Thursday, February 11, 2010

Spelling Out the Specification Experiment

Last week I posted an extremely goofy video of myself performing a series of actions, and then I invited readers to write a sentence describing what happened in the video, and to post that sentence in the comments. This is the online version of an exercise I do as part of my Voice talk at writers' retreats: I go through those actions in person (the sequence has been different every time, but it's always included at least one bizarre facial expression), then invite attendees to write a sentence and share it.

And the rationale for it? Everyone is looking at the same object, or in this case, series of objects--the objects being my actions and facial expressions. But everyone describes the objects differently. (I would have said, for instance, "Cheryl blinked twice, put her hand to her head, turned to the right, tilted back to blow a kiss, then suddenly snarled at the screen," which is not a sentence you'll find anywhere in the comments--though AJ, who posted his/her entry after I drafted my own version for this post, came very close.) My original idea in including this exercise in the talk had been that everyone would use essentially the same words in the sentence (because, I thought, there are only so many synonyms for "blinked"), but we'd all have different rhythms and combinations of those words, and it would be interesting to hear the variance. And once everyone had heard all the different ways one thing could be described, we could go on and talk about the different strengths of each approach, and which one was most appropriate for which kind of story.

So I was surprised--quite foolishly, in retrospect--the first time I did the talk, when, in a roomful of ten writers, only two of them specifically described the series of actions that I completed. Instead, the other eight created narratives that provided context for those actions: that I turned into a robot (since that sequence involved "boop-booping," rather than snarling), that there was something psychedelic in the tea I sipped. This sort of defeated the point of the exercise as I'd envisioned it, since all eight writers were in different narrative universes, each one equally valid but none of them particularly comparable. But that ended up being interesting in another way, for what it revealed about their individual imaginations and how they'd spin a world out of a scene. I intended this exercise to show the rhythm and word choice aspects of voice; instead, it highlighted the subject and form bits, which directions an individual writer's brain might naturally run and how he or she would shape those directions into a story.

So, looking through the sixty-odd responses to that post at the time I'm writing this, the narrative answers seem to be beating the observational or literal ones three to one. The patterns in the common narrative responses fascinate me. . . . Quite a few people identify me as an editor and create narratives that involve my responding to manuscripts -- which makes perfect sense, of course; most of you readers know me solely as an editor, and as such, my responding-to-manuscripts function might loom large in your brains. (Those answers startled me a bit, though, just because I don't personally look at a picture of myself and think "editor" first thing; it's odd to hear myself named as that foremost.) Many of you thought of vampires, which is also understandable; I wonder if ten years ago, when the fanged ones weren't so omnipresent in pop culture, more of you would have described my final snarl as a wildcat's or a rabid dog's or something instead. A couple of people mentioned princesses, which I imagine reflects the children's literature world in which most of us live; writers for adults aren't usually so close to fairy tales. My authors' answers are especially intriguing to me: Vicky Alvear Schecter, who, I think, lives half her waking life in the ancient world, tells a story about a gladiator and her emperor; Lisa Yee, who is waiting for line-edits from Arthur and me, thinks of the movie as a reaction to her manuscript.

And the observational answers? Again all equally valid, as long as they get the actions right -- but much harder to analyze, because they reveal the writers' prose styles much more than their imaginations. And prose style is, or ought to be, an infinitely adaptable thing, depending on the story and the circumstances; the more styles and voices an author can master, the more I admire their achievement. I have to say, I do think the observational impulse is as important to fiction as the narrative one, if not more so. . . . No matter how imaginative the world you create is, a reader won't connect with it unless it bears a strong resemblance to recognizable human reality, especially in the way its characters behave. And reality is both the hardest thing to do well, and the most useful thing to be able to create. I think often about this Flaubert quote:

"It is so easy to chatter about the Beautiful. But it takes more genius to say, in proper style, 'close the door,' or 'he wanted to sleep,' than to give all the literature courses in the world."
If you can master a scene in which your character gets ready for bed -- brushing his teeth, putting on his pajamas, crawling under the covers, whatever he does next, and what he's thinking all this time -- and make that scene coherent, compelling, and characterful, you can do anything. Because then you just have to find the right scenes to put together the story of how and why he changes over a certain period of time; and once you've written those, you've written a novel.

Thanks again to you all for participating!


  1. What a facinating writing exercise!

    It's amazing to see the variety of responses created from a simple prompt.

    Thank you for the opportunity to participate. This is definitely an exercise I'll have to pass on to my RACWI group.

  2. Very interesting! I like the Flaubert quote. I'd never thought about that, but it makes sense.

  3. Interesting!

    I participated, and I was also surprised by how many narrative responses you got, as opposed to observational. I was purely observational, and I even edited out your blinks as extraneous information. This sort of fits my narrative style: very lean. It also fits my profession—I'm a reporter, and we're trained from the time we're J-school babies to observe and report.

  4. It's interesting to hear you say that, LurkerMonkey, because if the original exercise had worked the way I intended, I thought it might have served as a sort of micro Voice Personality Quiz for writers. . . . Writers who naturally created very crisp and tight sentences should try writing stories that require crisp and tight narrators, like crime fiction; and people who wrote chattier sentences might go for stories that require more voluble or friendly narrators, like chick lit. (Or it could be interesting to work against your natural voice, of course, and write a chick lit like a crime novel, and surprise the reader.) The chemistry of voice and content is so crucial to a successful book. . . .

  5. The thing is, when you are a writer, EVERYTHING you see is a story/narrative. Even going to the grocery store can get distracting (why did that clerk not know the difference between oil and vinegar? Does she not use either? Does she not eat a normal human diet? Is she...not even *human*? And what is she doing in Lansing, Michigan, in that case? Should I buy myself some protective garlic? And so on through the checkout line...)

  6. What a great idea! Fun to read about.

  7. I felt most of the answers, no matter what style the commenter used, in some way linked with other commenters, even though no one ever said precisely the same thing - that we each focused on one particular aspect more than another aspect.

    Was an intriguing exercise, Cheryl. You had us all on our toes