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.
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.
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?