There’s Writing, and Then There’s Writing

Some days, the most fun I have is reading an article or blog post on good writing and then read a sample of the writer’s work and it’s awful. It’s even more fun when the writer is a professional.

I was scanning through my Goodreads “To Read” list and clicked on The Half-Known World: on Writing Fiction, by Robert Boswell. I couldn’t remember why I’d added it to my list, so a reread of the description and reviews was in order. That led me to Amazon and  the first chapter. And sending away for the paperback.

But I don’t buy books on writing, at least not very often, so coming right after a discussion of how-to books, this was — what? — revenge of the spirit of writing? Someone, somewhere must be laughing, but that’s okay. Just from the short excerpt, I know Boswell is my kind of writer. And the writing he talks about mostly, is literary fiction.  I was going to copy a paste a couple of paragraphs, but Amazon doesn’t allow that, so if you’re interested, here’s the link: The Half-Known World .

He says two important things that make me eager to read the book. First, he talks about narrative as a form of contemplation that helps him write his way into the book, ignoring the machinery in favor of working from a kind of half-knowledge.

The second thing he says — or does — is knock down the idea that’s so often passed off as a necessity, the list of questions that you ask yourself about your characters. Here, he brings in a comparison with sitcoms, where you know every character, and pretty much what’s going to happen within the framework of any plot. That’s what the list of character questions is for. And what that does is keep you from discovering anything. You already know it all, so there’s no room for surprise. And if you think that the color of his hair, what he likes to eat, how old he was when he lost his virginity, etc., is all you need to know about your character, then he’s never going to be more than an inch deep.

Amy Rose Davis just posted an odds and ends list that started with this: “I don’t trust the writing of authors who say they just write a story straight through, proof it once or twice, and publish it. I know what everyone says about judging a book and blah blah blah, but these are my confessions. I don’t trust the writing, and I probably won’t take a chance on it.”

My immediate response was that I agreed because the chances are that such a book is either written to a formula, planned out to within an inch of its life so that it allowed no surprises — or is one of those messes that comes out of being led purely by inspiration and an overdeveloped sense of one’s own genius. Are there writers who can defy those limitations? I don’t doubt it, but they’re probably few and far between.


10 thoughts on “There’s Writing, and Then There’s Writing

  1. Thanks for the mention! I love your line about an “overdeveloped sense of one’s own genius.” I think those are the ones that irritate me the most. Those authors brag about being “one and done” authors, but you read the work and think, “um, maybe you shouldn’t be.”

    I also think part of my hesitation on this front comes from the fact that *I* write from inspiration. I write to discover. I figure it all out as I go. A lot of times, my writing isn’t bad in itself, but my gosh–the work as a whole is just a big mess. If I published at that point, the writing would probably be okay, but there would be serious issues with characterization, plot, and setting. So knowing that *I* need a ton of work after my first drafts, it’s hard for me to believe that other people can finish a first draft and call it done or mostly done. So yeah, I guess that’s my own prejudice, but there you go. *shrug*

  2. ” . . you know every character, and pretty much what’s going to happen within the framework of any plot. That’s what the list of character questions is for. And what that does is keep you from discovering anything.” Interesting, my experience is writing a solid draft, answering questions about my characters, then using the answers to make the story richer, deeper, and more cohesive. In my opinion, character questionnaires point out connections and motives which would otherwise remain hidden to me, and in turn, to readers. It’s all about discovery, and integrating the discovery into the story. Every writer has a unique method. 🙂

  3. That’s a lot different than deciding everything about the character before you’ve even started writing. I ask a lot of questions about my characters as I go along. They’re often very different questions than I might have asked right at the beginning. Some of them come out of knowing just enough to want to look deeper. Some of the lists I’ve seen (and they tend to be pretty much alike) are long, but the questions stay at a pretty superficial level.

  4. Hi Catana, Nice to know Boswell doesn’t go for the list of questions about characters; I’ve always hated it, and never once used it in my published work. Nor did I ever teach it in the Fiction Writing Workshops I used to run at Byron College until lack of time forced me to stop. But as C M Stewart says above: Every writer is different. One has to respect that.

    1. Lists can be useful, and everyone does work differently. But characters lists go on my own list of things that new writers tend to get trapped in, thinking that this is *the* way things are supposed to be done.

  5. I so loved reading this–yet another confirmation of my approach (writing as a means of discovering story and character).

    I have, however, recently found a place for asking and answering questions. Once I know a little about my characters, I need to make sure they are doing what they’re doing for a damn good reason. THEY don’t necessarily need to understand their motivations, but I, as the author, sure do. So once I do the dreamy, revelatory first draft, I am going to go back and ask the hard questions, as Amy Rose Davis says she does. Refine, refine, refine.

    1. I see that kind of question-asking as an interactive process involving the writer and the character. (I’ll bet you think I’ve used this on a conscious level. Hah! It just now came to me.) I’m learning about the character, and he’s learning about himself so he can reveal himself to me. Self-discovery is a big part of one of the novels I’m working on. I think it’s more interesting (usually) than the character acting blindly, without any self-knowledge. Hmm. Of course, the master in Within the Silence is completely unself-aware. But he’s not really terribly interesting once you realize that.

      1. There needs to be a delicate balance between how self aware a character is and how much he or she reveals of that awareness. I just finished writing a passage this morning that I had to toss out because it sounded like the character was writing a synopsis of his own character for an outline! Back to showing, not telling.

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