Sparked by Words

Archive for June, 2017

Apple Paring

 

Writing is the fruit of our labor and, like making a great apple pie, benefits from paring the tasteless bits. I’m not much of a baker but I know something about wordsmithing. I write, I read, I critique. One of my big bugaboos is wading through clumps of words that don’t contribute to story. It happens even in professionally published work but less experienced writers flub more often. First drafts are especially susceptible, resulting in boxcars of useless words. It compares to the yakking of a teenage girl.

Brandy twirled a wisp of her platinum hair. “So, like, I said to, um, him, ‘Like, when should we like do it, like, I mean, I wanna, you know, like, get to know you better before we, like, make a big deal out of this, like, um, you know?’”

Not much said here though it might be great birth control.  An obvious vacancy of thoughtful dialogue so deep you’re rolling your eyes. Me too. But there’s a lesson here in how to tell when to excise surplus keystrokes. In short, how to make your book pound instead of dribble. Unless Brandy is an important character in your book, kill this baby. If she’s a person you just gotta have in your community, limit her vocalization to a paragraph no longer than the one above, and sprinkle the book with as few, but glinting, examples as possible. Readers will get the picture as soon as she bedazzles the page.

Dialogue is a challenge. We want our stories to be peopled with folks who sound like they’ve been raised on a dairy farm in Minnesota. “Ispoze ya dint bring in da meelk, deedja?” Or work in a Piggly Wiggly in Alabama. “I mi-aght could carry yo’all the can o’ beans but I don’t got a mi-and to do tha-et juss yet.” The strength of these examples is the trope and accents that pinpoint Minnesotan and Alabaman culture, imparting richness to the human landscape of your story.

Even in ordinary speech, a writer must limit words to propel the action of the story while still saying everything essential. Where to pare demands editing skill. Here’s a simplistic example of editing to improve content.

First take: It’s also the thing that makes me scared. The sentence drags with word stuffing.

Second take: It’s also what makes me scared. Pared down, still bursting with fluff.

Third take: It also makes me scared. Getting there.

Fourth take: It scares me. Now it’s powerful.

I often encounter vacuous dialogue when reviewing the unpublished work from my critique group. It’s the function of our members to help fellow writers build the suspense and insight that create good story, so even if my book is not being critiqued, I learn much from listening to the assessments about other works. Recently we read a chapter from a book long been in the WIP stage, the writer struggling but determined. Interestingly, even the newer members grasped the essential problem with the story. I’ve disguised the following section.

 

Ernie dialed his son. “Hello, son, this is your dad.”

“Hey, dad, how are you doing?”

“I’m fine, son, how are you?”

“Oh I’m OK. Getting ready to move in to the new place.”

“That’s good. Did you get the package I sent?”

“Yeah, that was nice.”

The cat jumped onto the table. Ernie scratched her neck as she rubbed his arm. “Well, got to run. I’ll talk to you again later.”

“OK, bye, dad.”

 

The son is being released from prison. His father hasn’t seen him in a year. The book attempts to ascertain where the young man’s life went so wrong. It hints at the lack of substantial connection between father and son and the ineffective parenting that let him drift away from a promising life into criminal conduct. But the story beats around the real drama between parent and son and presents empty dialogue in place of true insight. It could have been a scene exposing the conflict between the two and the chasm into which the son fell. Following is an imaginary rewrite.

 

Ernie pinched the bridge of his nose while dialing his son.  He heard the irritation in Brett’s voice as soon as he answered.

“What’s up, dad? I’m awful busy, trying to get settled in my new place.”

“Sure, son, that’s why I sent a few things to help you out.”

“Really, a pack of socks? You think that’ll do it?”

Ernie had been hoping for a gracious thank you, but this was so typical of his kid. He tried to find an acceptable response that wouldn’t raise Brett’s ire, but the boy rushed into his next complaint.

“Ever think you could send me some cash so I can buy what I want? Or maybe put in a word with that buddy of yours at the auto shop and help get me a job?”

“He doesn’t know about you getting out…”

“Course not, none of your buddies know I been in the joint. You never talk about me, do you? Less you make up crap about how I’m away at school or whatever shit you say.”

Ernie’s jaw ached, the pain shooting up to explode the top of his head. “I’ll send some money in the next letter. How you feeling now, being out of there?”

“Out of the joint, dad, out of prison. Why can’t you say it?”

Brett was right. Ernie couldn’t face that he was out of prison because he couldn’t face he’d been incarcerated in the first place. He had no strength to talk about his boy’s actions that led to criminal behavior. “I care about…”

“Sure you do, dad, talk to you later.”

His son’s slammed phone cranked the pain in Ernie’s head no matter how gently he put down the receiver. He knew nothing about his boy.

 

The passage is longer, but it illustrates the friction between father and son. I shouldn’t rewrite someone else’s story, but I wanted to suggest how drivel can be turned into drama. Apple fruit, not parings.

Paring apples is perfect summer activity. Sharpen your knife and get to work.

 

 

 

Image courtesy Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Apples

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U is for The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is considered the Czech writer’s masterpiece. He is regarded as one of the world’s most important authors, having won numerous awards, commendations, international acclaim, and often short listed for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Being is one of the most unusual novels I’ve ever read. In fact, I couldn’t get through it the first two times I tried, so you’d be right if you’re questioning whether this is actually my favorite U book. I’m glad I finally completed it but it was a challenge from beginning to end.

I don’t think it’s possible to read Being without knowing something of the background of Kundera’s life and the history of Czechoslovakia. Kundera was born in Brno in 1929 and lived much of his adult life in Prague. The book reflects some of the events of his life. In fact, all of his books except for the very last describe life in Czechoslovakia. I’m no expert on this history, and what I do know I gleaned from the Internet and a bit of awareness of world issues as they happened.

Kundera’s first political association was with the Communist party but he eventually gave it up in favor of championing human rights, Czech political freedom, and support of the arts. He was one of many intellectuals who participated in the Prague Spring in 1968 in opposition to the Soviet invasion and takeover of his country. They banned his books. They reduced many of the intelligentsia and artistic community to second class citizenry and encouraged them to leave the country. Kundera and his wife emigrated to France where he taught at university, continued to write, and eventually became a French citizen. All of this is loosely exposed in Being, especially in the character of Tomas, Kundera’s alter ego.

The book begins with a lengthy discussion of human existence as a challenge between positive lightness, without emotional burden, and negative heaviness, requiring eternal return. Since we only get one life, we have no basis for comparison to determine which quality reflects life more accurately.* Many people take refuge in the aesthetic kitsch of religion or other distracting and sentimental activities to escape from Soviet oppression, a situation the author found deplorable and expressed within the viewpoints of characters. Kundera’s question about lightness versus heaviness is at the heart of living under a totalitarian government that destroyed the very nature of his country. Were I to be asked, I find the novel loaded with author intrusion, an absolute no-no according to modern writing standards (and many readers’ tastes.)

Ordinary writing rules don’t count under such circumstances. Throughout the book, philosophical arguments take more space than the activities of the characters. Most of the action revolves around their sexual relationships and betrayals, a kind of carousel of bed hopping, party attendance, and café sitting. Kundera devotes pages to definitions of words that later impact the characters. Words like “woman,” “cemetery,” and “the beauty of New York” create an internal dictionary of important ideas. Yeah, let’s you or I try that tactic in our novels and see how well it’s accepted by editors or readers.

Tomas, the primary character, is a brilliant surgeon who questions the quality and meaning of his life. He engages in an astonishing number of throwaway sexual liaisons, even while claiming to love only his wife, Tereza. At first a waitress escaping her vulgar mother, Tereza becomes a capable photo-journalist. She is always emotionally dependent on Tomas to the point that she is sickened and feels betrayed by his sexual exploits.

Tomas’ most important other sexual partner is Sabina, a talented painter and free spirit who even wins over Tereza. Sabina stays true to her values and eventually settles in America where she disavows her homeland and her past. The final significant character is Franz who becomes Sabina’s other lover. Franz lives a tragic life and dies abroad though he is essentially a kind person who recognizes his mistakes.

All four characters flee Czechoslovakia, though Tomas and Teresa return. Their lives take a difficult turn under the Communist occupation which demands slavish obeisance to party lines. They are forced to give up their previous professional identities. Their skills are wasted doing menial jobs, yet they accept this reduction in their status.

My most favorite character (actually, the only character I like) is the smiling dog, Kerenin. Tereza walks Kerenin every day to get a bun which he carries home in his mouth and does not eat until he roughhouses with Tomas. Though we know long before the end of the book that Tomas and Tereza die together in a car accident, for which no details are provided, it is Kerenin’s illness, death, and funeral that take up the final passages of the book. Other than anger at the heartlessness of the Soviet regime, only this section made me feel an emotional response to anything in the story.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a serious and important work for its depiction of the conflict of loyalty when one’s beloved country is invaded by an oppressive regime. It portrays the ways in which people tolerate and submit or flee and survive. Or rebel, as the author did. It doesn’t let you forget you’re reading a book the Communists hated. This is the distracting weight of the book for me, and it created a cleft between me and attachment to the story. As writers, we’ve learned that we must know the rules before we break them, and we better not break them unless we know how to do it so the entire story doesn’t shatter. Kundera knows how. I didn’t love this book but I will never forget it.

If you’ve read this book or any of his other works, I’d love to know your impression.

 

*My explanation of the basic conundrum of the book is poorly described here, but Kundera gives it plenty of space and makes it comprehensible.

I look forward to learning about your favorite U fiction books.

 

One other book that was a serious contender for U:

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Perennial