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Weird Author Tales

Nineweaving on her site describes her writing process, and many of her Friends chimes  in with theirs at her invitation.  Many of them seemed to be of the Mental Movie Transcription type which I warn my students about:  that is, watching a mental movie play and trying to describe it as it passes.  I think this method risks a particular kind of bad writing (risks, not guarantees) -- and that is that the resulting description is a different thing from the hallucination, dream, vision or creation that the writer witnesses.  The intensity of the vision seen, the feelings aroused in the seer, is not automatically transferred or transmitted to the written description, and in fact may have next to no connection to it.  To the original imaginer or visioneer, of course, the written description is a mnemonic for the vision; but not to readers. Often this puzzles writers, whose intense feelings were present to them throughout the writing process.  What becamne of them?  Why were they not passed to the reader?  Nineweaving's process, weird as it sounds (to me too!) assures that it is only what is in the words that is promised to the reader. 

I have been a collector of writer's weird methods of evading this problem or anchoring themselves in the words.  I'll think of a few.


( 34 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 8th, 2006 12:17 am (UTC)
The movie method is great for getting a first draft down. It is not good for producing final copy.
Sep. 8th, 2006 12:41 am (UTC)
Hey now, the movie method is a perfectly fine way to write a perfectly publishable mass market paperback novel featuring a lusty pirate who meets an evil vampiress.

They argue, then fall in love.
Sep. 8th, 2006 02:05 am (UTC)
For people who think in pictures, it may be the only method which will work at all.

"Often this puzzles writers, whose intense feelings were present to them throughout the writing process." This isn't nearly limited to writers who use that particular method. And I suspect they might be less puzzled than writers who begin with words.
Sep. 8th, 2006 04:48 am (UTC)
Kinetic writing.
Could it also be a thing that's genre or area specific? I've read plenty of thrillers where there is minimal (one could say non-existent) indication of the intense feelings the writer may have possessed while writing the scenes, but still felt some sort of reaction to the characters actions or to the way the plot went, and (and this is just speculation from my own experience) it may be tied to the whole telling v. showing doctrine that was drilled into me when I was first cutting my teeth at this whole writing thing. Could it be that it's just a matter of letting the characters/their actions be the vehicle of the emotion? Now, this isn't specific to thrillers; I just chose that genre because it seemed the least introspective I could think of.

An example that comes to mind (not nearly the best, mind you) is John Le Carre's The Constant Gardener. While tracking the actions of the characters and their emotional journeys, I could very well feel the author's outrage at unbridled capitalism and pharmagiants and their exploitation of sub-Saharan Africa. Then again, he's been doing this thing for quite some time. So perhaps it's just a skill thing. Being able to transmit the entirety of the vision (or just as much as is necessary for the reader) onto the page.
Sep. 10th, 2006 03:40 pm (UTC)
Re: Kinetic writing.
It may be a skill thing indeed. Writers of the "show-don't-tell" school have to find a way to tell without seeming to tell. They have given up the deep richness Tom Disch talked about and yet because it's a necessary and central part of fiction they have to win it back by other means, often at great effort. It's part of the reason why that directive can produce bad writing, or is at least not unambiguous as a prescription. Wayne Booth famously pointed out that the distinction is hopeless: there is nothing in fiction that is shown and not told -- it's all told.
Sep. 8th, 2006 05:44 am (UTC)
I don't write fiction myself but have somehow ended up teaching genre writing.

The problem I see with the "unravelled movie" approach is that it distorts persepective. The world becomes flat, a proscenium arch, and two dimensional in that it lacks sound, smell and feel.

One thing I make my students do is to describe a scene through "the corner of their eyes". Suddenly the stage set has three sides instead of just one.
Sep. 8th, 2006 06:26 am (UTC)
An English teacher who is a colleague of mine asked his students to write a text telling the story of that Hitchcock film (is it Psycho? It eludes me at present.) from the point of view of the money.

This particular anecdote to illustrate that it's good to forget, from time to time, that sense of ours which is the eyes that take so preponderance over the other senses.
(no subject) - matt_ruff - Sep. 8th, 2006 12:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bibliofile - Sep. 8th, 2006 11:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 8th, 2006 08:24 am (UTC)
I read a terrific story when I was a kid (can't remember title or author, alas) in which a blocked writer invents a succession of machines to help him create. One of them is an internal-vision-transcriber, which when he uses it to dump his imagining of his novel, produces a flood of digressions, distractions and general mental chaos. Disappointed, he sells the machine on to another writer who has the problem of dreaming wonderful stories but never remembering them when he awakes. The story doesn't relate whether the machine works any better for the second guy...
Sep. 8th, 2006 12:21 pm (UTC)
The thing not mentioned here is that film-making is an art too. The filmmaker's eye is not a simple surveillance camera. What is movie making but montage, a rhythm of feints and dodges? Psycho is the locus classicus, and Hitchcock does tell it from the money's pov, and from the stuffed birds' and the stuffed mother's. And he editorializes like crazy. And sneers and guffaws. He is very hard to second-guess. And all this without flashbacks, though there are plenty of "Clues" as to the past. An omniscient narration that casually "explains" the passing scene in a layered way, like excavating Troy, is the glory of the novel and (barring voice-over) something not easily available to the naive movie-making novelist.
Sep. 8th, 2006 01:39 pm (UTC)
Re: Swerving
well exactly. If you could make mental movies like Hitchcock made actual ones, you would be in a different mode. And the "layered way" IS the glory of fiction and not available to film; it is the way that books are made as rich as the best films. But many inexperienced writers try to skip that step, proceeding directly form mental image to recounting. "I come in the room. The mangy dog is standing by the refrigerator. His eyes are on me. I hear a noise behind me, and turn. An even mangier dog is standing in the doorway. Turning to the window, I see a face looking in at me. Fear takes over my body, and I run to the left of the mangy dog, past him and out the door. Scenery rushes past me as I flee down the dark street," etc. Even good or potentially good writers who have fallen into this trap and are faced by their own production of stuff of this kind and know it's no good don't always see the reason, which I called Mental Movie Transcription.
Re: Swerving - bibliofile - Sep. 8th, 2006 11:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 8th, 2006 12:38 pm (UTC)
Yes, but
You are making a logical fallicy here- you are assuming that any form of communication in written words is possible. You assume that there is some way of getting words onto paper that present in the reader's eye *exactly* (or approx) what the writer wants to say.

And that's not true. Sure, we all carry common meanings in our mind- but these meanings are tainted by our own experiences. Two people reading the words "mangy dog" will picture two entirely different dogs. Even if you focus in and describe the dog in exact detail- the mental picture will be filled with whatever images the reader intrprets according to their own expeirience.
Sep. 8th, 2006 01:29 pm (UTC)
Re: Yes, but

No, I think the fallacy is actually what I was describing. A (would-be) writer has a ferocious image in his/her view: a yellow befanged thing out of dream or fear. S/he writes down the words "mangy dog", believing (or really just assuming or hoping) that the words contain the mental image. I believe that effective writers actually more often start with words, or phrases, or sentences, or even sentence structures, and from those arise images that the words build. You still have no guarantee that your and the reader's experience are the same, of course, in fact you can be almost certain they will not be; but it's a better path toward creating a _vivid_ experience for the reader.
Re: Yes, but - pauljessup - Sep. 8th, 2006 01:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Yes, but - tomsdisch - Sep. 8th, 2006 03:35 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Yes, but - pauljessup - Sep. 8th, 2006 03:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Re: Yes, but - pauljessup - Sep. 9th, 2006 12:26 am (UTC) - Expand
Word vs Images - (Anonymous) - Sep. 9th, 2006 08:21 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Word vs Images - crowleycrow - Sep. 10th, 2006 03:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Word vs Images - (Anonymous) - Sep. 11th, 2006 10:57 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Word vs Images - crowleycrow - Sep. 10th, 2006 08:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Word vs Images - (Anonymous) - Sep. 11th, 2006 11:00 am (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 8th, 2006 02:57 pm (UTC)
It seems to me that by describing an inner movie the writer is in danger of ending up with merely a description. Doesn't (shouldn't) writing arise out of language, meaning, the word? I know that film can be a language also but it is a visual language and one that we experience and assimilate differently from written or spoken language. The two (film and writing) convey meaning differently. It was a wonderful discovery to me to read "Lord Byron's Novel" (which I love, thank you for writing it) aloud with a good friend of mine. The contrast between Byron's language and the modern email language was astounding; both conveyed meaning but how different my soul's experience of each!
Sep. 8th, 2006 10:40 pm (UTC)
While I think in images, and my internal stories are very cinematic at times, I agree that describing the film the way you might describe a movie you just saw to a buddy is a poor approach to effective writing.

I am primarily a poet - and the mistakes that aspiring poets make tend to me not so much of the describing a movie kind as the describing a feeling.

The best remedy I've learned for each is specificity. It's not a man kicking in a door - it's the sound of the boot on the wood, the splintering of the doorframe, the sensation of your heart racing while you hear him kick, the pain in your hand as you try to force open that back window that's been stuck since the last rain, etc. And it's war is a horror for children and the environment - it's an 8 year old boy remembering the oil wells burning, "and even the rain was black."

Yes, there is much else to use language to communicate, always an iffy and imprefect task anyway - but specificity is probably my main tool.

Sep. 9th, 2006 02:29 am (UTC)
Be specific
Many years ago I read an article in one of the English-teaching journals (sorry, don't have the reference right now) that claimed that "Be more specific" or "Use more details" were the most common comments written by those grading essays and short stories for college English classes. I can well believe that: I can also believe the article's main finding--student writers didn't have any idea what they were doing wrong or what their heartless instructor thought might constitute a detail or lack of detail.

Neither the article's author nor the teachers under scrutiny had our crowleycrow's insight: to the student writer, "mangy dog" or even just "an animal" conjured up that mental movie full of two-dimensional detail. When one of my students uses the words "situation" and "interesting" five times in a single paragraph (honest. just read one like that), he thinks I'm simply unreasonable to write "be more specific." [b/t/w all my students this semester are male, so I'm using all male pronouns this Fall] I try to vary the old chestnut with "can you give me an example of an interesting situation?" or "interesting in what way?" but those don't help either (let's not even think about how reluctant writers view the concept of revision. . .)
Re: Be specific - empressdaleth - Sep. 9th, 2006 02:40 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Be specific - crowleycrow - Sep. 10th, 2006 03:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Be specific - empressdaleth - Sep. 11th, 2006 11:45 am (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 12th, 2006 02:03 pm (UTC)
The Beast
For me, novels start with an explosion of image(s) wedded to character and (perhaps) a basic situation and my job is from the beginning to find the write tone and texture of prose to convey the intensity of that vision most accurately. While I'm experimenting with finding the correct voice, I am fleshing out the plot and other details. I don't think of it as a movie playing because I'm not thinking of individual shots and camera angles. I'm thinking of tone/texture and the characters--and sometimes the voice, when I find it, dictates story as well. I'm also thinking of turns of phrase, fragments of dialogue, etc. "Movie" indicates too linear a process and too easy a description of how words accrete to the original inspiration. You're not creating a movie. You're creating a kind of organism. It doesn't have frames and stills. It has organs, a spine, flesh, blood, capillaries, etc.

I do wonder, though, if "mental movie transcription" actually means to some writers "fictive dream", just in terms of the idea that while writing the rough draft there are times you fall into a kind of reverie or automatic writing state in which you are so fully engaged in telling the story/writing the words that you are inside the story looking out.

Jeff VanderMeer
Sep. 12th, 2006 02:04 pm (UTC)
Re: The Beast
Er, "right" not "write" in that first sentence.
Re: The Beast - mattboggan - Sep. 14th, 2006 12:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
Sep. 21st, 2006 04:45 pm (UTC)
Looks to me like you're conflating starting point with writing process. Whether words come first or images come first seems immaterial to what words end up on the page. If a writer conjures images and then translates them into solid, well-crafted and evocative prose, how would you as a reader be able to tell that the story started with images? If a writer is so caught up in visualizing that she never gets around to paying attention to how and whether her words work, well, that's just bad writing. Bad writing can start from anywhere.

Conversely, it seems to me that writers who do not imagine the scenes they write can fall into unfortunate errors of continuity and sense. Objects appear out of nowhere, protagonists see or do things that are precluded by physics, and so on. Too many of these sorts of impossibilities before breakfast and I will give up on a book, unfinished.
( 34 comments — Leave a comment )