Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Cross-training -- How to steal from one genre for the sake of the other ....

by Julianna Baggott, guesting in and mouthing off again. (Oh, how I adore Bridget for inviting me!)

Okay, so I've coined the term "plot poem" for a screenplay. So we steal the pressure of the white applied to language and image in poetry and apply it to the pressure of white on plot (which, in the best of cases, equals character) in the screenplay -- and/or vice versa.

And the pressure of the white should also come to bear on fiction. You've got to earn that white space. The last line before you use a break needs to be solid enough to hold up the text above it. Or, maybe think of it this way, you've got a space coming up -- a bit of white -- make sure you give the reader something that stains right there, something that churns -- something that deserves white for the demands of digesting that image ...

And while I'm talking about the text holding up what comes above it, I'd like to shout to the line breaks of Andrew Hudgins. His line breaks often strike me as falling under the weight of the image or language ... in beautiful ways.

If you have a fear of writing epiphany (and if you're a short story writer, you should -- epiphany being the most vexing and -- forgive me for sayin' it -- but contrived constraint on contemporary short fiction, by my count. Now, I don't want a story without some kind of epiphany -- but maybe only because I've been so conditioned -- even if that epiphany is only one for the reader and not the character ... etc., then you should also turn your gaze to the poets.)

Some of those poets who are really narrative do epiphany page upon page. (I'm thinking Marie Howe, Rodney Jones -- I love teaching David Kirby's Baby Come-over poem in fiction workshop, as well as some Frank Giampietro ... even Matthea Harvey though she might deny it ...) Anyway, if you want to learn the most about epiphany per word-count investment, look to poets.

(And just a quick shout out to Matthea -- go to www.quickmuse.com and see her entry. You'll be able to watch her writing the poem in near real-time. Fascinating process.)

Steal taut attention to language from poets, too, whilst you're at it, dear fiction writers. Let's not forget the obvious.

Of course creative nonfiction has long ago learned to employ the techniques of fiction to create convincing scenes. I think that fiction can borrow from creative nonfiction more freedom to illuminate with insights ... We've been made to show don't tell so much that we forget the beauty of insight, of occasional telling.

I'd always suggest to any poet who finds themselves locked in summary mode to pop into a near-scene by using a smattering of dialogue ...

Instead of "show don't tell," I say "Show don't tell. But when you have to tell, do it in a showy way." By which I mean, just tell us it's five o'clock. Don't -- as someone shouted out as an example in class yesterday -- laboriously have a character turn off Oprah with end-of-the-work-day traffic buzzing in the distance. I'd tell poets who are buried under the constraints of showing all: just tell it every once in while. Full permission from moi.

I believe that essayists have practiced the art of mining the self in a way that could be of real use to fiction writers. You don't have to invent it all, people. Dig through your memories. Use them to quilt together something unexpected. Use those memories to give depth and texture.

The novel's larger architecture -- I'd love to see it applied to some collections of poetry that are simply poems shoved together that only seem to have one thing in common: the same poet wrote them all. I love the collections of poems that are not only collected but that are put together with a greater structure in mind -- even if it's simply an awareness of the effects of accumulation ... image upon image, note upon note... Ditto the short story collection. I'm not pushing for novels in stories -- but within the traditional collection itself, steal the novel's architectural demands, for just a few afternoons ...

I've spoken about screenplays as detailed novel outlines. But also think of the agility in writing a screenplay when it comes to revisions of a novel -- and my process is near-constant revision throughout a first draft. The screenplay - because of its white and the pressure of that white -- insists on movement and allows for change ... in quick strokes. Where the novel bogs, word after word, making revision -- especially early on when you really should be drafting instead of writing -- really slow. I love the way screenplays allow for sketching before adding layers of oil paint... A structure can be seen, laid bare, more clearer in the screenplay ... Of course somethings can only be made clear with layers and layers of oil paints.

Research -- don't cordon it off into nonfiction territory. Everyone should do it. (How can you avoid it, really?) You should do it for the work's sake, yes ... and too, as I've already said in another blog, research takes you out of authority in very surprisingly good ways ... You think you want this to burn down or that building to exist, and history says otherwise. This leads to a different kind of inventiveness. I find some of my favorite writing moments aren't while writing but while researching something that opens my writing up in ways that I didn't expect -- that goes for all genres.

I've learned from writing novels for younger readers how to write dark whimsy for adult readers. Whimsy -- dark or not -- does not only belong to one age group. (One of the reasons that Harry Potter was such a hit with adults was because the publishing industry had long ago decided whimsy of this kind was not for adults and so had starved the adult audience of this element in their diet ... which helped to create the perfect publishing storm... mixed metaphors but whatever ... My point's interesting and in there somewhere ...) Freed up to do so for children, I was freed to do so, in general.

I'd tell poets who are really writing short stories but trying to pretend they're poems -- and there are some out there, no? -- just write stories. This advice can go in all directions at once to all parties who are writing in a genre because they know it, as opposed to writing in a certain genre because it's best for the material ...

There's no way to end this tidily ... and so I'll stop there. Again, I know I'm forgetting things -- and I'm sure you all have thievery to add -- so check the comments ...

and a little nonfiction essay...