Suspension of Disbelief

Some level of suspension of disbelief is necessary for any fiction. Larger or lesser, but always necessary.

“Unbelievable” is hardly criteria for failure. In fact, it’s entirely immaterial, as long as the writer observes the only rule that matters about making sense: never pull the reader out of the vicarious experience.

Internal logic and consistency is important in helping readers stay in the vicarious experience.

I lean strongly toward the belief that readers want to believe, or at least suspend disbelief, and most will gloss over even glaring issues. I remember Michael Crichton’s translating earbuds in Timeline and after a moment of “Really?” I moved on and enjoyed the book immensely. (The movie, not so much.)

… more … “Suspension of Disbelief”

Defining Resistance for Yourself

I recommend The War of Art to every single writer I meet. I have yet to get any response except “life changing!”

I fall squarely between Pressfield’s thinking and process (Resistance is a dragon, slay it) and Seth Godin’s (Resistance is an ally, use it.) I say Resistance is a bully, make it irrelevant. Note that I can’t say “ignore it” because you can’t ignore a bully. But if you defuse them, do things to take away their power, they are no longer a threat.

This, perhaps, stems from being a very small kid, reading at college level in kindergarten, skipping a grade early on. I ran home a lot in junior high school to avoid getting beaten up. Also I have two brothers, both aggressive, both bigger than me even though one’s younger.

I have far more experience dealing with bullies than with dragons. Or, truth be told, with allies, particularly dangerous ones.

Your own wording of who Resistance is and how to overcome it every single day is more useful than blindly accepting anyone else’s version.

Including mine.

Bad Writing: When Your Scene Is About What It Seems to Be About

I recently shut down a writing forum I was involved with. I gathered up some of my longer posts (usually responses to questions) and I’ll be sharing them here. They may not be precisely on topic (Resistance) but they have value. Or, you can skip them.

Subtext is the most important part of storytelling.

When we let the listener or reader finish the story, it’s their story now, and everyone wins.

For instance, take a simple joke, like “What’s the difference between a surgeon and God? God doesn’t think he’s a surgeon.”

The initial microsecond response is “What? Of course not. So what? Do surgeons think they’re—” Boom.

As Robert McKee, said “If your scene is about what it appears to be about, you’re in trouble.”

Bill and Sara Coming Apart

Subtext requires setup. If you go into the following scene knowing that Bill and Sara have an unhappy marriage, we’ve seen Sara eyeing another man, and we’ve seen Bill stocking up on sleeping pills, it’s not about the words at all:

When he walked into the living room, Sara was sitting at the table by the window working on a puzzle. Bill flopped into the chair by the fire.

“I’m tired.”

She didn’t look up. “Then go to bed.”

He flicked a glance her way, then stood.

“I just didn’t want you to be alone.”

Now she looked up.

“Being alone doesn’t make me lonely. I’m fine. You look tired. You should rest.”

Bill looked into the fire, then down at the slippers she’d bought him on their honeymoon.

“I think I will.”

He took a long, slow look around the room, and slowly climbed the stairs to the spare room where he slept these days.

Pressing the last few pieces into place, Sara looked at the puzzle, then shoved it off the table into the box, put the lid on, and turned to look out the window into the darkness.

If this were about a happy couple, it’d be banal to the point of nausea. Build some setup, and it’s a different scene, which is not in any way about the words but about the subtext.

Off the top of my head again, that scene, written as a beginning hack would have written it:

When he walked into the living room, Sara was sitting at the table by the window working on a puzzle. Bill flopped into the chair by the fire.

“I’m really depressed and it feels like you don’t care.”

As usual, Sara ignored him. Her attention was elsewhere.

He watched her, hoping she’d try to stop him.

“I need you to love me, Sara.”

Now she looked up.

“You’ve had what you needed all along. Now I’m going for what I need.”

Bill looked into the fire, then down at his slippers. She’d bought them on their honeymoon, when she used to love him.

“I can’t do this anymore. And I’m not going to.”

He took a long, slow look around the room, then slowly climbed the stairs. He hadn’t shared a bed with Sara in a long time, so he’d been sleeping in the spare room.

Sara thought, I’m through with him, just like I’m through with this puzzle.

Besides for being even worse writing, there’s almost nothing here but a bit of shoe leather or staging that’s worth keeping.

Yes, just as a pure pantser can find story structure, foreshadowing, etc. by rewriting their entire book 14 times, one could do it this way. It would require rethinking every single word of dialog, finding ways to not say the vital stuff, the way Coltrane or Parker might play every note except the melody.

I think knowing in advance where I plan to go makes for a more efficient trip, without taking the spontaneous fun out of it.

Can Art Be War?

A dear friend questioned Steven Pressfield‘s anthropomorphism of Resistance, the mental and emotional pushback we feel when we dare greatly, equating it with fear and wondering whether Steve’s focus might not be ill-conceived or misdirected. Here’s my answer:

Ah, Resistance and fear. Yes, of course, it’s fear. Thing is, most of us never look fear in the eye. It is a vague shape in the dark, which means obviously it’s a monster come to eat us.

I don’t accept that all things in the natural world are good, or healthy. Some things should be fought against. If I don’t remove the weeds and bug and animal pests from my garden, I don’t have as much food. If I don’t fight off some of the bugs within my body I have illness. If I don’t quash certain thoughts, I don’t have mental health.

You have a slightly different perspective from most people I’ve met because you are way way to the right on the “comfortable in your own skin” bell curve. Don’t assume that others can now, or ever, reach that level. I, for one, must constantly question my assumptions and thoughts and actions because I grew up with a load of nonsense in my head about self-worth, the value of work, the value of dreaming, the value of art, the value of money, on and on and on.

An aside: Steve P does not want to be a guru. Refuses the mantle. But he can’t stop helping people ’cause he’s a nice guy. Though try to get him to come speak at your event, fergit it. But people need a Messiah or they don’t know how to find the path. Some of us, though, can look at what Steve or Seth or whoever noticed, notice the same thing, find my own takeaway, and go on to the next thing.

Back to Resistance: We all have things we need to fight, for lack of a better word, every day. Physical health requires abstinence from some things, persistence in others. Mental health. Spiritual health. Avoid some, insist on others.

Our natural state is entropy, not growth. We tend toward being angry selfish lumps on the couch in front of reality TV. It is imperfect human nature, and it is not possible to go the other direction without work. Should we call it “work” or “effort” instead of “fight” or “war”? Okay. It’s terminology. But a spiritual writer I respect more than any person alive today, the apostle Paul, wrote about a “war in his members.” He knew what war and death were, coming from a violent persecutor’s background. He also knew peace, kindness, unselfish principled love, and spent his life until a martyr’s death teaching it and living it. So, if “war” works for him, I don’t argue it.

Am I even coming close to addressing your discomfort with “the war of art” as a term, a concept, whatever? Because I find your question fascinating and well worth discussing.

I highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.

“There are only two possible dialog tags,” he said.

quotesPicture the scene:

You and a friend are having lunch by the water. Their phone rings. They chat for a moment, hang up, and turn to you and tell you it was Bob.

If you’re nosy, you ask a question.

“What did he . . . ” What?

Aver? Shout? Insist? Snarl?

… more … ““There are only two possible dialog tags,” he said.”

Wine into Water?

wine into waterAs writers, I hope you’re getting some of your marketing savvy from The Story of Telling. Not only is Bernadette brilliant, it’s the most writerly marketing description I know.

In her latest post she writes that “the customers you keep are not just choosing you—you are also choosing them. The fact that you make this choice means you get to do your best work and not the watered down version for people who might care some day.”

I co-authored a book with Rick Wilson called Hits or Niches. The diagram below outlines our shared perspective on why marketing should always aim at a niche and never aim at becoming a hit.

… more … “Wine into Water?”

Eyes Open

The oak tree keeps its dead leaves through winter, dropping them in spring. Its dark trunk slides through the bronze leaves, gilded by the sunset over the frozen snow-covered lake.

The healing burn on my hand looks horrific now, but at its most painful it simply looked like a large blister.

When I look through the glass of the patio door at this angle, it is so wavy from age that objects beyond it, trees, mostly, seem to move as I adjust position in my office chair.

There’s almost no difference between the ATV tracks in the snow and those you’d see in sand.

As the sun sets, shining slightly in my eyes, the house looks darker by contrast, when in fact it is lighter than at any other time of day.

The knots holding the dining room chair cushions in place are never even; one always off to the side or listing somewhat to port.

snow fence
… more … “Eyes Open”

A Cliché is Worth a Thousand Words

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Diagrams and illustrations make instruction manuals easier to follow.

Gestures can make speech more easily understood.

Metaphors convey ideas it would take paragraphs of words to match.

Shorthand communication. If there’s a quick and easy way to get the picture, feelings, from my mind to yours, it’s my job, even obligation, as a writer, to use the most effective method.

Clichés are shorthand, just as images are.

And both require judicious use.

the bus you just missed … more … “A Cliché is Worth a Thousand Words”

Forget Rules, Follow Principles

http://www.freeimages.com/photo/1209888 http://www.freeimages.com/photo/936476 http://www.freeimages.com/photo/787898Split infinitives.

“That” vs. “which.”

Punctuation inside or outside the quotes or parentheses?

One space or two after a period?

Rules regarding writing are nearly infinite. The Chicago Manual of Style outweighs my youngest child (and, perhaps, my first car.)

Rules are important.

Except when they’re not.

And that’s why principles trump rules.

If you are writing a technical manual, legislation, or medical procedures, you should adhere strictly to the rules.

If you’re writing for your own fans, your chosen audience, it’s far more important to consistently follow a set of principles. … more … “Forget Rules, Follow Principles”

Is There a Market for ‘Clean’ Books?

In the two days chatting with Alex Zabala y’all commented more on language than sales. Interesting perspective into my readership.

what do readers want?He and I, like some of you, choose not to use certain words. I’ll not get into the “they’re just words!” discussion just now. I’m more interested in what makes good writing, and, slightly less important, what sells.

Can you sell a book without profanity in it? Obviously you can. Alex Zabala’s Treasure of the Mayan King has sold 6,000 copies.

Does avoiding (or including) profanity in your book widen your market, narrow it, redefine it? Or is it immaterial?

That’s a question for readers, not writers.

Since all writers are readers, let’s chat.

… more … “Is There a Market for ‘Clean’ Books?”