Thursday, February 24, 2011

Decide Your Focus- Where to Start Your Creative Writing

It being my nature to stalk famous authors' interviews in hopes of discovering some magical key to literary success (besides smoking opium... Coleridge), I've read copious amounts of writers' little tips and tricks. Most of them are so painfully obvious that I could have given them to them- like "try to make the characters realistic" and "brainstorm" and "edit edit edit!" And some of them are completely specific to the writer; "I always find it's helpful to write while drinking a pina colada and listening to Jewel." But one piece of advice that I come across pretty consistently, and that I consider to be pretty solid, is the advice to focus on one particular aspect of a book, and then shape your work around that point. Of course, every aspect should be developed, but by picking one to really focus on you can differentiate your stuff and really make it stand out. So, here are some examples of different focuses and books that use them:

Plot: Plot is probably the most common focus for novelists, and is probably the first thing people think about when they think about a story. We always ask, "What is it about?" The truth is, a book about a kidnapped princess and her magical flying horse might be more boring than a book about a man putting on his left shoe. That said, plot can be a powerful tool, and a truly dynamic plot can make a great book. Think about books like The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde with a big plot twist that completely throws the reader, or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, with so many random little episodes and anecdotes that the reader feels like he or she is on some kind of literary amusement park ride. That's what you're aiming for; Vertical Velocity, short fiction edition.

Characters: Probably the second biggest focus you might think of, and rightly so. One of my favorite books, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is the perfect example of a character-centric piece of literature: it's a depiction of the narrator's experience living in Savannah, GA and all the wildly unique characters he knew. There was an ultra-glamorous black drag queen, a practicing witch, and a Ferris Bueler-y man named Joe who did things like move into a house for two months while its proprietor was away and charm the people he was indebted to to the point where they would apologize to him. I loved every minute about it. Engaging characters are an amazing tool for establishing a good book; make them heroic, make them crazy, make them quirky, make them complex- just make them stand out.

Setting: Books that focus on setting obviously incorporate large amounts of plot and character development, too, but it's the "world" of the novel that makes them stand out. the Harry Potter books are awesome. And I will defend to the death their right to be as popular as they are. But I also think that they wouldn't be nearly as popular if they were just all about the story lines. What makes the world of Hogwarts and the wizarding world so appealing is just that: the world. JK Rowling created exotic stores, governments, languages, products, sports, and cultures. Its an entire alternate universe. We love reading about the way that Gringott's Bank works or the latest wizard candies or the difference between a hippogriff and a Pegasus. Why do you think Harry Potter world is so explosively popular? You can drink a butterbeer! You can meet a ghost!

Concept: Think about books that are written around the premise "What if..." What if animals could model a communist society (Orwell)? What if we could implant dreams Okay, Inception is a movie, not a book, but same idea). These books can be philosophical or politically pointed or just trippy. Having some abstract idea as the focus of a book seems to give the author a little bit more leeway than usual in terms of minimizing the other aspects. Its okay that the specific pigs in Animal Farm don't have much dimension, because that's not really the point. I think that concept novels are fairly ambitious, and can either be fascinating or just end up as massive fails. I also think, though, that even the massive fails earn some degree of respect just because it is such a challenging task to push a theory through and make it work. The ideas can be complex like in Inception, or hypothetical (what if Adam and Eve had never gotten kicked out of paradise?) or just allegorical for society, like The Lord of the Flies. The single most important thing is to make the central idea new, original, and interesting. Then, just try to pursue it as far and as clearly as possible.

Language: Some books are just all about the way that they are written; experimental styles, flowing diction, whatever. Some means are more mainstream now- like writing in an alternate format (diary entries, emails, etc.) Some are just distinguished by their style. Lolita reads like music. Not because of any trick, but because Nabokov is just a beautiful, beautiful purveyor of prose. This is another difficult one. If you want to focus on writing style, deeply, deeply acquaint yourself with words. Read dictionary lists. Play with flow, style. Which words sound good? How does word order change meaning? Etc. I'd start by doing writing exercises before even starting to write "the big one": Things like, describe an object using words that sound like the idea they are expressing (flinty- hard, succulent- juicy, etc). Or write using no grammar, or write complex concepts super simply or visa versa, making the simple complex (concert--> melodious cacophony of sound facilitated by instruments of music, compounded and elevated by microphones and projected in order to reverberate in the eardrums of a waiting audience). Just get ready to be actively engaged and thinking the whole time you are writing.

Context: This is kind of a harder one. Mostly, authors achieve context through perspective. This is kind of like concept, except that instead of being hypothetical it is based in reality. Basically, context books derive their meaning from the origin of their creation real or imagined. These books are significant not necessarily for what they expressly say or the way that they said it, but from where they are supposedly saying it from. The most famous example is The Diary of Anne Frank. Yes, she's a great writer, especially for her age, and yes her story is compelling, but we don't read this in grade schools across the country because of the diction or the fascinating relationship between Anne and her mother: we read it because it was written by a girl who was actually living as a Jew in Nazi Germany. A book written by a survivor of Darfur in Sudan might write a book about his childhood. Even if nothing dramatic happened to him, the work would be valuable because of who he is. As a writer, the only way you can really impact the force of your voice in terms of actual context- that is sort of the luck (or lack thereof) of the draw. What you can do it write a story from the point of view of a specific person- tracing the way that that person would think and making that the point of your story. You could write an account of Napoleon's rise from his wife's perspective, or you could write as an autistic child. These stories tend toward the political, and if yours does, be very careful in choosing the way that you portray people of  a specific gender/ race/ type of person. Choosing your subject is everything here: pick something you feel is powerful and important, and immerse yourself.

1 comment:

  1. Huzzah for a useful writing technique that isn't "duh" or "well, I hate Jewel's music but if it helps..."