I spent last week in Las Vegas at the SHOT Show, the once-again-annual convention thrown by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF). Attended by roughly 65,000 people, the SHOT Show is to the shooting, hunting and outdoor adventure industry what the Detroit Auto Show is for cars. It’s the place where firearms manufacturers announce their new products. It’s also the place where I can meet up with the various subject matter experts who keep me from making huge mistakes. Good times.
On the flight out, I watched an episode of a documentary called, “One Perfect Shot,” which turned out to be entirely different than what I was expecting. The shots in this series refer to movies. Each episode highlights a different film director, who chooses his or her favorite shot, and reveals the story behind the story. I chose to watch the episode in which Michael Mann discusses the the bank robbery sequence from Heat–hands down, I believe, the best gunfight ever filmed.
The episode was interesting, but it featured a filmmaking quirk that is the point of writing this post. The director of the episode, whose name I cannot find in the brief time I am willing to dedicate to the search, chose to shoot much of her interview with Michael Mann in a wildly asymmetrical way. If you’ve studied filmmaking at all, you know about the rule of thirds, where the subject of an interview is rarely in the center of the screen. In this episode, which appears to have been shot in a black box theater and is formatted in wide screen, the subject spends much of the screen time in the lower corner, with his eyes looking off screen, rather than toward the center, which is the expected convention.
It was an interesting choice, but I think it was also a foolish one. I chose the episode because I wanted to hear the director’s story. The quirky filmmaking took away from that in a way that felt almost disrespectful. Mann was the man of the moment, yet the director decided to call attention to him/herself. It interrupted the story that it was trying to tell.
There’s an analogy her to writing for the page.
I strive to remain invisible in my writing. I want my readers to be fully aware of everything my characters are thinking and feeling, thoroughly immersed in Brother Bell’s “fictive dream.” The moment I draw attention to myself, I show disrespect to my characters and their tribulations.
Writerly affectations–lack of quotation marks for dialogue, impossibly long paragraphs, and the like–annoy me. They eject me from the story. Good writing isn’t flowery, it’s concise. This is why word choice matters so much. Why the flow of sentences matters.
If you’re reading this and you’re new to the craft, think twice–and then twice again–about the nature and structure of that oh-so-important first book. Adhere to conventions while still being interesting. I have repeated proclaimed that there are no rules in this writing game, and I always will. But there are expectations and human reactions.
On the rare occasions when I agree to critique rookie writing, I cringe when I see that the piece is written in present tense. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that, but it’s hard to pull off, and my Spidey sense warns me that there’s likely to be trouble ahead. The reason? Because the author is deliberately writing against the current and trying to draw attention to himself. One of the reasons I don’t read fantasy/science fiction (or many foreign novels) is the propensity for unpronounceable names. How am I supposed to keep the characters straight in my head if I can’t say their names?
Are you Mensa and have a giant vocabulary? Good for you. If you want to succeed in a commercial fiction market, check your brilliance at the door. Obeisance is a fine word, but respect is better recognized and known by more people. If you’re hoping to sell your stories, you’re hoping to break into a corner of the entertainment business. Everything you do is about your customer–your reader–not you.
When I mention this in seminars, I often field objections from students who are incensed that I expect them to write down to people. Inherent within the objection is a sense that writers are smarter than their readers. (One cannot write down without considering oneself to be above.) I don’t believe that to be the case at all. My job is to give readers a fun ride, and to make it feel effortless on my part. That effortless part is where the really hard work comes in.
So, TKZ family, what do you think? How easy is it for you to be ejected from a story? Do you like authors to show off, or do prefer for them to stay in the background?