Notes on technique and feeling

As a writer, I take matters of style and technique as seriously as I think I should. I listen. I read. I review. I consider and reconsider.

But I am skeptical of all the capitalism deep inside the writing industry. So I sometimes don’t listen. Or read. I ignore. I dismiss and re-dismiss when I see writing advice re-tweeted.

But I did read a craft book by Douglas Glover and it helped. It’s called (ahem), “The Erotics of Restraint.” Subtitle: “Essays on Literary Form.” When I say it helped I mean one specific part of it helped. The very long but very good essay, “Anatomy of the Short Story.”

I review books, but this isn’t a review. These are notes. I am offering them willy-nilly, but sincerely, blog-style, for a reason. I often hear writing advice off-hand, or read something by chance that breaks open an idea about writing that I thought was solid and simple. But no. It needed breaking open within me. This essay by Glover did that for me. Many times.

So here are some very fragmented notes that I took while reading his essay. Everything below is from Glover, with a little bit of me musing, fiddling, sometimes exact quoting, sometimes not. I’m using these notes as I write my current novel. They’re liberating and instructive and I’m grateful I finally get to see so many aspects of structure large and small in these kinds of terms. Because Glover has explained a lot that I felt I was missing, for me.

But these notes are just notes. I cannot recommend more strongly that people go from here and read his actual (very long, but very useful) essay, in full. So, here are some notes, with immense thanks to Glover.

  • The details you choose form a structure (structural strategies, concealing the art behind a screen of apparently naturalistic details, which turn out to be a highly formal elaboration of finite elements).
  • You’re creating a complex system of contrasts to acquire meaning in excess of mere realistic description — to add a dimension of meaning not contained in the mere story.
  • There is a structural demand for contrast.
  • Employ “not/but” constructions within sentences to juxtapose contrasting ideas.
  • Solidarity between people is tentative and temporary.
  • Balance aphorism against/with antithesis.
  • Compose and delineate the opposites, show people as doubles with precise differences. This creates known experience, tension around the desire for closeness, feeling around moments of unity, then separation again. A rhythmic pattern of yearning and small loss after coming close.
  • Ethical and social norms (the self a socially constructed artifact), faddish ideas, local wisdom, customs and prejudice, people’s personalities, and their wants.
  • “Reality is an unstable article, not to be trusted.”
  • Stories are dramatic and drama requires conflict. Plot is basic backbone to accentuate this.
  • A plot is a desire conflicting with a resistance over and over.
  • Plot is the basis of form.
  • Repetition frames and constricts, forcing characters to reinvent and modulate according to one another to get what they desire.
  • Plot shifts reveal character over and over. (But not definitively toward a final judgement; toward multiplicity, even duplicity in some ways.)
  • Build and load meaning into repeated images and words by repetition to create new meanings and spark new significance by attaching them to important backstory or a thematic passage
  • Load images with meaning by direct links to characters or specific thematic elements, or do so indirectly by juxtaposition or light association.
  • Elaborate on this using branch patterns.
  • The patterns can also contrast (colors of black and white, word choices like military language linked to a character, nature motifs, water, animals, food motifs, religion, sex, safety, danger, etc.)
  • “It reminds him/It reminded her…” to establish associations.
  • Images/motifs can speak to motivations and themes directly and indirectly.
  • The POV character tells one story while the image pattern tells another (or offers depth as a corollary layer).
  • Subtext can be (if possible) a level of finality that exists that the characters have not yet acknowledged and moved into. (Kind of terrifying! But real.)
  • The ways – the how – people get along “primarily by joking, ignoring,” and myriad other routes to maintain a peace.
  • Images can be linked by traits, such as, “Like Dierdre, Max avoided conflict.” and should be strengthened by parallel action (and maybe lack of motivation — “just passing the time”) what Glover calls homology pinned down by memes.

2 thoughts on “Notes on technique and feeling

  1. Doug’s advice when he first invited me to review for Numero Cinq has formed all that I put into writing and editing critical reviews. His writing about fiction terrifies me and reminds me why I am not a fiction writer—it seems like too much work to make up a story and then worry about how you tell it—but if I should ever be so inspired, his essays about writing would be the first I’d turn to!

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    • Reading his essays on fiction really took me back to my time in grad school. Except Glover articulates very specific things that each sentence can do and *why* they should do certain things to achieve specific aims within a story. That is something I never heard articulated in grad school, either because our professors thought we already knew these things, or because they thought we would gain this knowledge intuitively over time as writers and readers. I know I needed it spelled out in the way Glover has, and it’s been a re-education as I write and revise my fiction.

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