Friday, June 30, 2017

Examining Styles - Symbols and Allegories

A few weeks ago, I talked about purple prose as a style. I also said I’d have a few more posts examining style. Well, here’s one of those so that’s fun. Today, I’m going to look at two very similar writing choices which can affect the style of your writing.

One of them, I write very often, one I’ve never written and never intend to (as a personal choice more than anything else).
Symbolism and allegory.

The Power of a Symbol

I’ve written a post before about symbols, but I wanted to take the time to address them here, since they’re a valuable stylistic choice. They can strongly affect the choices you make in your writing, and can produce very strong emotion in the readers who understand their meaning.

One of the most important parts of writing symbolism is this: not every reader will understand, and that’s okay. Symbolism is a background style. It’s almost subliminal. Not everyone will understand because not everyone pays attention to symbolism. Some symbols will pass over the heads of some people.
And that’s okay.
As a writer, you have to accept that not everyone is paying enough attention to catch all the nuances you write. Even you. I’ve had beta readers point out symbolism I didn’t intend to write, but they still found it. Once I knew it was there, I made sure that I was writing it well and that it came out in a way that fit the themes of my writing.

While symbolism can be powerful, presentation is everything. A forced symbol isn’t a symbol at all. If you write something purely as a symbol pointing to something else, then it has no meaning. It’s a cardboard cutout. That cardboard cutout of Ron Swanson isn’t actually Ron Swanson. It symbolizes him, but it’s not very good at being the real Ron Swanson.
In writing, it is always best to use symbols that come naturally to the story. For instance, in Lord of the Rings the ring itself symbolizes many things to many people. These things come from individual people and no two people have the exact feelings on the meaning of the ring.
It’s a natural consequence of how Tolkien wrote the story.
Personally, I don’t think he wrote the ring to intentionally inspire one or two specific themes. He wrote it as a ring of terrible power, and let every reader decide for themselves what that power meant to them.

That is a strong symbol.
All of the strongest symbols in literature are vague. They’re present just enough to make the reader think and draw their own conclusions. The weakest symbols are specific, overdramatized, and pointed out time and time again in the narrative until they lose all meaning and relatability.

Allegory: A Strong Weakness

Personally, I never write allegory. I don’t want to. It’s not that I hate allegory, I just find no draw to writing it myself. Writing an allegory well takes a lot of work, work I’m not particularly drawn to. If you are, great.
Go you.
Just… do it right, yeah?

Since I don’t personally write allegory, I don’t have a lot of tips for writing it well. As an avid reader, however, I do know many ways in which allegory does not work well from the eyes of the reader (and I’ve read many of them).
Most allegories are religious in nature (for instance, Chuck Black is a highly lauded Christian Allegory writer). They’re written to point toward a religious narrative, or some other narrative outside their own.

One of the strengths of allegory is this: theme plays a huge role. Readers of allegory are supposed to come away having learned about something outside of your own work. They’re anticipating it, if they know ahead of time that your work is allegory.
Allegory primes the reader to learn.
This is attractive to those who mainly want their story to teach. Allegory attempts to use entertainment as a medium for message-spreading. This can be both good and bad, depending on how it is done.

The weakness of allegory is this: agenda can quickly overcome story in the order of importance. Now, I realize “agenda” is a hyper-charged word in today’s world, but it’s the honest word for this situation. Allegory wants learning to occur, and a very specific sort of learning.
Any other message is unimportant to allegory.
One side has to be correct and the others wrong.
The reader must agree with the writer.

And there is the weakness. When allegory focuses too much on the message, the story is set aside. It’s secondary, which is never a good idea in books. The moment the reader disagrees with the message behind the allegory, the story no longer matters.
That’s the danger of allegory.

Using Symbols and Allegories

Am I saying you should never write allegory and just write symbolism?

There is a time and place for allegory. It may be a limited time and place, but it does exist and allegory can be there to fill that time and place.
Much the same, there are times when symbolism can be distracting from the story, especially when it’s supposed to be the focal point of the story.

These stylistic choices can provide strength to your story, or weakness. The point is not to avoid them for fear of the weaknesses, but to write them in the hope that the strength comes through, and to work at them until that hope becomes a reality.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Words of a Waiting Writer

Last week, I attended a writer’s workshop in Olathe, Kansas, held by Daniel Schwabauer under the title “One Year Adventure Novel Summer Workshop”. As I write this, it’s Monday morning and I’m not sure what I’m doing with my life.

Except that maybe I do.

I’m waiting.

The Words

This is the first time I’ve written something for almost ten days, which is weird to think about when you consider what I was doing for the last week. Nonetheless, I’m here writing for the first time in quite a while, and it feels good. It feels good to write.
That’s something I haven’t felt in a while.
Sometimes, writing is hard.
 Very hard.
This is the third time I’ve gone to this workshop, and then third time that it’s changed me deeply as a person. At this workshop, it’s more than just networking and listening to lectures on the writing craft.
Sure, it is for those things, but it’s also for a lot more of that. Many of my best friends attend this workshop, friends who I only see a few times a year because they live in different states or different countries.
Each year, I’m changed by the conversations I have and the things I hear. The words of others change me, shape me, mold me. That’s a powerful thing. Words have the strongest affect here, when the people speaking them deal in them for a living. This workshop is full of people who understand the power of words and who attempt to use them to their full power.

The Waiting

For the last month or so, I’ve been waiting on a lot of things. Waiting on information from my college about next year (classes, financial aid, the rooming situation, etc.), waiting on potential employers to call me back about jobs, waiting on my writing to take off, waiting for productivity to slap me in the face.
I go to this writer’s workshop. I didn’t expect a writer’s workshop to encourage me in waiting for things that were not writing, but guess what Tuesday’s keynote speech was on?

You got me there, Mr. Speaker.
Going to this workshop reminded me of what I was waiting for, why I was waiting, and it gently slapped me in the face with the correct way of waiting. Waiting isn’t passive, it’s active. It’s not impatient and it’s not passive.

I dislike waiting. I’d prefer to just not wait, if that’s fine with everyone else in the universe. What if I didn’t have to wait?
Well, I do.
Thanks to this workshop, I’m remembering how.

The Writer

I always come back from this workshop with a sense of what I want to be as a writer. This year is no different from the last two. I learned a lot, and I took pages and pages of notes. The speakers reaffirmed things I already knew and they expounded on knowledge I thought was the furthest reaches on the subject.
In the last ten days, I’ve grown as a writer.

That’s a weird feeling. It’s weird to feel growth in such a short period of time.
But it is good.
And now… now I’m going to write.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Examining Styles – Purple Prose

For the next few blog posts, I’m going to be writing short posts about different styles and their strengths and witnesses.
They’re going to be short, because I don’t have a lot of time right now.
And they’re about style because style sells the novel. Sure, story is the most important thing in writing, but, but style pulls the reader in, or makes them put the book down.

Before Examination

Before I begin to examine today’s style, I’d like to note a few things: first off, it’s okay to ignore style sometimes. For instance, rough drafts are a great time to not give a crap about style. Rough drafts are about getting the story into words and out of your brain. Once it’s out, you can fiddle with it to your hearts content. No questions asked.
If you wait for the style to be perfect, you’re never going to get the story written.

In addition, it’s also okay to ignore style very late editing. When you’ve already gone through three or four drafts and you’re down to spelling errors and accidental name switches, style isn’t really important.

So when is style important?
Style is important in two places: conceptions and editing. In conception, style gives you the building blocks upon which you write your story. Knowing the basics of how you want to write your story gives you a baseline of how the prose comes out as your write. It allows you to unconsciously assume that style for your story.
In editing, style provides a key foundation for word choice, sentence structure, and prose flow. Depending on how your style works, some words and sentence styles may or may not be appropriate. Knowing what kind of style you want to write provides a structure around which you can build your prose.

Style One: Purple Prose

We’ve all heard of this one. For most of us, we heard it and then shudder.
No one likes purple prose.

Or do they?
Purple prose, in short, is prose that relies heavily on excessive description and hefty word choice. One of the most obvious examples that comes to my mind is The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Other examples such as A Tale of Two Cities, and other classics, could be considered purple prose at times.
You’ll notice that both of those book are famous books, and both are heralded as excellent (at least by many). And both have purple prose.

If we’re reluctant to think of purple prose as a good thing, why do we enjoy books that use it? And why should we, as writers, seriously consider using it as a style for our own books?

Purple Prose: The Cons

Before we get to the positives of purple prose, I want to discuss why we hate purple prose. Many people find The Scarlet Letter boring. My older sister and I have both read it, and she hated it. I thought it was kind of dry, but still well written.
Purple prose is boring to unengaged contemporary readers. Two hundred years ago, purple prose was all that people had to read, and so they enjoyed it. Most of the words used in purple prose are archaic, now. Modern readers prefer quick descriptions that paint a moving image, rather than in-depth descriptions that paint a portrait.
If done wrong, or done too heavy-handed, purple prose pulls the reader out of the story and causes them to disengage. That’s never a good thing.

Purple Prose is enjoyed by a select audience. I’m not saying that only a few people enjoy books with purple prose and that no one from any other demographic will like those books, but there is a niche market for purple prose styles. You’re going to pull in people who love to read for reading, but not really anyone else. Sure, others may still read your book, but it won’t be for the style. It will be for the plot or the characters, the prose will just be a nuisance to those readers.
But for the readers who love to read, your book will be a masterpiece the look back on fondly.

Purple Prose: The Pros

Why should you write using purple prose?
Purple prose allows the author to explore concepts deeply. Can you spend a chapter describing one character? With purple prose, I don’t see why not. Can you open your book with a description of a rose bush and describe it in such a way that literature experts spend decades trying to decide what the symbolism is? With purple prose, I don’t see why not.

Purple prose paints wonderful portraits. Some of my favorite descriptions come from heavy-handed books written in purple prose. With the freedom to describe whatever you want for however you want, you can paint scenes your readers will never forget.
Now, this isn’t to say you can just spend your whole book describing. Plot and characters and theme are still vital to a good book. However, purple prose allows you the freedom to describe things in ways other styles may not allow.

The Book and the Style

One must always consider the target audience and the genre when picking style.
For instance, purple prose is rarely found in books targeted at YA or younger. Almost always is it in adult fiction. In addition, most purple prose is found in historical fiction or contemporary fiction. Does this mean you can never write a fantasy for YA with purple prose? No, it does not. It does mean, however, that you have to be much, much more careful.
Those YA folks don’t take to kindly to an excessive number of words.

Purple prose can be a hard thing to master. Done right, however, it can paint pictures in the reader’s mind that they will not soon forget.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: there will be no blog post next week, since I will be at a writing conference the whole week and won’t have time to write a blog post (funny how that works). The week after, I’ll post about my experience, and then the week after that I’ll resume posting about styles.