I should warn you that when writers talk about their books and writing, they're continuing the process of fiction that they live by.E.L. Doctorow
Writing: February 2009 Archives
I've got far more fragments and unfinished pieces than I do completed pieces. I used to regard them as evidence of my dilettantishness (new word! Dilettantocity sounded wrong). Now I treat them like little pokes in the noggin that might possibly lead to bigger things. When the creative well seems to be running dry, I just read through the fragments, and see if anything inspires me.
As it turns out, the second-person stuff went out the window along with the fragment, but while I was shuffling through other fragments last night I came across this, which I scribbled down at some point in 2007 and post here now in the spirit of The Orphan:
If I were to say to you, "This is your story," you would laugh, and deny it. Because I don't know you, and you don't know me. The idea that a stranger can tell your story is absurd. That a stranger can tell your story, and that you are one among many readers of it, is beyond absurd. It is impossible. Nevertheless, I will be your narrator. And when I have finished, you will know the truth of your story, and how I came to know it.I'd love to know the rest of that story. If I ever figure out what it is, I'll write it down.
I am sitting across from you now, and writing this sentence about you, and you have no idea. What will become of the two of us...what will transpire over the next eleven days...that is in our future. When I wrote the first sentence of this paragraph, it was the present. Now, it is in the past. I have lifted it from my notebook, and placed it here, effective time travel. There is no future, not yet, and when there is, and I place it here, it will once again become the past.
"Research published in the journal Psychological Science suggests that, while frequently annoying, the use of the second person in fiction compels readers to form more vivid identification in literature."In the comments, author Charlie Stross writes,
[There is a] trick I had to learn to write HALTING STATE -- namely, when you're writing second person narrative, the one thing you absolutely must avoid doing at all costs is to tell the reader how they react. (You can describe their actions and physiological symptoms, but their internal emotional state is strictly off-limits to you, the author, lest you set them up for cognitive dissonance.)The study itself comes to us courtesy of the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) and Tufts University:
In these experiments, volunteers read sentences describing everyday actions. The statements were expressed in either first- ("I am..."), second- ("You are...") or third-person ("He is..."). Volunteers then looked at pictures and had to indicate whether the images matched the sentences they had read. The pictures were presented in either an internal (i.e. as though the volunteer was performing the event him/herself) or external (i.e. as though the volunteer was observing the event) perspective.
The results, reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, indicate that we use different perspectives, depending on which pronouns are used. When the volunteers read statements that began, "You are..." they pictured the scene through their own eyes. However, when they read statements explicitly describing someone else (for example, sentences that began, "He is...") then they tended to view the scene from an outsider's perspective. Even more interesting was what the results revealed about first-person statements (sentences that began, "I am..."). The perspective used while imagining these actions depended on the amount of information provided - the volunteers who read only one first-person sentence viewed the scene from their point of view while the volunteers who read three first-person sentences saw the scene from an outsider's perspective.
The researchers note that "these results provide the first evidence that in all cases readers mentally simulate described objects and events, but only embody an actor's perspective when directly addressed as the subject of a sentence." The authors suggest that when we read second-person statements ("You are..."), there is a greater sense of "being there" and this makes it easier to place ourselves in the scene being described, imagining it from our point of view.
Between Charlie Stross's experience and this military research, perhaps I can add a touch of Psy-Ops to my tale. To a certain extent, fiction is about manipulation. You're telling a story, yes, but if you're being crafty you also have a desired impact, and you work towards achieving that. Sometimes it doesn't work. I doubt that Charles Dickens intended to make Oscar Wilde laugh, for example, which could be attributed to a failure of execution or the unfortunate intersection of sentimentalism and cynicism. Either way, as an author Dickens had an intention, although only he could ever be the true judge of his success or failure in that regard.
In my case, I'm using second-person to set up the narrative framework of the story and to convey certain information about characters. It's a peculiar device, and I'm not sure that I can pull it off. But the tasty data I've excerpted above gives me a much better sense of how I might be able to use it as a tool to achieve what Poe called "the unity of effect or impression."
1Damn. I went through three titles trying to come up with one that didn't ape Cory Doctorow's actual post...and ended up nearly duplicating the post's title, without noticing. I are creative and observant like!
One of mine used to be "of course," which appeared as a sort of mutant dependent clause at the beginning or end of a sentence. Eventually I noticed that it was popping up too frequently, and usually added nothing to the work. So I tried to become more aware of it, and removed it whenever I noticed it. These days I don't use it very much at all, and if it shows up, I stop and consider whether it belongs there.
Yesterday's post revealed a new one: "Which," or "Which is not to say that..." In under five hundred words I used the former four or five times and the latter twice, which is once too many.1 See? There it is again. I have a phrase tic! Curses.
This is why good editors are vital. With their new eyeballs they spot that you've used "Of course" three times in a chapter. Or that you've described two different things in two different chapters with the same adjective or phrase. "Azure skies" and "azure eyes?" You'd better be doing that on purpose, buddy.
Ideally, though, I prefer it if I can spot these tics myself. It keeps me mindful, for one thing. For another--and I think this is more important--it trains me in the Way of Killing Darlings. Just because something comes easily and flows and feels all tingly while I'm writing it doesn't mean that it adds anything to the story. If I can march through my pages crushing the life out of little bits like "Of course" and "Which is not to say that" and "Apparently" with my great bolshy boots, then it's somewhat easier to kill that favorite line, paragraph, or subplot that's nice and showy but pointless. It's just a difference in scale.
1Don't bother looking. I fixed it.
Aspiring authors who struggle to steer clear of hackneyed cliches in their writing can breathe a sigh of relief, after it emerged yesterday that even Booker prizewinners can find the odd "flickering log fire" slipping into their writing.
Ian McEwan, it turns out, has a triumvirate of friends whom he entrusts with his novels before anyone else, with the poet Craig Raine scolding him whenever his writing becomes too formulaic (the pair will mark FLF, "flickering log fire", in the margins of each other's work whenever it falls into cliche). McEwan won't even let his friend and fellow novelist Martin Amis near his books before completion, preferring to trust it to Raine, Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash and philosopher Galen Strawson.
Via Justine Musk.