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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, August 08, 2008

write unto others

Yesterday I had my weekly lunch at my mother's house--a lovely quiet place in Cove Cliff. As usual, we talked about writing afterwards. Since she's working on a memoir, we looked at the opening sentences, paragraphs, and pages of a number of memoirs that she has. How successful have these writers been in launching their stories?

We agreed that the best opener was from A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca:

When I was a boy, my father always wore a pained expression and kept his head down, as if he couldn't shake what was bothering him.

The author opens up with a telling and well-observed fact that is important to his story. He expresses it simply and clearly, without resorting to tricks or come-ons. He has something significant to say, and is not embarrassed or coy about getting to the point. In this he treats his reader with respect, as an equal, as someone whose time and attention he does not want to waste. In this case I've also read the rest of the book, and Baca delivers the goods: a chilling tale of poverty, crime, and punishment that is all the more gripping because it's his own life-story.

One interesting problem, which I noticed for the first time yesterday, is that memoir-writers, in addition to falling prey to the usual flaws of gimmicky openers and window-dressing prologues, tend to overdo description. As I thought about it, I realized the cause.

The memoir-writer in some ways has the opposite difficulty of the fiction-writer: while the fiction-writer is often in the situation of trying to pump from a dry well--coming up with enough details to make a scene vivid--the memoir-writer has a superabundance of material to choose from. If you have a good memory, any scene from your life is full of details: the specific, life-giving touches that make an image real. It's hard to resist putting lots of these in. But too many details clutter and clog a story, just as too few make it seem dry and lifeless. In the case of memoir, the writer needs to show restraint, and choose only the most telling details for inclusion.

I suspect that one reason that this is hard to do is because there is a feeling that if a good image is not used, it is being wasted: left in one's memory as a private thing, and not shared with the world. Your precious memory will sink to oblivion, unredeemed.

Another possible cause is a feeling of insecurity about one's story. If the story is not strong and clear, it might be tempting to dally with description.

Probably a good discipline to adopt would be that suggested by Stephen King: to come up with three telling images of, say, your setting, and to use those and only those.

This is one area in which screenwriters may have an advantage. In a screenplay, the description has to be kept to a bare minimum. It is held in check by the rule that each page of script must correspond to one minute of finished film. Each eighth of a page is about 7 or 8 seconds of story-time. If you've spent that much space describing the subject of a shot, you're implying an 8-second shot--an eternity of film-time. So in a screenplay, the long, loving description has to be chopped down to a few punchy, suggestive words. I recall this example from a script, in which the hero, a hard-bitten cop I think, is introduced:

His face is a roadmap of places you don' t want to go.

In a script, the words have to evoke an image in the reader's mind, and also provide a handle for an actor to start building a performance on. In prose, of course, you have more leeway. But it might be good discipline to pretend you don't.

The duty of the writer is to offer the reader only the best, the choicest things. It's the Golden Rule: write unto others as thou wouldst be written unto.


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