Sunday, February 18, 2018

Peter Selgin cautions writers against "nagging" the reader

A recent contribution to Jane Friedman's blog warns the reader about creating confusion with "Nagging False Suspense Questions" in a story opening.

Peter Selgin, a successful writer and experienced editor, offers one-page critiques and more. This book consists of short meditations on quite a large number of things that can go wrong in fiction.

The gems he offers are designed to keep authors on track. First, to maintain authenticity and avoid sentimentality and melodrama, "a story should generate its own actions and emotions organically." Writers may think they can generate emotion by choosing dramatic subjects from "drug deals and busts gone wrong" to "murder, madness, rape, war." Not the wisest decision.

With such "sensational raw material, how can writers go wrong?" The author has an unequivocal answer. "They can and they do." One danger that awaits is a "minefield of cliches." The author likens melodrama to crab sticks: "an inferior substitute" for the real thing.

Cliche is an eternal danger, and the antidote is authenticity. When Selgin teaches writing classes, he invites students to write one piece they think boring, and one that is riveting. These are then read aloud, with classmates acting as arbiters of which is which. Aspiring authors are often surprised when the readers find the "wrong" piece riveting.

How can this be? Turns out the "boring" piece has greater authenticity. Instead of trying shortcuts like "fisticuffs and shipwrecks," writers need to slow down and take the time and trouble to imbue stories "with authentic, rich, specific moments and details."

Sex scenes can prove a minefield, and should be used sparingly. If lovemaking is not to be reduced to soulless pornography, it must be handled "with respect for both physiological and psychological truth." Like other elements of fiction, sex is gratuitous when motivation is lacking.

Similarly, fictional "tears, vomit and other sentimental bodily fluids" must be handled with great care, or better still, avoided. Even so, Selgin wryly admits, "the bestseller shelves are brimming with sentimental fluids." Obviously, an author can choose to pour a book full of them, and add some "industrial-strength mush." Knowing it is "for the sake of commerce and not art," the writer can then "laugh all the way to the bank."

Authenticity is essential in fiction. A fictional "world" must be established in the first few pages of the book. "Otherwise, readers can't be blamed for trying to graft the elements of the story onto their own world, and finding the graft doesn't take." If the author wants the reader to believe that three pregnant women are about to rob a bank, some serious groundwork must be laid. Still, Selgin allows, actions, "however far-fetched, can be rendered authentic provided they are sufficiently motivated."

If you're not Shakespeare, writing about suicide, like the act itself, is "a last resort." A fictional suicide that fails to come off may be both "predictable" and "unconvincing," leaving the reader with two contradictory dissatisfactions. The onus is on the author to make this desperate act to seem "not only plausible but inevitable."

This book is full of gems, but it should be read at the right stage of writing or editing your novel. Too early, and you may forget much of the advice. Too late in the process, when your novel is nearly done, these cautions might prove so terrifying as to bring revision to a standstill -- at least until it becomes possible to face what's wrong with the draft and deal with it. If you're just copy editing or proofreading, or between novels, it's a nice ride, both for laughs and learning.

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