Last week was a busy writing week – but not in my world of fiction. The week ended with a deposition. That’s a legal term that describes the process where attorneys ask questions of witnesses. I don’t talk about my “day job” here (I have a professional blog for all of that), but I am an expert in my field (I’m being humble, I’m one of the foremost experts in my field.) As such, I served as an “expert witness” for the United States Government in a case that for obvious reasons I cannot discuss. For my role, I was required to write a full report of my analysis and opinion for the matter at hand. And that report was at the center of my deposition. In many ways professional writing mirrors the world of fiction writing. You have those that like it and those who don’t. Most of the like versus don’t like votes are determined by the particular findings or opinions in the work. If you want to measure the tenacity of your ego, I suggest sitting with opposing counsel while from every possible angle they try to find fault with your written work. You’re not allowed to defend yourself by saying “well you’re just stupid!”
In fiction, we can take certain liberties that we cannot in non-fiction. When writing a document that the U.S Government plans to use to support its case, you can take zero liberties. Still, there is a lesson to be learned from such comparisons. Fiction needs to be credible too. That may seem a paradox, but in fact the rules of conveying an idea in writing are pretty much the same across all fields. It doesn’t mean that fiction needs to be as dry or direct as a legal document. It does mean that both should hold up under the same measurements.
Clarity: A fictional plot line is just a way in which to convey and consider the writer’s theme. If we wrote stories with no themes, we may have an interesting idea, but that idea wouldn’t connect the reader to something in their own life. Recently my book was reviewed by the Sacramento Review. The editor noted, Fans of the horror genre will not be disappointed by the philosophical questions Esposito mixes in with the blood and gore. These are questions we all must ask ourselves, whether or not we are being chased by zombies. The plot, the pacing, and the action are critical, but beneath all of that needs to be the clarity of the theme. In my book I examine the cost of love and loyalty and use a dystopian world as the backdrop. In my report, the theme was security protection standards against various backdrops. Regardless of these differences, the theme in both need to be clear and they need to travel the length of the journey until we reach some conclusion. It doesn’t need to be “smack you in the face obvious,” but it should be clear throughout the work.
Consistent: In my post Good Intentions, I mentioned the importance of consistency. It’s worth mentioning again. In the real world things change over time. Opinions may change. We may not understand why a person suddenly embraces a new outlook. In writing we have to know and we have to explain the reasons. If we fail to do so, it will feel inconsistent to the reader. If professionally I am citing an exception, I need to explain that exception and explain why it doesn’t impact my conclusion. Consistency covers a lot of ground. From character traits to story line. Early in the research process for my first novel I reviewed the types of things that readers complained about in other zombie stories. It was a manner in which to understand “what” didn’t work for the readers. One in particular stuck with me. A reader complained that in a particular scene the writer never attended to the seemingly unending supply of fuel. I made note and ensured that I provided at least some brief explanation of the source of supplies or the lack there of – food, fuel, water, bullets. That one inconsistent sentence, paragraph or scene can undo a lot of hard work. I’m a fan of the Walking Dead. I also did a fair amount of research on guns for my novel. There is a scene in the television show where Herschel is using a shot-gun to kill zombies. I counted the bullets. He shot twice as many as the shotgun could actually hold. Maybe he reloaded off screen?
Common Words: I work with a guy who is pretty darn smart. I have a decent vocabulary, but this guy’s boarders on genius. In fact, most of us need to grab a dictionary to decipher at least some of the words in his emails. I am certain that his word choice is the best and most descriptive. And there is nothing wrong with choosing the “best” word to convey your point unless it is a word that no average person understands. Stephen King wrote in his book, “On Writing” that every writer already has enough in his or her toolbox to get the job done. In the development of our craft we will naturally find better words, but we should never use a complex one when a simple one will do. Albeit it may sound nice, it serves the writer’s ego instead of the reader’s experience. (Which is why I should have just said “although” instead of “albeit.”) I write reports and opinions that I want everyone to understand. It is critical that the reader of these reports can understand principles and conclusions without any specialized training. The same should be applied to fiction. Sure sometimes the sky can be azure and someone’s eyes can be cobalt, but we always tread on dangerous ground when we select the word that makes the writer look smart at the cost of the reader’s understanding.
Common Language: I can write very long sentences. If I put my mind to it I can write some damn pretty “purple prose” too. I prefer the Hemingway method. A noun and a verb makes a complete sentence. Everything else requires more tools from the writer’s toolbox. Personally I can’t keep the whole object, subject, agreement things straight. I’d rather not go back to 6th grade grammar class. So I avoid it by keeping the language as simple as possible. The best fiction books are written at a 3rd or 4th grade difficulty rating (you can find that analysis option in Word by the way.) The reason is not that writers or their readers are dumb. The reason is that fiction is for enjoyment. A reader expects to struggle with a chemistry book, they don’t want to struggle with your story. If that were anything but true then Faulkner would still be on the best-seller list.
Writing is not an easy craft. The difficulty, however, isn’t in reaching some high standard of literary genius. The difficulty is in conveying our idea clearly, using the most common of words, and in the simplest of language while still creating a robust and vibrant world of characters that makes the reader feel as if this place is real. Our responsibility to our readers is to reduce the complex to its most simplest form. If we want to amaze, confuse and hide our ideas we will be better served writing poetry than prose.