This month’s Statesman Selects is a little different. Usually, we highlight a work of fiction or nonfiction — something with some sort of narrative.
This month’s Selects is, well, a textbook. An incredibly cool textbook.
In “The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction,” Austin author (and program director for the Writers’ League of Texas) Michael Noll takes apart a single page each from 40 contemporary novels and short stories and shows the reader how they work.
He examines techniques and provides canny exercises and smart prompts that help writers use such techniques in their own work. It reads as a sort of instantly applicable literary criticism.
In the book, Noll examines pages from contemporary works. Here, we asked him to work his magic on some classic passages.
Let’s start with the first page or so of William Gibson’s “Neuromancer,” the opening line of which is one of the most famous in all of science fiction:
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
‘It’s not like I’m using,’ Case heard someone say, as he shouldered his way through the crowd around the door of the Chat. ‘It’s like my body’s developed this massive drug deficiency.’ It was a Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke. The Chatsubo was a bar for professional expatriates; you could drink there for a week and never hear two words in Japanese.
Ratz was tending bar, his prosthetic arm jerking monotonously as he filled a tray of glasses with draft Kirin. He saw Case and smiled, his teeth a webwork of East European steel and brown decay. Case found a place at the bar, between the unlikely tan on one of Lonny Zone’s whores and the crisp naval uniform of a tall African whose cheekbones were ridged with precise rows of tribal scars. ‘Wage was in here early, with two joeboys,’ Ratz said, shoving a draft across the bar with his good hand. ‘Maybe some business with you, Case?’
Case shrugged. The girl to his right giggled and nudged him.
The bartender’s smile widened. His ugliness was the stuff of legend. In an age of affordable beauty, there was something heraldic about his lack of it. The antique arm whined as he reached for another mug. It was a Russian military prosthesis, a seven-function force-feedback manipulator, cased in grubby pink plastic. ‘You are too much the artiste, Herr Case.’ Ratz grunted; the sound served him as laughter. He scratched his overhang of white-shirted belly with the pink claw. ‘You are the artiste of the slightly funny deal.’
Everyone who has taken a writing workshop has, at some point, heard the advice, “Kill your darlings.” A lot of very confident writers have said or supposedly said it: Hemingway, Faulkner and Welty are just a few. Through repetition, the maxim has acquired the solidity of one thing that young writers often desire most: a rule to follow. Sometimes it’s even true. But even more often, you pick up a book you love and see example after example of lines that must have been precious to the author. The opening page of William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” starts with three darlings in a row.
The first is that weird, meaning-laden comparison between the sky and a dead TV channel. Gibson even ends it with a paragraph break, as if telling the reader to pause and admire his cleverness. The second is a joke, which Gibson scuffs a little by telling us in the next sentence that it is a joke. The third is a zinger of a description of the bar; you can almost hear an implied ba-dum ching at the end of it. Any one of these lines would likely get marked for deletion in a writing workshop, which would be a shame because the entire page is fantastic.
Gibson even throws another darling in at the top of the next page (at least in my copy of the novel): the description of the bartender that, like the first sentence of the novel, swings for the fences. If Gibson had cut these lines, would his book still be known as one of the great works of American science fiction? Maybe. But I’m guessing probably not. So, here’s how you can do something similar in your own work:
1. Don’t try to sneak lines past the reader. Gibson knows how far he can push before pulling back (as he does with the “Sprawl voice and a Sprawl joke” line, which is a mea culpa disguised as world building). There’s no easy way to develop this sense of what readers expect except by giving it to them to read and reading a lot on your own. As you do this, after you’ve written some lines, go back and ask yourself, “Where would I start rolling my eyes?” That’s where you nod to the reader.
2. Move fast. None of the lines in Gibson’s opening are very long, and he doesn’t belabor them in the next line and the next. Instead, he switches gears: wide-angle lens description of setting, dialogue, explanation of dialogue, gradually zoomed-in description of setting (a bar rather than the entire sky over a port). At least for a short period, if you throw a lot of cool stuff at your readers, they won’t have time to poke holes in it.
3. Get to the story. You can’t be cute or witty forever. At some point, you need to do what writers do: Tell a story. Gibson does this by the next paragraph. He settles into a particular character doing a particular thing (bartender tending bar), and the story is off and running.
The trick as a writer is to put your observations about a particular text into action in your own work. Sometimes that means copying particular rhetoric moves or devices. Other times, the implementation is more of a dead Obi-Wan voice in your head: “Don’t be afraid of your darlings. Show them off. But move on quickly. Let the readers know that you know that you’re being cute. But the lines damn well better be good. And build them into a natural progression, like this passage’s introduction of the setting by starting out far overhead and dropping into a bar.”
‘THE GREAT GATSBY’
Witness the final page of the “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of the most famous final pages in 20th-century American literature:
Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther… . And one fine morning——
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
There’s probably no greater darling in all of American literature than the last page of “The Great Gatsby.” Probably a hundred or more stories and novels published since this one have ended with a similar moment of ecstatic reflection: a character looking out at some aspect of his world and thinking lyrically about what it means. As a graduate student in creative writing, I tried over and over to write an ending like it, never pulling it off. Why not?
In part, the ending is a matter of taste. Fitzgerald originally wanted to title the novel “Under the Red, White, and Blue,” and this last page suggests the thematic ambition of that title. Most of the book is a soap opera with tight sentences, but the ending is clearly aiming for more. Whether you think this ending fits the novel, and whether you like it, depends on how much you like the book. The great Tim O’Brien, who taught at my graduate program, loves the book. My Joyce professor did not. It’s a good reminder that you can’t please everyone.
There are a couple of practical lessons to draw from the ending that anyone (even the lyrically challenged) can try out in their own work:
1. Attach the lyric reverie to something real and tangible. Fitzgerald uses his setting — the houses and ferryboat — and does not stray from them. The lights from the houses and ferry get picked up again with the green light that Gatsby sees. The farther your lyricism and metaphor stray from the exact point from which they start, the more likely they are to float off into the atmosphere.
2. Attach the language to a particular character. Fitzgerald’s narrator is thinking about what Gatsby must have thought, about his particular hopes and dreams of a life with Daisy. Unless the voice of God is speaking throughout your story or novel, don’t introduce a bodiless voice when you’re reaching for meaning. A side effect of locating your epiphanies in actual characters is that someone else in the story can call BS.
3. Know when to shut up. I’m struck by how much the ending of “The Great Gatsby” falls short of the bursting emotion that must have inspired it. Imagine Fitzgerald at his desk. He writes, “but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther,” and then taps his fingers together. What happens when we stretch out our arms? What do we touch? Unable to come up with a satisfactory answer, he keeps going: “And one fine morning…” And what?
One of the goals of metaphor is to lift the readers’ imaginations beyond what sits literally before their eyes. Almost all metaphor, though, if considered too closely, tends to fall apart, like the Big Bang, a metaphor that has become such common parlance that we forget how poorly it describes what actually happened way back when. If Fitzgerald had filled in those ellipses and dashes, his beautiful last page would have thudded unpleasantly back into the present. In your metaphors, take risks. Go big, as long as you’ve also tethered your language to something specific and real. And then stop before you overwrite it to death.
‘RAISE HIGH THE ROOF BEAM, CARPENTERS’
A personal favorite from “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters” by J. D. Salinger:
The Matron of Honor then turned and, for the first time, directly addressed the tiny elderly man beside her. To my undying gratification, he was still glaring straight ahead of him, as though his own private scenery hadn’t changed an iota. His un-lighted clear-Havana cigar was still clenched between two fingers. What with his apparent unmindfulness of the terrible din the passing drum-and-bugle corps was making, and, possibly, from a grim tenet that all old men over eighty must be either stone-deaf or very hard of hearing, the Matron of Honor brought her lips to within an inch or two of his left ear. “We’re going to get out of the car!” she shouted at him — almost into him. “We’re going to find a place to phone from, and maybe have some refreshment! Do you want to come with us?”
The elderly man’s immediate reaction was just short of glorious. He looked first at the Matron of Honor, then at the rest of us, and then grinned. It was a grin that was no less resplendent for the fact that it made no sense whatever. Nor for the fact that his teeth were obviously, beautifully, transcendently false. He looked at the Matron of Honor inquisitively for just an instant, his grin wonderfully intact. Or, rather, he looked to her — as if, I thought, he believed the Matron of Honor, or one of us, had lovely plans to pass a picnic basket his way.
“I don’t think he heard you, honey!” the Lieutenant shouted. The Matron of Honor nodded, and once again brought the megaphone of her mouth up close to the old man’s ear. With really praiseworthy volume, she repeated her invitation to the old man to join us in quitting the car.
When I was a kid, I used to amuse myself by responding to some perfectly plain statement by a friend or sibling with “What?” They’d repeat themselves, and I’d look confused until they shouted the same thing again. I’d light up in comprehension before repeating back to them what they’d said, except utterly wrong, something like, “You want me to feed my shoe to a gorilla?” I did this over and over again, resulting in both greater frustration in the target and more laughter by observers. Little did I know that this is the recipe for great art.
A New York Times review of the new stop-motion film “Early Man” claims, “You might believe that you are too refined to giggle at even one not-too-naughty double-entendre about the fact that soccer is played with balls, let alone a dozen or so. You are so wrong.”
A bad joke becomes a great joke the more it’s repeated, and it works in films, stories and real life. Salinger reminds us of this in his famous New Yorker story about a wedding gone terribly wrong, and we can use (as we all dream of) a New Yorker strategy, too:
1. When you find a compelling detail, run with it. Not only does Salinger’s scene feature the equivalent of my youthful prank (the Matron of Honor shouting in the old man’s ear twice), it also extends the joke by giving us not one but two notes. Furthermore, the word shouted is used four times, and two of those shouts aren’t directed at the man. Once the joke is introduced, it infects every character in the scene. You can derive entire scenes out of one detail repeated in new and inventive ways. This is the opposite of the advice I gave with the Gibson and Fitzgerald excerpts: Introduce a darling and move on.
2. Irritate the hell out of your characters. The biggest sin as a writer is to let your characters off the hook. Even if you like them, make their lives miserable. Salinger injects a deaf-mute into a scene and forces every character to deal with him, the same as a kid who insists on repeating every word you say is forcing you to deal with him or her. Great details are the ones that characters would like to ignore but cannot.
3. Beware static scenes. Once again, imagine the author at work: He’s created a scene in which characters sit in a car, not moving. It’s the automotive equivalent of a dinner party, a scene that is notoriously difficult to write because there’s no pulsing plot to drag everyone from one moment to the next. There is only time to kill. By making the old man deaf and mute, Fitzgerald gives the scene an obstacle to overcome, and the fact that it is so difficult to overcome means that everyone must get involved. When you find your characters doing nothing or postulating uninterrupted, you need some version of Salinger’s old man to make your characters stop what they’re doing and focus. Repetition creates plot and structure and reveals character.
If you’ve got a witty line that you love, leave it in and move on. But if you’re not sure what to write next, introduce a detail that at least one of the characters will find obnoxious and then repeat the detail until it becomes impossible to ignore and your blank page begins to fill itself.
‘THE WRITER’S FIELD GUIDE TO THE CRAFT OF FICTION’
Michael Noll will read from, discuss with writer Bret Anthony Johnston and sign “The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction” at 7 p.m. March 1 at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar Blvd., as part of the Statesman Selects series. The speaking portion of this event is free and open to the public.