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bear by san

March 2017

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bear by san

Into the mouth of Hell-- (I tell lies to strangers for money)


Their's not to make reply,
Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.



--Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "The Charge of the Light Brigade"

This weekend marks the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of one of the most notorious blunders in military history. Terry Brighton, author of  Hell's Riders: The True Story of the Charge of the Light Brigade, talks about it on NPR... along with a recording of Tennyson reading his famous poem, and a recording of a Light Brigade bugler. Tennyson, I must say, sounds rather as you'd expect.

***

We're a pattern-sensing species. This is both the bane and the blessing of the writer--the bane, because when the patterns we're attempting to manipulate are delicate things, and because readers will sense patterns we didn't mean for them to pick out--and the blessing, because once you get the rhythm of the thing, you can manipulate the reader's emotions with remarkable accuracy--depending, of course, on whatever baggage the reader himself comes with.

And make no mistake--what we do as fiction writers is manipulate people: no two ways about it. Some of us are more or less cack-handed about it, and get caught--this the reader complaint that "I could see the strings." Some readers, being less sophisticated, need slightly more unsubtle manipulation than those whose naiveté has been cracked, and who have defenses in place against that manipulation.

That latter group of readers must be seduced. They don't walk in and hand you their suspension of disbelief; it has to be earned, teased out of them. They have to give it up willingly. It can't be taken.

This is another example of how the basic idiot-proof writing advice becomes more and more subtle and complex as one gets deeper into what one is doing, as a writer. For example, what I'm talking about here is really "Show, don't tell."

But in the coarse screening, show don't tell applies to action, and then to motivation, and then to description--until you've got it down to the ultra-fine grit, the stuff I'm talking about here--which involves showing the reader a pattern, and letting him interpret it and draw his own conclusions, rather than explaining to him what you intend it to mean. This ties into another familiar exhortation to writers: trust the reader.

For example, does it seem that I was drawing a parallel with current world situations with the Tennyson quote and the bit of history above? Depending on one's political leanings, it might seem a viable analogy, or it might seem transparent manipulation.

Or I could just have been caught by the date, and--being a Tennyson fan (and I am a Tennyson fan, although I know he's terribly out of fashion these days--the rhythm of his language is astoundingly powerful, to my ear, and I'm a sucker for doomed heroism), I might have taken the opportunity to link a bit of poetry.

That's the reader's 50% we talk about, in action.

It's all about patterns.

It's like magic. But it's not. It's all just sleight of mind.


I shall go
Up and down
In my gown.
Gorgeously arrayed,
Boned and stayed.
And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
By each button, hook, and lace.
For the man who should loose me is dead,
Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
In a pattern called a war.
Christ!  What are patterns for?



--Amy Lowell, "Patterns"

Comments

It's like magic. But it's not. It's all just sleight of mind.

But isn't that what the best magic is?

'Trust the reader' is something too many writers forget. And too many editors, I'm discovering, especially while writing Y.A. The ability to say "you will either understand this, or be willing to learn this, and I won't write down to you or disrupt the story for the sake of explanation" is the greatest gift I ever got, as a reader, and a gift I try to give, as a reader. Yeah, walking the fine line between obscure and comprehensible, at times. But so don't we all?

Had to explain to an editor recently that no, I wasn't going to sit down and explain something to the reader. If the reader had come to this book, the reader was either a) going to grok the reference or b) intuit it from context or c) look it up. I wasn't going to insult every other reader on behalf of the potential maybe reader who can't be bothered to do any of the above.

Whoops. I'm ranting, aren't I? Don't mind me or my frothing...
But it's worthwhile frothing. Few things make me "wall" a book, but talking down to the reader is one of them.*

Editors tolerate different levels of obscurity, at least in my limited experience with the breed. The Nice Editor Lady at Ace cuts some stuff I put in, references to the Previous Book being one example, and there's one chapter in Winter Oak that I now think could use another paragraph or two because of it. But she has proven to be wise, so far.

*Another is a bad proofreading and copyediting job. Just finished one book like that, with THE WRONG WORDS showing up on a regular basis. I'm taking the sequel back to the library unread.
I agree. And a good editor is worth his or her weight in goooooollllddddd...

...and a bad one is, well. Bad.
and that should read "a gift I try to give, as a writer." Le sigh.

I grok thinko.
It's a good rant.

And I agree with you. Part of the problem is that there's a fine art--and a fine line--between letting the reader do enough of the work to stay interested and satisfied, and being intentionally obscure... and that line is different for everybody.

I suspect the story I'm working on now is intentionally obscure... but such is life, I guess.
That Amy Lowell poem has long been a favorite of mine. I've known it since highschool, more than 30 years ago, and it still give me shivers.

MKK
Oddly enough, I learned it in high school too, and was just reminded of Ms. Lowell because she's mentioned a bit n the bio of Vincent Millay I'm slowly working through.
Auden claimed that Tennyson had the best ear of any English poet for a reason.

---L.
His sense of... the gallop of language... is unsurpassed, in my humble.
I can read Tennyson aloud until my voice gives out. If I read him silently, it's much easier to see how little there actually is there.

---L.
As another fan of Tennyson and particularly that poem, I thank you.

As a history geek, I thank you.

Those recordings were quite something.

my pleasure--

Those recordings were quite something.

Aren't they just?

And Alfred sounds *just* as he looks...

Re: my pleasure--

BTW, have you seen D.G. Rossetti's sketch of Tennyson reading Maud aloud, half-curled on a couch? It was at a private party, shortly after it came out: just the Tennysons, the two Brownings, Rossetti, and his sister Christina. Four of the top ten mid-Victorian poets, listening to a fifth, in a drawing room.

---L.
It isn't just the writer of fiction. The persuasive writer has a difficult row to hoe too.

When I write an opinion piece I am, overtly, trying to convince the reader of something. If they agree, I want to inspire them to preach the cause, if they disagree I hope to plant seeds of change, if I can't win them to my side.

That requires manipulations. Which turns of phrase... do I use the direct quote, or a more delicate reference? Does a reference to a biblical passage have the connotations I want? Or is a piece of Ben Franklin more apt.

The reader has to know the persuading is being done, but it can't look as though I'm jerking them around, trying to drag them by the nose.

Fiction, however, like the boogaloo, plum evades me.

TK
*applause*

I hear ya about that boogaloo, though....