Filling Cracks With Gold

Recently, a friend shared an arresting photo on facebook. Since there were many shares, I’m not sure who originally posted it, but the photo and inscription are attributed to Billie Mobayed.

The quoted material, under the photo of a rustic, repaired, and beautifully photographed bowl, indicated that the Japanese fill cracks in damaged objects with gold, thus honoring the history of the object, acknowledging the damage, and making it even more attractive.

It’s occurred to me that, as writers, we can strive to do that as well. Unless you are singularly blessed, the odds are your manuscript, particularly the first draft, will have cracks–those spots where you’ve not chosen the best descriptive words, written go-no-where filler dialogue, or hit what the talented writer and workshop director, Alice Orr, calls the “muddle in the middle.”

When I find those spots in my work, usually after letting it rest for several days, I stare at the offending line, try out a different word, phrase, or expression and sometimes–but not always–improve it. What I’ve come to realize, reluctantly, is that I’m impatient and inclined to do a quick fix, move on, and create new material (which is, of course, a lot more fun). Obviously, hurrying to repair a piece of mediocre writing isn’t a great idea, and usually results in dull prose or poetry–cobbled together and disorienting to the reader.

The cracks and flaws in our writing provide us with an opportunity to turn them into gold. When I do a workshop, I often advise writers to identify the best line in their manuscript, then strive to make every other line that good. But what if we could make the offending lines even better than our best line? What if we take that nondescript line and turn it into a line that sends the dialogue in a new direction; that reveals a hidden truth about our characters or their circumstances; that delights the reader? I’m going to try. Let me know if it works for you.

A Valentine for Mr. Green

I’m in love with Mr. Green. Not just any Mr. Green–George Dawes Green. Well, not really in love with him since I’ve never met the man, or even glimpsed him from a distance, but in love with his writing. Just by chance, I found his book, The Caveman’s Valentine, in a small, indie bookstore the other day.

The title was provocative and the description had me hooked: a talented, brilliant musician with a wife and daughter has turned his back on it all to live in a cave in New York City’s Inwood Park. Throw in the fact he’s schizophrenic, finds a corpse at the mouth of his cave, and sets out to seek justice for the victim sealed the deal. I bought the book, expecting it to be interesting; I discovered it was much more. Green is an intriguing writer who is able to tweak writing conventions and twist plots without perplexing the reader.

For example, the dialogue. The standard pattern we are used to seeing looks like this:

“I just got here,” she said.

Green occasionally deviates and begins the sentence with “Said.”

Said Betty, “Romulus?”  or  Said Romulus, “Who was he?”

He also has the enviable ability to write blocks of dialogue between two characters without using any dialogue tags to indicate who is speaking. It’s not easy to do this and keep the reader from becoming frustrated. And it can happen to the best of writers; critics love to attack Hemingway for a confusing exchange in his short story, ”A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” While writing dialogue without tags can be disconcerting in the hands of someone less skilled than Green, he delineates his characters so clearly that there is never any doubt about who is speaking. His dialogue flows so smoothly it’s as if the reader is listening to the conversation.

I liked many other things about the book, including the fact that he has penetrated the mind of a brilliant, if deranged, man with precision and compassion. I was happily surprised with the twists and turns of the plot, and liked it that he offered closure at the end.

Other than a good read, Green’s work was instructive. I was reminded that, within the framework of orthodox writing rules and conventions, there is room for originality and experimentation. Room, that is, if we have carefully crafted our work and developed our characters to the point that their individual voices are so distinctive the reader takes no exception to either what they are saying or how they are saying it.  How do we do that?  Here are some excerpts from my handbook on oral history and the art of capturing voice:

The most memorable characters in fiction are emotionally engaging and distinct. We can usually achieve authentic sounding dialogue when we are dealing with the known. When we venture out of our comfort zone, and invent characters who are unfamiliar to us, we need to find out how the real life counterparts of our characters communicate. Consider the following:

The speaker’s age.
The speaker’s gender.
The speaker’s ethnicity and first language (if applicable).
Occupational or professional jargon.
Speech patterns and idioms of the locale in which the character functions.

Characterization works best when you create plausible voices. Just as the narrator’s voice must be believable and consistent, so must the dialogue of every character–even the minor ones who may only appear once or twice (waiter, taxi driver, witness, bank teller). Unrealistic, dialogue has been the death knell of many otherwise great plots.

Using the syntax of actual speakers eliminates artificial dialogue. People tend to speak in fragments, relying often on facial expressions and body language to fill in the gaps. Using authentic speech patterns also eliminates a problem many novelists encounter–telling the backstory in the dialogue rather than in the narrative.

Your goal is to develop characters that have personality, quirks, mannerisms, and habits. They may be kind or evil, cowardly or bold. They may be educated or illiterate, rich or poor. They may live in a city townhouse or a rural farmhouse. Regardless, they will come alive on the page or stage if the words they speak remind us of who they are, what they are feeling, and how they make us feel.

Coffee, Tea, or Too Much Me–or You?

You are partial to a special craft beer and addicted to an oolong tea only grown on a certain slope. You smoke, love soccer, listen to jazz and collect posters of abstract art. You stay in the shower until the water turns cold; you sleep on flannel sheets even in the summer. Your car is old, recalcitrant, and fails you at the most inconvenient times. Fine. I, too, have things I can’t imagine living without–not the least of which is high-end coffee, listening to K.D. Lang singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and a certain brand of really comfortable shoes.

When I open a novel, I like to read details about what the characters eat and drink; about what their living quarters look like; about what books are on their shelves. I like to know whether they go for a run at 5:00 a.m. or just dawdle over coffee. It makes them seem like people I know, people I’d like for a friends–or those I’d avoid. Describing settings and details familiar to you–whether the logo on your gym bag or the view from your bedroom window–will breathe life into your fiction; that is, unless you inadvertently have EVERY character in your novel lighting up, opening a craft beer, or hanging out in the shower (except maybe a character who is contemplating suicide by hanging himself from the shower spigot).

How much is too much YOU? We are admonished by many writing instructors, workshop directors, and how-to books on fiction to “Write what you know.”  A talented writer I know used to work with his family in a decorative, wrought iron business. He incorporated details of their shop in an early work of his, and it was highly effective because it fit with the main character, the plot, and the setting. If what you know (like) fits in with a character–if your character is the type to really love those flannel sheets–then give him a set, but if it doesn’t fit save the sheets for another character in the book–or another book. And don’t, I beg you, have every character in your book loving soccer and collecting posters.

Stella, the protagonist in Nothing’s Ever Right or Wrong, is frequently baking biscuits–a lot of them. That was only wishful thinking on my part since I can’t make a decent biscuit; however, Stella could, and it fit her lifestyle and situation. That hasn’t always been the case. In the past, I’ve burdened my characters with habits or traits that didn’t fit them; they were my traits, my desires, my biases. Sometimes it almost worked; other time it detracted.

Description can be dicey. It’s easy to get an image or phrase fixed in our mind and, without realizing it, use it repeatedly. I just finished a novel by a New York Times Bestseller who is a very accomplished writer and a book critic. For some reason, the men tended to have long, glossy hair. The woman, with one exception, had long, shiny, black hair. Everyone seemed to be pale. Also, the men seemed to be very partial to black tee shirts. I couldn’t resist sneaking a peak at the author’s photo. Yep! Long, very dark, hair and she does look sort of pale.

Once, I found myself giving all the characters in a novel hazel-colored eyes. I don’t have hazel eyes myself, but I’ve always liked them. It seems that preference was lodged somewhere in my mind, and I used it thoughtlessly. What saved me that time was proofreading. Now I use the “find” tool in my word processing program, knowing I have a tendency to make that particular kind of error. If I type in “hair,” and I keep getting “blond and tousled,” I’m in trouble.

The best plan is to recognize your individual tendencies when writing character descriptions. Make use of your word processing technology (or a sharp-eyed, first reader), and you won’t make the “pale face, long, shiny, black hair” mistake.