Writing Badly, Well: Repeating yourself repeatedly

The Rule: Don’t repeat yourself and delete repetition when you find it.

I’m going to break my own rule here and say that, in many cases, this might actually be the case.

An infamous inside joke amongst my writer friends and I is that you should watch out of “rocky rocks.” Calling rocks rocky is redundant, and repetitive.

Also, making constant mention of specific information can leave the reader feeling bored. Give the reader more credit.

But that’s where my willingness to buy this rule ends. For three reasons, I think repetition can be helpful.

1. To instill a very specific sensation or emotion in the reader through repetition. One of my favorite examples is 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. Without giving away too much of the plot, there’s constant mention of moons, two moons, one moon, loneliness, and a rather repetitive life style for many of the characters.

This leaves a sense of belonging between the reader and the character. It also creates a sense of complete isolation from the world (like the characters are experiencing). And the moons? Well, to this day, my wife and I can’t look up into the sky, see one moon, and not wonder where the other moon went.

2. To instill urgency and passage of time in a heart pounding scene. Here I’d like to bring up The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Todd, the main character, is constantly repeating himself. He repeats himself a lot when things are moving very quickly by saying something like (and not a real quote), “I ran. I ran and ran until there was nothing left in me.”

This does a couple things. It makes the reader feel running while propelling the young reader forward and still letting you know there’s a significant passage of time just then even though it’s not explicit.

3. Repeated sentences drive home a point. If you come to a segment of your story where you’re trying to make a point, it could be a great time to use the Rule of 3s. The best example of this Rule of 3s is in Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a Dream” speech. “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.”

So, be repetitive, repetitively. Just make sure you’re doing it for a reason. Because, if you’re not, like all the rules in Writing Badly, Well, you’ll just be another amateur.

Writing Badly, Well: Use concrete and specific language

This one I’m often being called out for.

The Rule: Use specific and concrete language so your reader is not left guessing what you mean.

The idea: If you are ambiguous in your narrative, it will cause your reader to stop and reread a passage, get lost, or be so confused that they are otherwise taken out of the story. One may think this is true of most readers. That most readers are ADHD-stricken and bobbing between the book in their hand and the 4 screens splashing pretty pictures into the room. But I would argue this is NOT the case.

Counter example: Gone Girl.

In Gone Girl we have two main characters. Both with their own POV. Both are HIGHLY unreliable narrators. Both speak to the reader in very ambiguous language. At no point did the masses say, “No, Flynn! No! I can’t understand your words.” In fact, the only thing that made that book great (or at least pretty good) is that very ambiguity that most writers are afraid of.

Mysteries and suspense novels are built around ambiguity and plays on word choices and pronoun games. An entire genre has been in existence for 100+ years that uses this at its very core.

But what about “normal” writing? Same thing applies.

One of my favorite things to do is to have 2 men (or 2 women) in a room talking and have sparse dialogue tags. I do this very methodically. If the last comment in the scene is “Yes” it may change the scene VERY MUCH based on who said yes. Does it change the outcome of the novel? No. But it could give insight into each character depending on who said it. Do I have to tell you who said it? No. Most readers will imply one speaker or the other.

Probably my FAVORITE example of ambiguity is Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The ending leaves something to be desired, but not so much so that you throw the book. And the reason? Well, the rest of the book, that’s the reason.

My wife and I both read Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and STILL to this day argue as to what actually happened. I say Toru went into the well to find himself and never actually came out and probably died in there. Being the all forgiving optimist, my wife thinks that he climbed out of the well and bettered his life based on the conclusions he came to.

Does it piss me off that this happened? Not a chance! I love that it’s such a subtle ambiguity that two readers can both thoroughly enjoy a novel but yet read extremely different story lines from that same text. That takes massive tinkering and planning and mastery on a scale that few have managed. But to experiment and succeed is the point of writing!

Stop being a writer and start being a written storyteller!

The Murakami Code: A theory of Murakami’s ability to wow

Those who read and love Murakami know that there is just something about his storytelling that is just unsurpassed. For over 5 years, I’ve been reading, enjoying, changing through his stories. As a writer, I’ve looked up to Murakami and tried to hone in on how he does it.

How does Murakami write stories that are so personal as to be disturbing and absolutely realistic even when moving into the absurd, while at the same time being so universal as to make the reader question every aspect their life and life choices.

Well, I think I’ve figured it out.

Word of warning: If you enjoy Murakami as a reader only and don’t want his storytelling pulled apart, stop reading this post. This is a pseudo-literary look at his writing into what I think it is that makes his writing so unique and so enveloping.

If you’ve ever tried to explain a Murakami book to a friend in one sentence, or a whole damn conversation, you’ll notice it’s damn near impossible. Wind-up Bird Chronicle starts with Okada cooking pasta and talking to his wife. Not a typical page turner, yet it is. 1Q84 jumps from storyline to storyline enough to make you mad, but you have to keep reading, and little happens for much of the 3 long books. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki opens with nothing happening and jumps timelines so often and so confusingly as to test your patience.

So what is it that keeps you interested? And what is it that screws with your psyche?

The simple answer: Haruki Murakami breaks the rules of writing.

It’s a trifecta of rule breaking that brings his stories to life.

First, Murakami uses passive voice when he writes in 3rd person. One of the first writing tips you always hear is “don’t use passive voice.” This is SO wrong.

Many critics said he shouldn’t write 3rd person, it doesn’t suit his writing well. I think that’s bullocks. The way Murakami uses passive voice is on par with that of Salinger. He uses it strategically to do two things: bring you in and feel one with the main character while also making the character seem the passive actor when they THINK they are a passive actor themselves. When done right, as done here, you too feel passive and uncomfortable.

Second, Murakami opens his stories with interesting and seemingly unimportant info dumps that turn out to be the crux of the character’s second guessing their lives. Another crap piece of writing advice is “Never info dump at the start. Drop the reader into the action.” This too is bullocks. Badly done info dumps are just info dumps. But when done masterful, they play a different role.

Murakami doesn’t give you full names or explain the color of clothes characters are wearing or other unnecessary info. Instead, Murakami drops the reader in seemingly innocuous scenes where seemingly nothing is going on. Then, he peppers in seemingly inconsequential info about side characters and past incidents. But before the end of chapter 1 that ‘inconsequential’ info disappears into the background as the main character loses friends or what they thought was theirs. The character loses the very thing that was peppered in and disappears.

What does this do? This has the effect of creating the sensation of unconscious loss in the reader as well as the character. Rather than starting the story in action and giving you a reason for giving a damn later, Murakami gives you the reason for giving a damn without you knowing it and then SLAPS you with the action so that everyone feels the loss equally. This loss makes you keep reading.

Third, use of “negatives” in the narrative. A critique I get often is that “you can’t use too many negatives. Tell the reader what IS. Not what is NOT. By using negatives, you paint no picture for the reader.” When using negatives for negatives’ sake, you don’t paint a picture for the reader. What do I mean by negatives? Saying something was not red or not new instead of saying it was green or it was old. You paint no picture for the reader.

Murakami does something else. He paints an actual un-picture. Each time he uses a negative, it’s on purpose. And he does it in giant clusters. He paints an un-picture leaving a sense of emptiness in the reader and pointing out the loss the main character has up against. The first few chapters of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a great example of this.

This is the Murakami Code: the trifecta of passive voice, negatives, and “no immediate action.” This creates an overwhelming sensation of loss and disassociation with the reader as to set you up open up. It sets you up allow anything to fill that gap…even if it means walking into the absurd and insane. It allows Murakami to use magical realism in ways no other author does, by starting in reality and sliding you in so slowly but so mercilessly that you don’t know what hit you until you’ve already given in to the crazy creatures and absurdity of the storyline.

 

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki: A book review

My readers and friends know I’m a huge fan of Haruki Murakami. “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” is no exception.

This is Murakami’s second excursion (I think) into third person narrative (after “1Q84”). And I think he nails it again. As with “1Q84” breaking my psyche when I look into the sky and see only 1 moon peering back at me, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki (CTT) does similarly but differently.

Unlike his other work, CTT doesn’t include fantastical creatures that usually accompanies Murakami’s Magical Realism story lines. But, that’s not to say he doesn’t pull you into something deeply personal but manages to make it beautifully universal.

Like all Murakami’s stories, it’s tough to explain the plot without either giving the whole book away or sounding like a complete nut job with a hangover. But I think I can say without giving it away that CTT follows a middle aged man (as with most of Murakami’s stories) who believes himself to be one of the most worthless bag of bones around. Not in a “I hate myself” sort of way. Instead he does it in much more of a “I’m so average, so disappear-able, that I stand out about as much as a strand of hair on barber’s floor after a long day” sort of thing.

It’s a relatively short read compared to 1Q84 or Windup Bird Chronicle. Yet it drags you in immediately and I think the reasons are because of how he manipulates the reader. Which brings me to the most important part of reading CTT for me: the Murakami Code.

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been trying to crack the Murakami Code since I read Windup Bird Chronicle. The Murakami Code is a made up concept I came up with to describe the unknown writing methods Murakami uses to yank the reader in and toy with their mind in a way that I’ve never had another author do. And for 5 years, I struggled to find the answers to the Murakami Code. Reading this book, I think I’ve found it.

To breed anticipation, I’m holding back on telling you the secrets of the Murakami Code until a later post, a post on writing tips by way of the Murakami Code.

Back to CTT.

CTT keeps you reading. Not with action. Not with anticipation. Not with fancy words or colorful phrases…see what I did there? But with pure literary pull and with visceral need to learn about yourself and about Tsukuru Tazaki as he learns about himself through his, well, pilgrimage.

Murakami is one of the few authors I push on every reader and writer I come across. He’s also the one author I’ve found that people either adore for his Kafka-esque literary abilities. Or hate him for his drab, boring depictions of everyday life. For instance, Windup Bird Chronicle opens with the main character making pasta…that’s it. Just making pasta. But it makes you keep turning the page. Because a good writer can interest you in the most mundane.

When Murakami gets his Nobel Prize in Literature (and he will eventually), I will be proud to say, in true hipster style, I knew of his writing before he reached that pinnacle.

Wearable Books: tech helps you “feel” the character

Lets set aside the fact that the contraption you’d have to put yourself into looks like something crossed between a back brace and a torture device. Instead, we’ll get straight to the stupidity of this ingenious invention, the Wearable Book.

wearable-book
Wearable book: feel the emotions

Yes, in this day and age, “feeling the emotions of the characters you read” IS a good thing. These students’ heads were in the right place. Make books more enjoyable by increasing your sensations for the characters and the storyline. Problem here is the delivery.

Great books already make you FEEL THE CHARACTER without your having to attach a book to electrodes and techno-pychotropic machines. Haruki Murakami is someone I’ve mentioned before but he’s a prime example of “feeling the character”.

Once I put down a Murakami book, even after a chapter or two, I (and my wife when she reads him as well) am suddenly sucked into similar sensations as the main character. I can’t help but feel bad about myself if the character is down on himself, feel old if he feels old, feel confused if they are. Hell, 1Q84 STILL makes me question why in the world there aren’t two moons in the sky!!!! And to this day, thanks to Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I have a craving for lemon drops.

How does he do it?

Well, for starters, he didn’t pay extra for the snug outerwear and electrical chord. He wrote characters that made you feel them. He wrote scenes that don’t seem to move the story forward, or ANYWHERE for that matter, because they do something else. They make you question who YOU are. He makes you ACTUALLY FEEL what the character is feeling. He does it naturally and beautifully.

Sadly, his craft is so rare we feel the need to step outside the realm of beauty and words to find another way to “plug in.” I, for one, refuse. I’ve been trying to emulate Murakami’s ability since I stumbled upon him 5 years ago. Please, for the love of humanity, don’t  buy this gadget if it becomes available.