Seeing the Forest for the Trees

By Chris Stewart

This may seem beyond obvious, but a piece of writing, whatever it is, has a value system, the level to which the piece holds. The high value parts are the focus, they are what drives the story and why readers read it, the lower value parts get less page time; they are there to support the high value parts.

Another way to look at 'high value' parts is to think of them in terms of them being the spark that will get an editor's and reader's attention. That moment, when reading the book jacket, where your heart beats faster and you know you have to read it.

Unfortunately, all too often, I read work, both from clients and published writers, that focuses too much on the low value and skirts the high.

Why does this happen? Surely it's an easy black hole to avoid? It happens because writers write around the parts they are afraid or nervous to take on, or know they are not skilled enough to take on. Or perhaps are too lazy to take on. So they pay lip service to those parts, write just enough to get away with the basics, and focus on the unoriginal, low value that we can get anywhere to fill the rest of the story.

Poets know this better than fiction writers because it's easier to see in a poem. Anyone who has discovered (or been told) that the real poem is in stanza four, or the poem really starts with the last line, knows what I'm talking about. Poets have lots of practice at recognizing and correcting value issues.

Let me give you an example. A recent client wrote an essay on the history of crying in his family: the first time he could remember crying, who did and didn't show emotion in his family and how that affected him growing up, his relationships with women, etc. It was fairly medium to low value. That was the bar he'd set.

Suddenly, on page five of a seven page essay, he introduced the memory of his father leaving the family, being estranged for years, then how he moved in with his father to reconcile, it didn't work, he moved out again and that was a time when he cried--for the loss of his father a second time and the opportunity for them to be close.

All this in one paragraph. Then back to the regular essay.

Hello?! See the difference there? Once you hit this memory in the essay you don't give a crap about how he cried the day he went to kindergarten but his mother didn't. The dad memory IS the essay, and it's not about crying. High value. And it shouldn't come on page five of seven.

When I pointed this out he told me that he was keeping it as is, he thought it was a good random surprise, that this style of writing always worked for him. I have no idea who told him that, but that person was wrong. Once you've established the value level in a piece of writing, you can shift it, but once you do, the high value level is where it's at. You must shift at the right moment and write to that level. Otherwise you just look like a writer who doesn't know his/her own story.

I'll give you a published example. "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand" by Helen Simonson is a story about a stereotypical older English widower living in a quaint quirky village. I would say this is low to medium value, as the quaint, quirky village is hardly new, nor is it ever really original; by now the characters are rather stock, only the names are different. Anyone who watches PBS or BBC America can get plenty of that action. Or if you've read Austen, Christie, or Barbara Pym, for example.

The high value appears when you find out that Major Pettigrew becomes romantically involved with the local shopkeeper, a Pakistani widow. And this liaison is one of which the village doesn't approve. However, if you buy the book you get a maximum of about 40 pages of Major Pettigrew's and Mrs. Ali's romance, the other 300 or so pages are quirky, quaint village with meddlesome characters that are very recognizable and so rather boring.

The ending is absolutely insane, and not in a good way. It goes completely off the deep end into a serious shift in value at the last moment--lower, this time, which can also happen (there's a crazy auntie with a gun and a suicidal nephew standing on a cliff, it's really laughably bad). This shift is very much unearned and completely at odds with the tone of the book and the characters of the Major and Mrs. Ali.

(Disclaimer: I think Ms. Simonson is a good writer, but the book was poorly structured and had too many themes.)

The take away or moral of this lesson?

You can't toss us into the trenches for a minute, once in a while, then go back to the sandbox and leave us there for the bulk of the piece.

You must be able to catch yourself and see when you are drifting into the low value parts for most of your story, out of fear or nervousness (perhaps ambivalence or absentmindedness too), and STOP yourself.

The best way to do this is to have an outline or list of the significant, hard core high value moments and make sure they are the focus, that they show up at the appropriate time, and that the value doesn't drop too low for too long in between. If the value shifts higher, you must reevaluate and either rethink the piece with this new higher value as the focus, or leave it out. If the value shifts even lower - delete! The middle ground is sloppy, lame, and should be avoided at all costs.

Look, if you're not feeling excited, terrified, and nauseous all at the same time, you're writing to the low value parts of your story and playing it safe. The ideas freaking you out as you write them down--making you sweat and making you high--are why an editor or reader will buy your book.

Anything less and you're cheating yourself and your readers--if you get that far!

Chris Stewart is Program Director for Literary Arts with the Maryland State Arts Council, also known as "The Brutal Cheerleader" by her editing clients! Join her Facebook Page:

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