Monday, September 13, 2010

Book progress FAIL

The attempt to chart the progress on the writing of the Adelaide book tanked almost before it drew breath, as you can see. But progress has in fact been made, albeit in less tangible ways than counting words. My dear friend Lyn was in town on Friday and as is so often the case I found the use of a sympathetic and enthusiastic sounding board a wonderful way to get ideas into shape.

Apropos the book, I've been doing a lot of thinking about how very much of writing, all writing, is a matter of solving problems of technique. What material to use, and which of it to put where, and why. What sort of narrative voice to establish and how to maintain it. For no good reason I found myself thinking of the tenets of Rhetoric as taught in the US, and the notion of the Four Types -- narration, description, argumentation and exposition -- and how useful that conceptual framework is as a way of deciding what you want or need to say and how you want or need to say it. With this book there will of necessity be a certain amount of exposition, but it'll be mostly narrative and description: stories and images of my city.

I don't think enough writers think enough about technique, especially these days when there's a whole generation of writers who spent their education being taught that grammar and syntax and spelling didn't matter, all that mattered was to Be Creative. This and other forces have conspired to convince that whole generation -- or at least this is the case if the general standard of written expression online is anything to go by -- that content is all and technique doesn't matter, and that it's perfectly possible to be a Great Writer even if you have no idea what you're doing when you write a sentence.

Yes of course the inspiration of the moment is important, as are emotional sources and the workings of the unconscious, and indeed all those things are playing a large part in the writing of this book. Similarly, a book like this needs to maintain adequate levels of ideological awareness, understanding and thoughtfulness; power and money flow around a city along complex but predictable channels. And then there's the material itself, the endless texts and facts.

But all those things need to balance each other, to have a shape, to be contained, to be arranged so that some form of continuum emerges, suggests connections between different stories and images and ideas, and provides a navigable pathway from one idea to the next. And they need to be expressed by a consistent and believable voice, be told in a way that's beautiful and reader-friendly.

And all of that means making lists, charts and diagrams, and doing some serious thought about word choice and sentence structure, right down to the rhythm of individual sentences -- which is something I think about a lot, and will often search for a synonym with its stress on a different syllable so that the sentence will be less bumpy and more lilting, or work away at a sentence structure that will end the sentence on a satisfyingly strong stressed syllable. (Unlike that one.)

It's all as far away as it could possibly be from the capital-R Romantic view of writing: that it all comes gushing forth unmediated and unchecked from one's heart, gut, brain and so on. That's all very well as a metaphor, but on a literal level, the stuff that comes gushing forth from one's various internal organs is usually not very nice. And more to the point, that's the stuff that your body wants to get rid of, not the stuff that it wants to keep.


  1. I wonder how much is taught in the ubiquitous creative writing courses about shaping a text.

    It's what I've been doing all weekend, for my sins - and a lot of the challenge is harmonising disparate sections of a report written by different people and making them into an actual report.

    It occurred to me while I was doing it that what I was doing was largely working on the text as a text, not the content. Something similar was really the breakthrough moment for my PhD thesis.

  2. That sounds like hard-core editing to me. But it's what Helen Garner calls 'moving the heavy furniture around' -- the furniture itself does matter enormously, but its nature determines where you move it to (is this a bed or a fridge? Does it fit in that corner? Is it downright ugly and deserving to be thrown out altogether? Etc), and that's the part that requires diagrams and aesthetic decisions and so on. I've never really been able to separate content from style (I prefer to think of them as form and function) at all, which is why I can't write rough drafts -- I need to get sentences right one at a time before I go on to the next one. It made exams complete hell.

  3. I think you should go on a balloon ride over Adelaide. Perspective, distance, maps, flow, shape, etc. And probably tax deductible...

  4. Stephanie, funny you should say that. After I read your wonderful post on balloon rides I did indeed go so far as to check out websites and such. It can be done.