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Self, please note

At the Afterword, Steven Heighton provides a series of notes to his younger self on the craft of writing (following up on another list of notes-to-self at his website), which are alternately trenchant and baffling.

The trenchant:

9   Never generalize.  The world beyond the mind consists of nothing but exceptions.

10   Complicate it, complicate it.  Truth is in the nuances.

11   Then simplify in the later drafts to drive the complexity underground, like a textual subconscious.

12   Because you want your work to have a teeming subconscious.  In your early drafts, write everything that occurs to you, then cut ferociously.  The material you cut—the rich or jagged silences you create—are the textual subconscious.

13   Or think of those editorial gaps as synapses that the good reader bridges with sparks of insight, helping to turn a now-collaborative work into a brightly firing circuit of experience and understanding.

I’m of the firm belief that the art of editing lies in the “Delete” key, though (of course) not everyone writes the same way. Jim Harrison, for example, thinks out his novellas in advance, and then simply writes them down, and the results speak for themselves—although his critics might well point out that his longer work tends to ramble.

Harrison’s friend, Thomas McGuane, on the other hand, writes 600 pages to get 200, which has prompted Harrison to complain that he excises “too much great material.” Be that as it may, the result is as Heighton describes: work that brims with a sense of subconscious. There is always a sense of depth beyond the page.

Heighton has much other good advice. But some is also baffling:

22   Don’t confuse story and plot.  Story is narrative impelled by character.  Thus it emerges from inside the material of your fiction.  Plot is a dramatic contrivance deployed to entertain or to illustrate a theme.  Plot is imposed on the material from the outside, and everything else in the work—character, detail, language, etc.—is subordinated to it.

It would be enormously helpful, I think, if everyone meant the same thing when they spoke of “story” and “plot.” Heighton is making up his own definition of plot, which is just plain wrong: plot is the cause-and-effect sequence of events underlying the story, and as such, all character-driven stories necessarily have plots, which emerge from their characters. In other words, Heighton is choosing to call plot “story.” It’s apparent from his complaints—that plot exists to “entertain or to illustrate a theme”—that he sees plot as the territory of plot-driven genre fiction and didactic dramas, and is uncomfortable picking it up off the floor. To which I say, you have to dissect the frog, even if it’s icky.

This is one of the attractions of screenwriting, for me: it forces you to dissect the frog.

Before moving on, let me pause to deride Heighton’s remark that plot is a “narrative contrivance.” Stories are narrative contrivances, Heighton: nothing in a story is not contrived by its author.

And finally:

14   There’s nothing less enjoyable than writing well, because it means excising the superfluous, self-indulgent matter that was the most pleasing to write.

This is the most popular writing advice in the world: take the parts you think are good, and throw them away.

Let me say now that this is also potentially the dumbest writing advice in the world. I wish people would stop giving it.

Let us suppose, for the sake of illustration, that you take the parts you think are good, and throw them away. You will now be left with the parts that you think are pretty humdrum.

If you are a self-indulgent writer who doesn’t self-edit effectively, you will have thrown away the self-indulgent bits where you tried to be flashy and mostly fell on your face, and you’ll be left with writing that works.

But if you’re an effective self-editor, you’ll have thrown out the good parts and you’ll be left with the dross.

Instead of continually advising writers to throw away their best writing, why don’t we instead advise them to learn to recognize their best writing?

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  1. Steve Heighton
    May 21, 2010 at 6:17 pm | #1

    Thanks for the comments about my “memos”—-and for your spirited rebuttal of two of them. But let me clarify a couple of points. First, about #14: you’re right to identify it as my own version of the ever-popular “murder your darlings” injunction. But you paraphrase the injunction as follows: “Take the parts you think are good, and throw them away.” Which is exactly what I’m not saying. To quote myself for a moment, I insist that a writer must excise “superfluous, self-indulgent matter”. How do you get “take the parts you think are good, and throw them away” from that? Now I’m baffled. I’m saying cut the bad parts—-whether masturbatory overwriting, self-indulgent digressions, precious asides, fun little jaunts on one’s favourite hobby horse. And those jaunts usually are fun. And in the hours after you write them (or, more likely, in the next draft, if you’re an “effective self-editor,” to use your phrase) you’ll recognize the self-indulgent bits and hack them out. That’s what I mean by “writing well.”

    Now if you’re suggesting that good writers never write badly or self-indulgently in their early drafts, I’ll have to disagree-—strongly. You do point out that we should advise writers “to learn to recognize their best writing,” and that’s obviously true—-but let’s face it, most writers, even the best, sometimes blow it in the heat of composition. And so they should. It means they’re taking risks with ideas, language, and emotion, trusting they can sort the gold from the dust at the painful, pitiless next stage.

    (I will grant you that sometimes the parts you end up keeping-—the good parts-—were also fun to write.)

    Okay, #22. You’re right to say “it would be enormously helpful . . . if everyone meant the same thing when they spoke of ‘story’ and ‘plot’.” Well, obviously. But this is the problem with language—we don’t all mean the same thing. Still, I think good dictionaries carry some weight, and mine (Webster’s, the OED) both define plot as a “plan for a narrative.” I.e., a schema, a program, a template, a blueprint. Now all these words, starting with “plan”, suggest something that is pre-conceived-—not something that emerges, as you suggest, organically in the course of a novel’s creation, through the give and take of the book’s evolving materials. Even more tellingly, Webster’s defines the verb “to plot” as “to construct the plan of events in a novel, play etc” (italics mine).

    My point in memo #22 is that writers who devise and stick to a preconceived plot inevitably end up forcing characters, who are or should be evolving during the book’s composition, to make choices or say things that they’ve evolved beyond making or saying. When I write the word “story” I’m thinking of a narrative where, when my character comes to a T-junction, I’ll drop my plan to have him turn left if I think he’d really turn right. And that one change can change the whole course of the narrative.

    But dictionary definitions aside, I suspect that what I call “story” you would call a good plot, and what I call “plot” you would call a bad, or mechanical, plot. (By the way, I agree that learning to write screenplays would be a useful discipline for many literary writers.)

    A last point. You say, “Stories are narrative contrivances, Heighton.” Speak for your own work. To say all stories are contrivances is like calling a dream a contrivance-—it’s simply not the right word. (Contrivance= “something contrived, esp. device or plan”—-I’m hoping we can agree on the OED definition here.) Yes, my brain creates my dreams, but clearly there’s a large element in them that’s beyond my rational control. And so it is, to a lesser extent, with the first drafts from which my stories grow. My characters don’t exactly “take over”—-when writers say that, I suspect them of pseudo-mystifying/romanticizing the writing process—-but I don’t control things so tightly that there’s no leeway for my subconscious mind to participate and surprise me. Plot, in my sense of the word, is a plan imposed on the project from the outset, allowing for little or no subconscious participation.

    Yours, Heighton

  1. October 28, 2010 at 1:42 pm | #1

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