I envy the writer who conceived of the simple imperative written on the packaging of moist towelettes: “Tear open packet and use.” Kraft’s Shake n’ Bake is also an imperative, but has the added depth of being a gerund coupled with a colloquial-amputated conjunction.
It is precision that I envy.
At this stage in my writing life, my high points come as personalized rejection letters from editors—good rejections that aren’t automated templates of letdown, but handcrafted works of… letdown. In 2008, while shopping around a novella to various contests and publications, an editor called my writing “magisterial.” I think the very use of “magisterial” in a criticism is, well, magisterial.
As I progressed through a few more years of fiction writing, I realized it was not overbearing floweriness that blighted workshops or my own work; rather, it was a lack of precision.
The biggest hurdle facing precision is emoting.
There is no precision in emotion because feelings are not vivid. At best, presenting scenes through the eyes of emotion offers summary disguised as scene. A thought or a feeling may hint at motive and may even toy with action or intrigue, but the fiction comes off best from a character’s action or inaction, both of which must be trusted and need no emotional markers or commentary.
A greater crime is bringing a piece to workshop (or your thesis advisor) and the reader is blocked from the fiction by the writer’s clear attempt at expression. John Gardner tell us that, “Self-expression, whatever its pleasures, comes about incidentally. It also comes about inevitably.” Expressing emotion in summary rather than action not only kills the fiction, but it robs the reader of the actions that linked the progression of a character’s emotional state.
Why does such clarity scare a writer?
In my limited experience, it has been my ego that destroys my fiction.
If I am precise, then you might not know how smart I am—at least that is the fear. It would be like a magician who mastered dramatic flourish, had the best pyrotechnics, most beautiful assistants, and after walking on stage, crazed by the sexiness of his own fanfare, forgets to pull the rabbit from his hat (I believe our friends in marketing call this, “All sizzle and no steak”).
If I was on Madison Avenue, the billboards I created would block out the sun and banner planes carrying my ads (because that’s the hot ticket in advertising) would circle the globe nipping at their own tails.
While it is precision, not concision, which I am advocating for, they often go together. Vividness coupled with irrefutable action is vital. As writers, we must have humility to write characters that do something rather than muse and feel. Keep your aim to express yourself in the journal and on the shrink’s couch—if the writing is good enough, what ever you wish to convey will come across innately. By remaining the silent partner in the business of creating characters, the ego will never outshine the fiction.
My ego thrives in abstraction, emoting, avoiding precision and delaying the effect until…well, until the house lights come on, the scenery is carried away, the beautiful assistants are in cabs on their way home, the smoke from the pyrotechnics has settled, and I am left holding a hat—rabbitless.
And there is my ego, ever undoing its own efforts to conceal itself.
The greatest trick in fiction writing is remembering to trick. Read your John Gardner and don’t stir the dreamer from the fictive dream. Most importantly, remember to be a vivid liar immersed in action rather than a pleading neurotic steeped in abstraction—a bore.
Thanks very much to Ryan for taking the time to submit this post. Anyone in our program is free to do so. It’s always great to hear from you!
If you would like to comment on this post, you may do so here, or contact Ryan directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.