the button eye thing and Coraline's world goes wrong.  It is terrifying.  But man, is it great.

Do we, in our stories, lie about reality?  Do we take a man and woman who would normally be sitting in LL Bean monogrammed robes drinking coffee and talking about the weather every morning and instead make one of them OCD while the other is clearly having sexual relations with the apartment super who smells like seafood and visits all the ladies in the building?  Of course we do.  Because no one reads stories, or books, or comics, to get a big old dose of reality.  We read to step inside of other people's brains.

I tell my students this constantly, and I hope that some of them believe me.  Read The Crucible because if you do, you'll know what it's like to be called a witch.  Jump into The Great Gatsby and you are magically an overly-moneyed twit running the show.  (I will at some point blog about how Daisy is one of the greatest villains in literary history.)  At any rate I don't want to read a book about me, because I live with fabulous  me every day.  I want someone to lie to me and tell me that things always end in fairy tales.  Or nightmares if that's your cup of tea.  But please, if you are a good writer, lie like a rug to me.  I prefer it that way.

The beautiful thing about writing is that our own personal truths are often lies to someone else.  They're wrapped up too neatly, even when mired in despair and destruction.  I want to be entertained, enlightened, but never bored.  Do not tell me the truth, because the truth is often something I am already quite aware of.  Tell me your truth and it's a shiny new toy to me, and while I'm being entertained secretly I'm learning something.  A new bit of my brain is crawling over the new idea and trying to figure it out.

Tell me the truth to my face, but if you're a writer, please lie to me.  I'll never hold it against you.