Thursday, December 10, 2009

Madman, Architect, Carpenter, Judge: Roles and the Writing Process

by Betty S. Flowers

(Here's an interesting article on writing that I came across while leafing through the Harbrace College Handbook for Canadian Writers, and I thought I'd share it with you all - hope you like it.)

"What's the hardest part of writing?" I ask on the first day of class.

"Getting started," someone offers, groaning.

"No, it's not getting started," a voice in the back of the room corrects. "It's keeping on once you do get started. I can always write a sentence or two-but then I get stuck."

"Why?" I ask.

"I don't know. I am writing along, and all of a sudden I realize how awful it is, and I tear it up. Then I start over again, and after two sentences, the same thing happens."

"Let me suggest something which might help," I say. Turning to the board, I write four words: "madman," "architect," "carpenter," "judge."

Then I explain:

"What happens when you get stuck is that two competing energies are locked horn to horn, pushing against each other. One is the energy of what I'll call your 'madman.' He is full of ideas, writes crazily and perhaps rather sloppily, gets carried away by enthusiasm or anger, and if really let loose, could turn out ten pages an hour.

"The second is a kind of critical energy-what I'll call the 'judge.' He's been educated and knows a sentence fragment when he sees one. He peers over your shoulder and says, 'That's trash!' with such
authority that the madman loses his crazy confidence and shrivels up. You know the judge is right-after all, he speaks with the voice of your most imperious English teacher. But for all his sharpness of eye, he can't create anything.

"So you're stuck. Every time your madman starts to write, your judge pounces on him.

"Of course this is to over-dramatize the writing process-but not entirely. Writing is so complex, involves so many skills of heart, mind and eye, that sitting down to a fresh sheet of paper can sometime seem
like 'the hardest work among those not impossible,' as Yeats put it.

Whatever joy there is in the writing process can come only when the energies are flowing freely-when you're not stuck.

"And the trick to not getting stuck involves separating the energies. If you let the judge with his intimidating carping come too close to the madman and his playful, creative energies, the ideas which
form the basis for your writing will never have a chance to surface. But you can't simply throw out the judge. The subjective personal outpourings of your madman must be balanced by the objective, impersonal vision of the educated critic within you. Writing is not just self-expression; it is communication as well.

"So start by promising your judge that you'll get around to asking his opinion, but not now. And then let the madman energy flow. Find what interests you in the topic, the question or emotion that it raises in you, and respond as you might to a friend-or an enemy. Talk on paper, page after page, and don't stop to judge or correct sentences. Then, after a set amount of time, perhaps, stop and gather the paper up and wait a day.

"The next morning, ask your 'architect' to enter. She will read the wild scribblings saved from the night before and pick out maybe a tenth of the jottings as relevant or interesting. (You can see immediately
that the architect is not sentimental about what the madman wrote; she is not going to save every crumb for posterity.) Her job is simply to select large chunks of material and to arrange them in a pattern that might form an argument. The thinking here is large, organizational, paragraph level thinking-the architect doesn't worry about sentence structure.

"No, the sentence structure is left for the 'carpenter' who enters after the essay has been hewn into large chunks of related ideas. The carpenter nails these ideas together in a logical sequence, making sure each sentence is clearly written, contributes to the argument of the paragraph, and leads logically and gracefully to the next sentence. When the carpenter finishes, the essay should be smooth and watertight.

"And then the judge comes around to inspect. Punctuation, spelling, grammar, tone-all the details which result in a polished essay become important only in this last stage. These details are not the concern of the madman who's come up with them, or the architect who's organized them, or the carpenter who's nailed the ideas together, sentence by sentence. Save details for the judge.


Hi everyone! I just wanted to let you know that I'm opening up the Campfire Pages for Christmas Stories. You can reach me on Twitter, at @TheWritersDen of course, and I'll get back to you.

This is my very favorite time of year and I hope we can have lots of holiday cheer. I won't put a word limit on submissions, because most of you know not to send 10,000 word dissertations!

So if you want to participate, let me know! Cheers!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Moving! Follow the New Page..

To all my followers: We have moved to a new page. You'll still get all the articles published on the new site, but I encourage you to re-follow...Thank you so much!

Merry Christmas!

Ten Editing Tips, for Your Fiction Mss.

As Posted by Margaret Atwood, at her wonderful site: The Year of the Flood

Speaking of writing, which we did a lot in Tofino: I put these together for a friend, but maybe someone out there could also use them…


1.The beginning. This is the key signature of the book. Sets the tone, introduces the leitmotifs. Are the people in it main characters? If not, how much do the readers need to know about them?

2. Charles Dickens said, “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.” He put “wait” at the end because it was crucial. (In any series of three, the third is the most important.) In terms I’ve picked up by playing with the boys: Drop the hankie early, but make ‘em wait for the opening of the kimono. Are you telling too much too soon? (Suspense: a good thing, if not done too obviously. Who is this guy? What happens next? Don’t signal too much, too far ahead.)

3. Verbs shall agree with subjects (singular, plural). That is, unless it’s dialogue or third-person inside-the-character point of view, and the author wishes to indicate that the character has a weak grasp of this principle.

4. Verb tenses. This is tricky. But in general: if something is always true, use the present tense. If it was always true once, use the past, or “would” plus past tense to indicate continuous action in the past. (“Every day, he’d go to the laundromat.”) . If it’s something happening before the time we’re in, use the past perfect (“He’d gone.”) Only the author knows the time flow – an editor can query, but the author must decide. If tenses are disjunct, there should be a very good reason. (Maybe the character is having a breakdown.) See also the use of the historical present. (“So, he goes, “What’re you doing?” and I go, “Butt out,” and he … etc.) Elmore Leonard is an expert at this kind of thing, and at informal dialogue in general.

5. The gerund mistake. A common one. “Walking along the beach, a pair of boots was seen.” Means that the boots were doing the walking, not the observer. Correct: “Walking along the beach, he saw a pair of boots.”

6. Readers are readers. They are good at reading. They are also post-film, and are used to swift cuts. They will fill in quite a lot. At any point, are you telling/filling in too much? The author needs to walk through the moves in his/her head – like practicing a dance or a military exercise – so that no actual tactical mistakes are made – the character doesn’t go out the door before he’s put his pants on, unless intended — but then the planning steps, the connect-the-dots steps, are pruned out so that what the reader gets is a graceful, fluid execution. We hope.

7. Dialogue. How do people actually talk? Too much for prose fiction, as it turns out. Dialogue in a novel should: give the illusion of real speech; indicate character; not tell us stuff we can assume or don’t need to know, unless the point is that the character is boring; advance the plot; be funny if intended; not sound too wooden. Look at contractions: it’s, he’s, shouldn’t. Look at use of “that”—in speech, we rarely put it in. ‘The tree I saw,” not “The tree that I saw.”

8. Point of view. Whose eyes are we looking through? A character’s? The author’s? Is the author intruding too much on the character? Does it sound like Character Bob, or like Author Phil/Phyllis? We know characters in the following ways: What they say. What they think. What third-person narration says about them. What other characters say/think about them. What they do. What they say they do. What they see when they look in the mirror. The tone of the prose about/surrounding them.

9. The second person problem. Applies to letters and journals, for instance when one character is communicating to another or writing a diary or journal. If a letter, A shouldn’t tell B something we already know B knows. If a journal –who is it for? Is it to be found after the character’s death – “Look what a clever boy I was”? Or is it for her to enjoy in private in a gloating or meditative or My Secret Life sort of way? For a sampling of diaries/journals, see the excellent anthology, The Assassin’s Cloak.

10. The ending. Open or closed. Fitting in tone. Makes us say Wow, or I want more. Or it sums things up, or provides a coda. It is, in any case, the last word. For now. Ask: is this how you want to sign off?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Changes: A Winter’s Monologue

Up here in the Great White North it’s been anything but Great, or White. We’ve seen nary a breath of snow this season; a record for us Canucks who are used to being buried in the stuff by mid October. But as I sit here, the wind is blustering outside my 8th floor apartment...More at the New Writer's Den...

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