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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Microtension Gives Your Writing a FACElift

Thus we move off the theme of themes and into something nebulous that agent Donald Maass touts as essential if you want your book to sizzle. I looked up numerous articles about microtension to see if I could glean more on the topic other than what I heard straight from the master's mouth at his Fire in the Fiction workshop a few months back. As a result, I've come up with my own exploration of the topic.

Microtension--what is it? It's a line-by-line tension in your writing that, according to Maass, has nothing specifically to do with voice, writing style, plot, structure, or frankly anything you could call a component of writing. It is both a bit elusive and illusive. But I know great microtension when I see it and it transcends genre. As in all fantasy worlds, the only way to see a mysterious phantasm clearly is to glance at it askew. So I've come up with four main points that I feel will get a writer closer to grasping the nuance of microtension. A FACElift for your writing: F for fresh. A for artistic. C for clever. And E for evocative.

In this post, I'll talk about the letter F. Fresh:

What makes writing fresh? Break it down. What makes a sentence fresh? When you read a fresh sentence, you pause and say "Ah!" This is not due to a revealing plot point but more in line with a beautiful turn of phrase. It's taking an ordinary sentence or paragraph and giving it a fresh approach. How do you do that? There are many ways. I agree with Donald Maass that the true heart of great writing is when the author gets deep in touch with his/her own heart. It may be difficult to bring in your passion to every line you write, but why not? Why settle for a bland, mediocre sentence? Why settle for a boring word or passive sentence structure with a lot of weak words that clutter up your intent? This is NOT to say you should replace every simple word with a $50 word. If you do that, your writing will smack of pretentiousness. I can almost always tell a writer's first novel by how many words I have to look up or are used incorrectly for some magical effect that falls flat. A simple word is not often a boring word. In fact, sometimes the more simple a word, the more powerful. Less is always more. Trust me. It is.

I'd like to give some examples of beautiful, fresh writing that creates microtension. Simple language with fresh approach. Of course, this spills over into our other three points of artistic, clever, and evocative, but once we are done with all four letters, you will see they make a kind of soup. And a great soup is a conglomeration of wonderful spices and vegetables and meat, creating a taste sensation that you often can't define into its separate bits. So it is with great microtensioin. It is all four of these things, but they are each uniquely specific.

Here's a bit from Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides. Opening lines. That's often where you will fine a fresh bit of microtension. But I'll give you some other lines from the middle of the book, just to show how it can and must weave through your writing like a golden thread.

"My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call. I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat. Because I was a Wingo, I worked as soon as I could walk; I could pick a blue crab clean when I was five. I had killed my first deer by the age of seven, and at nine was regularly putting meat on my family's table."

Simple words, but fresh. How? Conroy tells us so much in the first five sentences of this story. Every word counts. He sets a mood, creates a history, implies something wrong [the word wound], and paints pictures that tumble off the page and sweep us into his story.

Here are some other lines from this book [they are a bit graphic and are spoilers, so continue with care]:

"Floyd Merlin backed up, firing, screaming. All pandemonium was loose in that house, and the smell of death and the sweet odor of brain and the radio playing a song by Jerry Lee Lewis made Floyd Merlin know just before he died that they had chosen wrong when they chose the house of Wingo."

"Then my family fell apart . . . and the radio played on without the slightest trace of pity . . .In less than a minute we had killed the three men who had brought ruin and havoc to our home, and established their incumbency in the heedless ordinance of nightmare. In our sleep they would rise from the dust of our terror and rape us a thousand times again. In immortal grandeur they would reassemble their torn bodies and burst into our rooms like evil khans, marauders, and conquerors, and we, again, would smell their breath in ours and feel our clothes ripped away from our bodies. Rape is a crime against sleep and memory; its afterimage imprints itself like an irreversible negative from the camera obscura of dreams. Through our lives these three dead and slaughtered men would teach us over and over of the abidingness, the terrible constancy that accompanies a wound to the spirit."

Conroy could have only played out the dreadful scene--which he did in breathtaking and horrifying fashion--but he then had his protagonist, Tom Wingo, process what his family had just endured. Tom's observations are stark honest and raw. Fresh. And, of course, it is the author's storytelling we are experiencing--writing that grips you with every word. It is fresh in it's style, its voice, and its narrative. sure, it is also artistic, evocative, and clever. But when you read fresh writing, you feel as if you have never read anything quite like it before. The writing sinks deep into your soul and awakens something that seems to lay dormant most of the time. Fresh stirs.

We'll look at another great writer of "fresh"--John Le Carre, in The Constant Gardener, in the next post.

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