The West Wing

Why am I titling a post after a late-90s political drama?

Because The West Wing‘s writing is just so damned good. The whip-snap of sentences thrown back and forth by the characters has a cadence to it that’s addictive. The allusions to literary, theatrical, film, and history that pepper every episode make it seem as though everyone in The West Wing‘s universe has a masters in every humanities discipline. It’s unrealistic, and incredible.

There’s a battle when writing dialogue that I struggle with, that probably most authors struggle with. And that is how real to make the words coming from the character’s mouths. Listen to a person talk in the real world and it’s full of idioms, stutters, likes and uhs to the point where actually putting that on the page would be inviting the reader to throw their hands up in despair and chuck the book into the nearest fire.

By the same token, dropping high-dollar words and references ala The West Wing is risky. In a TV show, where the action keeps moving whether the viewer understands what’s been said or not, there’s a bit more pliability with the Ph.D caliber quotes. With a book, where a reader has time and may feel compelled to look up any given mention, there has to be a careful balance between verbal fencing and, you know, sounding like a professor trying to impress a board of peers.

I try to aim for the middle. Truth to the character – meaning that I’m not going to have my Southern Gentleman start dropping ghetto slang. Truth to their background – meaning the teenager who’s grown up among native Pygmies isn’t going to start quoting Aristotle. Truth to the story – meaning I’m not going to write down all the breaks, pauses, and broken sentences a real conversation tends to consist of (unless it’s adding something to the scene).

Something to try if you’re not confident in the dialogue skills – and let’s be real, just about everyone, myself definitely included, can use practice in this area – swing through a screenplay. It’ll force you to power scenes and character through dialogue, and you’ll start to take more notice of the words you choose and how they reflect on the character speaking them.

Can I have a minute?

One of the things about working with novels is that they are, in fact, novels. Not quick little blurbs – like this blog post – but big, smashing things that demand time and attention for weeks and weeks. Each one is a relationship – ups and downs, needy attachments and frustrated procrastination from doing what’s necessary.

Which is why I’ve enjoyed sprinkling in the smaller pieces. Again, like this blog post. But also short stories, even light journalism pieces here and there. It doesn’t even matter if they gain any traction (though that wouldn’t hurt). The main value is that I’m writing, and exploring different ways to structure sentences, paragraphs, and narratives outside of the stately confines of the full-length novel.

I try to do these little bursts between meetings or in the dead spaces of the work day, time I would otherwise use to browse news sites or read up on pointless filler. At first I thought I’d miss the constant rush of information, but turns out that it’s more fun sometimes putting together a paragraph than reading one.

Reliably Unreliable

The ideal image of a writer as interpreted by more popular media than this blog incorporates the scrivener sitting at a desk, possibly reclining in a chair, pen in hand with notepad on the legs. Modernized, there’s a computer sitting off to the side, though the screen is blurred and indistinguishable.

The point being that the place for this auteur of allegory is special, a zone of contemplation, a mosh pit for the muses. But you have to be there for them to find you.

I can’t give you a working routine that’s one hundred percent effective. I’m lucky enough to have an office in the house, or at least a space I can dedicate to writing, but splitting the time from the day job to find my way there is probably the most difficult part of my day.

I’d list out the reasons, but when the bullshit is blasted away it comes down to one thing:

I’m not trying hard enough.

There’s a million things that are easier to do than write. Plenty that are more appealing after nine hours of work. That’s why, when I can, I try to write in the mornings, when I’m fresh. Like, from 6-7 AM.

That’s the muse hour. When the ideas come to play. In the evenings, when I’m tired and trying to figure out what scraps can be turned into a dinner, I’m not looking to spin an epic yarn. That is, though, a perfect time to turn on a basketball game and spin out a blog post, or a short piece, or fiddle with the blog.

Point being – relegate the various writing tasks to the times of day most suited to them. You’ll be happier. You’ll be more willing to try hard, and if you miss one of your tasks for some reason (late flights, too tired to get up, etc.) then you’ll still be able to accomplish some things later. And you’ll build those habits.

At least, that’s what I’m trying to do.

The Status

Have you read Stephen King’s On Writing?

Have you read it lately? I’ll wait.

You read that book and you start to think to yourself that there’s a certain joy to be had in climbing the slow ladder of fiction. That through submissions of dozens of stories to magazines, you’ll be able to earn your place with an agent and a publisher.

I don’t know if that world really exists anymore – the number of places publishing and paying for fiction, at least in any real denomination, for someone starting out, seems to be declining. Or they’re hard to find.

But, after re-reading the book this past weekend on a pair of longish flights from California, I think that the point of what King did during his short-story period wasn’t the actual publishing. It wasn’t the selling of stories to the magazines that helped him so much.

It was the writing of them. The practice of crafting characters and situations, oddball and not. Submitting to magazines provided that extra bit of motivation that might have been lacking otherwise. That push to keep him putting words down on the page that eventually built the foundation that led to King’s novels.

I have, right now, a novel and a novella done (though still in need of editing work) and, while they’re fun, I have no illusions about them being great works of fiction. I’m going to self-publish them, and finish out the short series, because it’s a lesson. A long one, but important.

So even if you’re not dishing tales to mags on a weekly basis, even if you don’t have a nail covered in rejection slips, keep on writing. Because everything you put down makes the next thing a little better, a little tastier to the readers. Heck, it’s what this blog is for.