In nearly every creative writing workshop I’ve taught, someone asks for more—more details, more specificity, more singularity. Rarely does anyone recommend vagueness or imprecision.
In story, you need both. Specificity brings your characters to life, moving them from cliché to a complex, idiosyncratic individual. Specific details also flesh out the narrative dream, helping the reader experience your fictive world.
But lack of specificity, giving only a partial glimpse, can create suspense and an opening for the reader to engage more fully in the story. By being imprecise, you spark a reader’s imagination, and the result is a richer, more engaging experience. James Baldwin uses lack of specificity to great effect in his stunning short story “Sonny’s Blues.” Continue reading
When I first read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, I felt as if she’d scooped me up and placed me in her imagined world. On my second read, I was enveloped again, but this time, I was aware of the plethora of commas, semicolons, dashes and parentheses, and how effectively they not only knit her sentences together, but pinned me to the page, propelling me deeper into the character’s mind.
Punctuation. So easy to neglect, so necessary to create style. Some of our most famous writers have strong opinions about punctuation. Gertrude Stein said of the comma, it’s “a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath.” José Saramago refuses to douse his prose with punctuation: “Punctuation is like traffic signs, too much of it distracted you from the road on which you traveled.” Continue reading
Should 2016 be forgot and never brought to mind…
There are, no doubt, a few people who love Donald Trump, hate music, don’t like zoo animals and despise beloved actors and actresses. For the rest of us, 2016 was terrible.
This calls for distractions. We asked Fiction Advocate contributors to tell us which books they read this year that helped them forget, even for fleeting moments, that David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Gwen Ifill, Prince, and America — UPDATE: and George Michael and Carrie Fisher and her mom, Debbie Reynolds — died over the last 12 months.
In what may be the only happy coincidence of the year, the vast majority of the recommendations below come from a few people who have some of the most important things to say about 2016: Continue reading
There’s a game I play with my five-year-old son. I give him the line “Once upon a time” and a handful of words—say, “donkey,” “cheetah,” and “rock.” In a flash, he launches in: “The donkey went over to the field and it was looking for something to eat and it found a cheetah sitting there and it was near a big rock, but it was eating and….” With an abundance of conjunctions, he hurtles into the story, sweeping us both up and carrying us along to the end.
In my early drafts of stories, when I’m writing without much self-awareness, my sentences are long, twisting and turning with subordinate clauses, phrases, conjunctions and parentheticals. But during revision, I begin to chop them up or cross them out, as if I don’t trust their power to hold the reader’s attention. As if I don’t trust myself. I have to go through another revision to put them back in and remember the pleasure that a long sentence offers, with its sounds and rhythms and suspense and tension. When I teach Style in Fiction, I ask students to bring to class a favorite sentence from a published work, a sentence they wished they’d written, and most—I’d say 95%—bring long sentences.
Some people’s hearts beat faster when handed a bursting bouquet of flowers. For others, it’s chocolate. But for me, it’s metaphors. When I read one, something inside alights, as if a spark flew off the page. There’s a sense of surprise and also recognition, as if I’m simultaneously seeing something new and also recognizing something I’ve always known.
Gertrude Stein once wrote about the difficulty of writing in a period of late language, when readers have inherited so much good writing. It seems to me good metaphors are a way to address this late language problem.
A metaphor consists of an object (A) and an image (B), likening A to B, with B heightening the reader’s sense of A. “Simply stated, a metaphor is a riddle, since if the object is clear, the reader always asks how is A like B,” writes Stephen Dobyns in Best Words, Best Order. And who can pass up a riddle? Before you know it, your mind is scrambling to find the answer. To write a successful metaphor is to engage the reader and enlarge the story. Metaphors “float a rival reality,” writes James Wood in How Fiction Works. “Every metaphor or simile is a little explosion of fiction within the larger fiction of the novel or the story.”
Nearby there’s a house half standing. Most of the roof is gone, there are no front stairs. The windows are smashed and ivy has claimed a wall. When I drive by, I always slow down. Last time I saw among the weathered gray planks specks of bright yellow—the color that the house used to be.
The half-existing house captivates me. I’m reminded of Louise Gluck’s essay, “Disruption, Hesitation, Silence,” in which she talks about the power of the unsaid in poetry. “The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied.”