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Between the Lines

     Long time listener, first time poster, so God help us all.

     It's been an interesting week for email: See
my Crimespace...space.

     I often get questions about writing and publishing from aspiring authors, but this week I got two emails inquiring about "subtext." And then, by coincidence, some nitwit posted to the Mary Renault community with a "review" about
The Charioteer. 

     If I had to pick one book that most strongly influenced me--both my writing and my thoughts--it would likely be The Charioteer. So, needless to say, I was skeptical of this post:

     I wasn’t very much impressed by The Charioteer, yet I am glad I’ve read it. I wasn’t impressed most probably because aside from Aesopian language, no literary instruments were used; much to my disappointment I haven’t found any metaphors or subtexts. There were a few attempts at grotesque but I am not sure they were successful. The language was quite perfect, though; I especially liked long sentences with tricky punctuation. I learned something, which is always good. But, on the other hand, the beauty of the language made the novel somewhat worse… I think it’s a psychological thing that you want a beautiful thing on the outside to be as beautiful inside.

    Talk about pretentious.
 
    Since The Charioteer is laden with subtext, I'm going to guess that the poster either doesn't understand what subtext is, or, more likely, was one of those attention-craving types. The line about being disappointed in the lack of literary instruments is sheer brilliance. (Truthfully, the entire post was designed to get fans of Renault worked up, but it's a good opening given the other two emails I received.)

     Subtext is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as:
  1. The implicit meaning or theme of a literary text.
  2. The underlying personality of a dramatic character as implied or indicated by a script or text and interpreted by an actor in performance.

     I've been reading a lot of amateur writing lately. By which I mean, unpublished writing, because some of it is quite good and could conceivably be published at some point (and, yes, I'm talking about that unique artform known as fan fiction). One weakness I see again and again is that new writers explain too much. They give too much detail, leaving little or nothing for the reader to interpret.

    Too much information.

     It's more interesting--and powerful--to let the reader do some of the work. To scatter the clues through gesture and cadence and dialog, rather than exposition. Exposition is ideally used to cover a lot of ground quickly or to explain that which would be really difficult for the reader to grasp on his own.

     But instead you get this kind of thing:

     Frank thought Joe was a riot. His mouth curled with amusement at Joe's joke. "Funny," he murmured.
     I mean, how many times do we need to be told the obvious? How about,
Frank's mouth curled. "Funny," he murmured.

     We're basically getting the same thing, aren't we? And it requires the reader pay closer attention, which is always what we hope for.

     Anyway, back to subtext.

     I think one way to define subtext is the play within the play. For example, I wrote a little scene about two guys hanging Christmas tree lights. The guys are in love, but one guy is closeted, and one guy is not, and this is a increasingly serious problem for them. So the one guy asks the other guy if he'll attend this wedding with him. He rarely asks for anything, so it's going to be sensitive. And the other guy really doesn't want to do it, but doesn't want to refuse, either.

     I offer this bit from THE HELL YOU SAY as an example because this was the scene my first reader asked about: how did I convey the underlying tension in the scene--what did I do? So you tell me. What did I do? How did I do it? The tension is there--the reader picked it up--but at no time do I state there is tension between them.
    
          
He had already managed to string the lights all along the back partition of the shop. I dug fake pine garland out of the dusty cardboard boxes and draped it artistically over the faux fireplace.
           We worked for long companionable minutes. No mention of his case load, no mention of my straying off the reservation. The music filled in the silence.
           “Rufus Wainwright?” he inquired when the song “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” whispered through the canyon of bookshelves.
           “Yeah.”
           He grunted disapprovingly.
          
“Hey, you think you’d want to go to this wedding?” I asked casually. “I could use the moral support.”
          
He didn’t speak for a moment. I couldn’t see his profile; the upper half of his body was in shadow.
          
I qualified hastily, “I mean, as a regular guest. As a friend of Lisa’s.” Meaning not as my personal guest, meaning his cover would not be compromised.
          
“Uh, sure,” he said vaguely. “I could do that.” He glanced back at me. “How does this look?”
           
“Great.”
           
He tossed me the extension cord. “Try plugging that in.”
            
I found the wall socket behind the tall mahogany counter which had once served as the hotel’s front desk. I guided the prongs into the wall socket and felt a weird rippling jolt wash through my body. The cord dropped out of my hand though I don’t think I consciously moved my fingers.


    My thought is, if you're going to use dialog tags and stage business (gestures and mannerisms) then they need to be done sparingly, and every one needs to count. No look should be exchanged simply because you think it's time in a scene for the characters to look at each other.



Comments

( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
byslantedlight
May. 12th, 2007 10:46 pm (UTC)
Welcome to your first post on lj - and all who sail in her...

I've got to admit that it's many many years since I read any Renault, but "fanfic" is a different thing (is it safe to confess that here? Feel free to drum me off your comments if I'm hanging in the wrong sort of crowd *g*). There is an awful lot of spelling-out, and hammering-in, but I guess that's why we're a largely unpublished bunch... *g*

And it's complicated again sometimes by the fact that our "editors" are mostly amateurs too - and you generally have to be pretty confident yourself to argue effectively with them. I've been adamantly told that, since the beta didn't understand it, no one else would understand a particular point without various explanations either. Feeling this would deaden the story, I checked with half a dozen other people - who all "got" the point without explanation, and argued back. Never did convince her, but I think there's alot of new writers who'd never get to the arguing point in the first place, but just do as they're told. Bumpy wheels within bumpy wheels...

I wonder if that sort of thing happens alot to Pro writers when they set out with an agent/publisher/editor? Not that I can think of any right now, but I'm sure I've heard of very well-respected writers who weren't published for many years, because the individuals they first came across in the publishing world didn't get their writing, their subtext, their work... (Mind you, I guess that's the aspiring writer's cry, no matter what!)
jgraeme2007
May. 12th, 2007 11:20 pm (UTC)
Who do you trust?
"but "fanfic" is a different thing (is it safe to confess that here? Feel free to drum me off your comments if I'm hanging in the wrong sort of crowd *g*)."

Hey, Slanted Light, you're always welcome. And anything that distracts me from the WIP is to be grabbed with both hands and hugged tightly.

I think I follow why you feel fanfic is a different thing--exposition is almost required part of the art form, isn't it? But the more I read--and I read quite a bit this week--the more I think that filling in the backstory (at least) is largely unnecessary. Because you're mostly telling the tale to a group of initiates.

But then again, like in any oral tradition, relating the backstory for the audience is part of the shared pleasure.

Of course I haven't seen this much unpublished work for a long time, so I'm probably stating the obvious here.

There's a relatively small but impressive collection of Renault fan fic, and I've been reading that as well as the Pros. In both fanons (did I use that word correctly?) some of the writing is quite lyrical--to the point that I find myself envying the occasional image or turn of phrase.

Of course there's a lot more Pros stuff than Renault stuff, although I gather Pros is a comparatively small community, so there's a lot more good and bad to consider.

Your point about qualified editors is a great one, and I think you've given me another post topic for next time, because that's crucial to learning--getting the right feedback.

I think it's difficult in a small community, too, because it is all for fun -- and shared love -- and folks know each other, and who wants to hurt someone's feelings?

And not everyone necessarily wants to kill themselves working at her writing, and writing is hellishly hard. Good writing, I mean. One of the hardest things is to give meaningful constructive criticism--especially to a writer who is really, really raw.

If you say too much you're liable to overwhelm, but if you let bad habits become ingrained, they're hard to shake.

"(Mind you, I guess that's the aspiring writer's cry, no matter what!)"

Boy, isn't that the truth. The trick is in knowing when it's time to rewrite or whether you need to stay true to your own inner voice--and unfortunately, learning that generally only comes with time and experience.
byslantedlight
May. 13th, 2007 12:14 am (UTC)
Re: Who do you trust?
you're always welcome. And anything that distracts me from the WIP is to be grabbed with both hands and hugged tightly
Thank you! And yeah, I have a WIP that I've not even started yet, lj is excellent awful for those... *g*

think I follow why you feel fanfic is a different thing--exposition is almost required part of the art form, isn't it?
Uh-oh, Bad Writing Example #1 - what I meant was that while I hadn't read much Renault recently, I had read an awful lot of Pros fic!

That said, I totally agree with you about exposition in fanfic, and I suspect most fans would. The exception is probably "fannish butterflies" who flit between fandoms and apparently write fanfic without ever seeing the original canon programmes - basing it on other fans' writing (on fanon rather than canon!) which I suspect results in some of the more "interesting" characterisations in Pros. *g* Wadges of exposition would actually help them, if they're not getting the information from anywhere else.

I catch glimpses of debates in fandom generally of how much exposition to include, and get the impression that "canon fans" tend to vastly prefer the less-is-more approach. I tend to assume that people I'm talking with/writing for etc know the eps at least nearly inside out, and partly cos I'm not big on repetition either, and, as you say, for most fans that's what exposition really is...

In both fanons (did I use that word correctly?)
As far as I know! I'd better confess right now that I only pay attention to Pros as a fandom, so what I pick up as context around that is generally fairly narrowly focussed. (Though luckily I have some much more fandom-aware friends who help out) And I gather there's debate about the exact definitions of "fanon" and "canon" in fandom in any case, depending on your fandom...

some of the writing is quite lyrical
I'm continually being impressed by the writing in Pros. I gather that, as a fandom, it has a reputation for the high quality of its writing - though I've not read much outside, the little I have seen makes me very proud of Pros writers! Of course it has its fair share of the other too...*g*

although I gather Pros is a comparatively small community
A small community, but a very long-lived one! I believe that it was one of the first fandoms, and I'm told it was the first fandom to begin as a slash rather than "gen" fandom... People have been writing Pros slash since the show was first transmitted (30 December 1977), so there's a fair old body of work built up! Alot of it is available in the various online archives, but there are hundreds and possibly thousands of stories that are paper-only, either published in the zines, or on either the UK or American "paper circuits".

...editors...I think you've given me another post topic for next time
Oh excellent, I shall watch out for it!

I think it's difficult in a small community, too, because it is all for fun -- and shared love
True enough... It does happen mind, that people have had their feelings hurt, and even stopped writing after various community faffs, but the community as a whole seems to hold out above all individuals - so far! (*touches wood*)

And not everyone necessarily wants to kill themselves working at her writing, and writing is hellishly hard.
Yeah, I think alot of the time people are focussing on their love of imagining new stories for their characters, and the writing itself is very secondary to that. Which is technically fine, cos it's fandom and it's about the love, but of course people being people not everyone agrees with that either...

If you say too much you're liable to overwhelm, but if you let bad habits become ingrained, they're hard to shake.
Exactly... there's got to be balance in there somewhere. I guess fan fic maybe has an advantage there, because if people aren't writing to be eventually published (though of course some fanfic writers would like to be) then in the overall scheme of things it doesn't matter if they're not technically perfect. Sacrilige to writing/writers in general that, I know, but ultimately true all the same... at least imho. *g*
jgraeme2007
May. 13th, 2007 04:57 am (UTC)
Re: Who do you trust?
"Exactly... there's got to be balance in there somewhere. I guess fan fic maybe has an advantage there, because if people aren't writing to be eventually published (though of course some fanfic writers would like to be) then in the overall scheme of things it doesn't matter if they're not technically perfect. Sacrilige to writing/writers in general that, I know, but ultimately true all the same... at least imho. *g* "

Absolutely. Understanding why you're writing is as important, in my opinion, as figuring out who your audience is.

It's fine to write for your own private pleasure, or for the pleasure of interaction within a community like Pros. I think frustration arises when writers decide to make the jump to "professional," but want to retain the complete control they had when they were writing for their own amusement.

At least that's been my experience in online and real life writing groups.
my_cnnr
May. 13th, 2007 07:47 am (UTC)
it 3 a.m, and I've just returned from nitwit chasing...came by to give you an inaugural post *squish* , and tell you how glad trueriver and I are that you joined LJ, and our comm...we were hoping you'd stay on after the cbc, and now - look!..you have a post!

and so it begins.....
jgraeme2007
May. 13th, 2007 03:47 pm (UTC)
Staying on
Hey, I love the Renault community. I love the fact that things are actually discussed--in depth--and yet civilly. That everyone's mind really does seem to be open to another perspective. Okay, maybe not the nitwit perspective, but I don't think that was for real, anyway.

The community discussions really aided my understanding and appreciation of The Charioteer.

I fully intend to hang out--and chime in. Although the Renault work I know and love best is The Charioteer.

I don't know how faithful I'll be posting to my OWN journal, but it's nice to have the option.
trueriver
May. 13th, 2007 02:50 pm (UTC)
I thought I'd stop by and say hello!

Aah, subtext - one of the things that makes reading, for me, such a rich and enjoyable experience. I like the suggestiveness and the suppressed desire in:

“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” whispered through the canyon of bookshelves.
“Yeah.”
He grunted disapprovingly.
“Hey, you think you’d want to go to this wedding?” I asked casually. “I could use the moral support.”
He didn’t speak for a moment. I couldn’t see his profile; the upper half of his body was in shadow.
I qualified hastily, “I mean, as a regular guest. As a friend of Lisa’s.” Meaning not as my personal guest, meaning his cover would not be compromised.
“Uh, sure,” he said vaguely. “I could do that.” He glanced back at me. “How does this look?”
“Great.”
He tossed me the extension cord. “Try plugging that in.”


LOL - That was fun! :)
jgraeme2007
May. 13th, 2007 04:45 pm (UTC)
"LOL - That was fun! :)"

Yes, and you're an expert at this game! You're own work is rich in subtext.
trueriver
May. 13th, 2007 05:09 pm (UTC)
Oh thank you! Writing TC fic is a really pleasurable thing to do. My own novel is a rather different matter and I write and rewrite and research and experiment, yet it's very close to my heart as well, and rewarding even if I get one sentence RIGHT! I do want to give more time to it, but the boys are just so interesting ;)
jgraeme2007
May. 14th, 2007 03:59 am (UTC)
Your Own Novel
My own novel is a rather different matter and I write and rewrite and research and experiment, yet it's very close to my heart as well, and rewarding even if I get one sentence RIGHT!

Are you working on a novel? How did I miss that? What's it about? Or is that something you prefer not to discuss in public?
trueriver
May. 14th, 2007 04:53 pm (UTC)
Re: Your Own Novel
It's a medieval AU - I won't go into the plot right here, just to say it features a love story between a sexy knight and a beautiful boy! :)
jgraeme2007
May. 14th, 2007 05:39 pm (UTC)
Re: Your Own Novel
Sounds promising. Medieval times practically are AU aren't they? Sexy knights and beautiful boys works for me. Have you read a novel called WHITE ROSE OF NIGHT?

Speaking of Medieval times, is there any info as to what Renault was working on at the time of her death--beyond that it was set in Medieval times?
trueriver
May. 14th, 2007 06:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Your Own Novel
Yes, I've read that we re-create the medieval ideal for our own times - I certainly do - it's a time that's had a spell on me ever since I can remember...

I've not heard of the White Rose of Night - I just did a quick search but nothing came up under that name - please tell me more... :)

And as for Renault's last project, I only know what I've read in the Sweetman biography, and that she asked Julie to destroy the manuscript. It's about the Hospitallers, though you probably know as much as I do. I'm intensely interested in this and often wonder what her storyline was, needless to say!

Here's a little Alfred Gilbert knight to decorate your new lj!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
jgraeme2007
May. 14th, 2007 06:22 pm (UTC)
White Rose of Night
I've not heard of the White Rose of Night - I just did a quick search but nothing came up under that name - please tell me more... :)

From Amazon: "Very sexy story set in the Crusades. Gorgeous characters, sweet love and hot sex." It's by Mel Keegan -- I think you can now buy directly from his website. I read it years ago and enjoyed it. I think I wanted more battles and a little less introspection, but that's just me.

Here's a little Alfred Gilbert knight to decorate your new lj!

Lovely. I really need to figure out all the whistles and bells at lj. I just jumped in and started posting. Nothing like making it up as you go.

trueriver
May. 15th, 2007 08:41 am (UTC)
Re: White Rose of Night
Oooh, thanks, that looks verrry interesting! I love putting pics in my lj - though my_cnnr is the expert and taught me practically everything! :)
noblesentiments
May. 13th, 2007 08:59 pm (UTC)
Hello! (skids to a halt and looks around) .......I thought I'd been looking through the keyhole long enough and it was about time I knocked on the door and introduced myself. Seriously, I just wanted to say how interesting your comments were...... and if I'm being totally honest I'd also have to say I'm actually ashamed because I've been strugging for years to try and put into words why I think 'grown-up' writing i.e. something written by grownups for grownups is the best way to write and there, you've done it for me. Just like that:

It's more interesting--and powerful--to let the reader do some of the work. To scatter the clues through gesture and cadence and dialog, rather than exposition. Exposition is ideally used to cover a lot of ground quickly or to explain that which would be really difficult for the reader to grasp on his own.

Exactly. And I think the best (or my favourite) writers do that i.e. they leave something to the imagination of the reader, almost 'kindling' or stimulating the mind, rather than unnecessarily stuffing it with the obvious. I want to be flattered by the writer....I want my intelligence assumed and not to be a totally passive participant in the whole reading/writing process.

There was an interesting article in The Guardian Review ages ago and I wouldn't wish the length of it upon *anyone*, but as far as I could understand it the gist of a part of it was that the process of writing was a "two-way street" in that not only does "ideal" writing have certain duties towards the readership: "the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world" but equally the "ideal reader", just as much, needs to work at *their* end of the process, to have a certain talent of their own......."The ideal reader steps up to the plate of the writer's style so that together writer and reader might hit the ball out of the park" - I like to think this means something along the lines that (ideally) the reader should possess a literary imagination which is equal to that of the writer and I think this can only really happen if we have the kind of writing you've described above. (Sorry to ramble, but it's exciting to find someone who can express so well what I can only see vaguely in my mind).

This is the link, if you're interested, but it is a bit long.....

http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,,1989004,00.html#article_continue.

And sub-text. Another tool in my armory of literary analysis. I'm trying to understand how one goes about literary analysis and this is helpful i.e. to articulate why I like or dislike a story.

Thanks *so* much for this interesting post. I really hope it's the first of many!
(Deleted comment)
jgraeme2007
May. 14th, 2007 04:36 am (UTC)






Hey, noblesentiments. Nice of you to join the conversation.

I want to be flattered by the writer....I want my intelligence assumed and not to be a totally passive participant in the whole reading/writing process.

Me too. And I dislike the currently popular idea that we (writers) need to dumb down our work to reach the widest popular audience. I don't want to write dumb--I don't like to read dumb. And I suspect that readers who can't follow what I'm trying to say, won't have a lot more luck even if I did dumb myself down.

Not that what I'm writing qualifies as deeeeeeep thoughts, but I rely on a certain level of...sophistication from my readers.

And I think the best (or my favourite) writers do that i.e. they leave something to the imagination of the reader, almost 'kindling' or stimulating the mind, rather than unnecessarily stuffing it with the obvious.

We're in agreement here. If I write: "John hung his jacket on the hook beside the door," every single reader will picture a different John, jacket, hook and door. And unless it's somehow crucial to the story--or important to the writer that you see John, the jacket, the hook and the door a particular way--it's usually better to allow the reader that freedom. At least...my thought is too much unnecessary detail detracts from the important stuff--and I think new writers often get hung up on the unnecessary details.

"The ideal reader steps up to the plate of the writer's style so that together writer and reader might hit the ball out of the park" - I like to think this means something along the lines that (ideally) the reader should possess a literary imagination which is equal to that of the writer and I think this can only really happen if we have the kind of writing you've described above.

I want to read that article. Thanks for the link.

Slightly off on a tangent here, but I read another article lately about the fact that by trying to homogenize our writing so that it will sort of appeal to everyone, we limit our potential for loyal and passionate readership--because in the attempt to please everyone, we satisfy no one completely.

Thanks *so* much for this interesting post. I really hope it's the first of many!

Thank you. I'm definitely being humored here by all of you, I think. ;-) But I appreciate it. I like the idea of a forum where I can blether on about...whatever...and not try everyone's patience by being drastically off-topic.

And you've all given me ideas for future entries, so that's kind of cool.
noblesentiments
May. 15th, 2007 02:55 pm (UTC)

Slightly off on a tangent here, but I read another article lately about the fact that by trying to homogenize our writing so that it will sort of appeal to everyone, we limit our potential for loyal and passionate readership--because in the attempt to please everyone, we satisfy no one completely.

Yup. I'm sure if you're true to yourself - as a writer - and write from the heart that will be evident to the reader and you'll write all the better for it. And I'm sure you've got to be slightly in love with what you're writing otherwise the whole activity would be just too hard.

Thank you. I'm definitely being humored here by all of you, I think. ;-) But I appreciate it.

No way! Life's too short to be *that* altruistic. It's just so nice to get a breath of fresh air into fandom, a new perspective on things, new questions and discussions etc. new blood makes fandom thrive, grow and survive, I suppose? God, it all sounds a bit organic, doesn't it?

I like the idea of a forum where I can blether on about...whatever...and not try everyone's patience by being drastically off-topic.And you've all given me ideas for future entries, so that's kind of cool.

I'm so pleased! I look forward to reading them, if I may.

noblesentiments
May. 15th, 2007 02:56 pm (UTC)
.....when I wrote 'true to yourself as a writer.....' I meant the generic 'you' - nothing personal(!)
jgraeme2007
May. 15th, 2007 03:18 pm (UTC)
What the -- ?!
.....when I wrote 'true to yourself as a writer.....' I meant the generic 'you' - nothing personal(!)

Hey, yeah. That's right! What's that supposed to mean?! Did she just diss me? ME?

(Not to worry.)
(Deleted comment)
jgraeme2007
May. 16th, 2007 12:39 am (UTC)
Re: What the -- ?!
No, no. You read me right. Totally kidding. Believe me, anytime I resort to all caps, my tongue is firmly in cheek. Or at least 99% of the time.
shooting2kill
May. 16th, 2007 12:25 am (UTC)
Re: What the -- ?!
When I first read your reply I thought you were joking, now I've read it a couple more times (and saw the heading) I'm thinking, oh! I hope I haven't offended you in any way......it's not always easy to tell if you don't actually know the person. And I think maybe it's possible to forget that us, non-writers, are a bit clumsy in the *way* we express themselves - it doesn't come easy - but this is what I was trying to say: I'm sure if writers (generally) are true to themselves and write from the heart it will be evident to the reader and they will write all the better for it. And I'm sure a writer has to be slightly in love with what he or she is writing about otherwise the whole activity would be just too hard (for the writer). I hope you *were* joking and didn't think I was referring to your work and I apologise if you thought I was.
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