Tuesday, September 02, 2014

on writer's block: the issue of flow

Back in my Critters.org days I used to roll my eyes when people said my writing "flowed" well. Because it's a fairly non-specific comment I was never sure what they meant; I thought it was one of those comments like, "It makes you think!" that really mean nothing at all and was just something that unschooled critters would say to have something to say.

Looking back, I think narrative flow was one of the things that I internalized at a young age, as a side-effect of being a prolific reader. I hadn't yet read enough amateur fiction to understand how hard that sort of thing is for other writers, and I hadn't yet dissected my own process to the point where I understood what I was doing and how.

But I've been going through a rough patch with this rewrite the last few months. Not the kind of block where one doesn't know what will happen next. The basic events of the novel are not changing, it's the why and how that I've been revising.

And lately I've had difficulty tapping into that machinery where the raw ingredients of characters, words, and situation go in and the lovely firm multi-textured scenes come out.

I can still write grammatical sentences that convey meaning, but the organic quality, the ability to submerse myself in the characters' heads and effortlessly transcribe what I see there, is lacking. My paragraphs are dry, lacking movement. The transitions between sentences feel clunky.

So I've been trying to read more, and specifically read more good stuff. I also picked up a book, How to Read Like a Writer, by Francine Prose, which specifically discusses the use of language.

Meanwhile there are a couple of mid-level writers in my writer's group who are working on this very issue. They, too, can put together grammatically sound sentences that convey who is standing where and what they are doing, but I have never found myself diving into their work and getting lost in it.

So I've been trying to diagnose some of the issues that enable or hamper "flow":

  • Description of setting—when, what, and how much. Tell us just as much as we need to know in the logical and helpful places. For any new setting, give a broad overview and then add in details as the characters interact with the environment. Point of view is relevant as well—whose eyes are we looking through? What's their take on the situation? How does their interpretation of events and surroundings reveal who they are to the reader?
  • Character blocking and perceptions—Mention when someone moves around in the room, and what they encounter when they do. Are they cooking breakfast? Making fishing lures? Knitting baby booties? Struggling to finish a project before the difficult client comes asking for it? Little bits of "business" within a scene help to set mood, establish a character's personality and emotional state, and describe the setting.
  • Dialogue—Is it natural and logical? or does it sound like the author is feeding the characters lines to move the plot forward?
  • Scene progression—Figuratively speaking, every scene should open with a question and end with the answer. In more concrete terms, something happens at the beginning of a scene that leads to another event, which precipitates another event, which prompts another, etc etc just like a row of dominoes. If you skip a domino the readers will think --wait, did I miss something?--and be jarred out of the story. Do this more than a couple of times and they will lose interest, having decided you are not a trustworthy guide on this journey. 
  • Plot progression—If your gaps in logic are particularly large readers will say the story has plot holes. You must show every step of the journey, or at least refer to events in narrative summary.

So, now I know what people meant when they said my work "flowed." Granted, it *is* an unschooled comment--a more seasoned critter would be more helpful by commenting on one of the issues above.

But still, to say that something "flows" well means "All the bits of the scene were in the right order and at the right pace, to such an extent that I forgot that I was reading." And that's a high compliment.

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