Thursday, September 27, 2012

Writing Inside-Out

By Jay Stringer

One from the vault this week. For very much the same reason I mention in the first paragraph of this post. This was first posted on DSD way back in 2009.

I’ve been trying to crack a story lately. I’m working on a manuscript and, while I know I’ll manage to beat it into submission eventually, I’m still at the point where I haven’t quite cracked the heart of the story. But while I'm thinking about it, I’m realising a few things about my tastes.

I like writers that go inside-out.

What I mean is the emotion.Something Dave has touched on before. I need to get into the emotions before everything else falls into place. I’ve found a problem with all genres, but one I notice more in crime, is that not enough writers really tackle issues like grief or loss.
Sure, loneliness and isolation get used- but often more as short hand for establishing a moody character. These are some of the key emotions that we all experience, and if a writer shies away from those, what do they have to build on when they want to tackle things like love or hope? In a genre that is built on dark deeds, marginalisation and death, the emotional fall-out of these things seems all to easy to overlook.

I’m generalising, of course. For every writer that I’ve just tarred with that brush, there are many more who deal with emotions. Reed Farrell Coleman built a whole PI series -the Moe Prager books- out of loss, grief and melancholy. Ken Bruen at his worst can do more with grief and guilt than I could do in a lifetime at my best. Our very own Russel D McLean’s The Good Son was a book that tackled these things head on, that actually managed to build a plot on top of emotion.

An example of what I mean is in my first book. As I looked at where the story was headed on my last rewrite, I realised that I let the death of a teenager pass without any real sense of loss. So I stared at the screen until my forehead bled, trying to write a funeral. It wasn’t working. I’ve been to enough of them, I know what happens and when. But every time I started to write the scene, that’s all it became; a report of what happened and when.

Then, by chance, I wrote about the flowers on the coffin. I realised that some of those flowers would have been placed there by the boys’ mother, and bam….emotion. Writing the scene was easy from there; I had a way in. Once I had that one emotion on the page, the other followed, a broken heart and a bruised ego makes its way into the chapter. Anger bustles its way in. And just like that, a dull and lifeless scene became a chapter that managed to sum up each issue I was trying to get across in the book.

And thinking about all this recently has made me realise that this is what I look for in writers. All writers, be they films, novels, songs, comics, bleach bottle labels….

I often try and explain to friends that I need music to hit me in the heart and the gut before the head. I’m a lyrics man, no doubt, always have been. But they have to get me emotionally. If your song needs to be thought about before it can be felt, it’s not going to stick with me.
And that comes from an economy of words, I think. A real writer is one who can break your heart with the fewest words possible.

I’ve wasted many thousands of words online trying to explain what it is I love about Paul Westerberg. His lyrics get me into the heart of an emotion in a matter of seconds. He doesn’t need a whole song; he can do it with a flick of his words;

“How do you say ‘I miss you’ to an answering machine? How do you say ‘Goodnight’ to an answering machine?”

Boom. Loneliness. Guilt. Love. Loss. Heartbreak. In two lines. THAT is writing.

“The Bridegroom drags you cross the room, you said ‘I do,"
but honey you were just a kid, your eyes say ‘I did.’ "

Again. Right into the heart of it, a whole story told straight away.

Springsteen, too, has become a master at it. His early albums were full of words. Free and easy, jangling guitars and rhyming dictionaries in flames. Then he seemed to get a little darker, a little older and he found focus the way some people find religion. He crafted his sentences, stripped away at them like a hardboiled writer until he became the most effective storyteller to ever pick up a telecaster.

“To the dead it don’t matter much, about who’s wrong or right.
You asked me that question, I didn’t get it right.”

Slipped into the middle of a rock song, hidden away amidst other songs that got scrutinised for any political meaning, was the simplest assessment of a foreign policy. And more than that, it was done through regret and a sense of loss, rather than anger or blame. Or how about one of the few moments in song that matches Folsom Prison Blues for getting to the heart of darkness;

“They wanted to know why I did what I did,
Well sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world.”


Sometimes a total lack of emotion can be just as pure as any hatred or love. Here, a cold blooded killer looks you in the eye and tells you he killed innocent people for no real reason. Chilling. Terrifying.

How about our man Waits? Natural born storyteller. Look at this little turn of phrase and see how complete a story can be told with a throwaway line;

“It’s a battered old suitcase to a hotel someplace, and a wound that will never heal.”

Okay, okay. Everybody writes about Westerberg, Springsteen and Waits. This is true. But some clich├ęs are still important. It doesn’t stop with them, though. There’s a songwriter by the name of Ben Nichols, the front man of Lucero, who I think is well worthy of attention.

“When this world was made, it was never meant to save everyone in kind.
I don’t believe God much had me, had me much in mind.”

I’ll be returning to Ben in future to look at his album, The Last Pale Light In The West. But back to today, it seems somewhat counter intuitive to love such economy. I mean, if a story can be told with 12 words, why read a book that takes thousands? Well, different mediums have different strengths, but the principle holds true. There’s an old joke that a gentleman is someone who can play jazz guitar but doesn't. Along those lines, I think a great writer is someone who doesn’t put too many words into a sentence.

All of the writers that really stay with me are the ones who can get me into the very heart of the story. As I've already said, going for the pure driving emotion of the scene and writing inside-out. Why? I don't know. I've written before about how comic books taught me to read, so maybe it comes from that. Maybe its because I'm dyslexic, and its a survival instinct -the fewer words there are, the more chance I have of getting the point. Maybe it's just because the sky is blue, I don't know.

How about you guys? Who does this for you?

3 comments:

Dana King said...

Mark Billingham does a good job f looking at things from a victim's (or those close to the victim) perspective, possibly because he was once robbed under threat of death himself.

There is a paragraph in THE GRAPES OF WRATH I copied years ago, just as the Joads are leaving Oklahoma, where Ma takes a last look around. I'm not on my home PC right now, but it's simple, never tells you how she feels, but the descriptions of what she sees and her reactions to it are heartbreaking. She's leaving the only place she's ever known, doesn't know what to expect where she's going, and knows she's never coming back.

Tim Hallinan is also excellent at this. In THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, his descriptions of Rose in her village fulfill the highest element of writing.To paraphrase Gardner (I think), not describing the rainstorm, but evoking the feeling of being rained upon.

Nick said...

Dont know about economy of words. I think it's the heartbreak that matters. Sometimes using more words means you can develop it at all these many levels.

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