August 28th, 2011


In Which We Examine Icebergs (#ROW80)

Or, Hey, Where'd THAT thing come from?

"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water." Ernest Hemingway

I confess--I've only ever read one Hemingway book--The Old Man and The Sea--which I wasn't thrilled about. This usually happened when I was forced to read something for school, and, granted, I don't think i should have been forced to read it in elementary school of all places. At ten it's difficult to appreciate writing as as a craft, no matter how avid the reader. Narnia was inifinitely more interesting, and The Old Man and The Sea was, let's face it, a book about fishing.


Now I get it, and not because I went back to give old Ernie another go. (Ditto for Jackie-boy London.) Seriously, I think the one book I loved from that era was The Great Gatsby.

Now I can appreciate it even more, knowing what I know now. It's a book about fishing, granted, but not really. The fishing bit is just what lies above the surface--there's a whole mountain of Stuff lying just beneath, ready to take the unwary reader (or ship captain) by surprise. That whole mountain of other stuff may never end up on the page, techically--but it informs everything that does. Ladies and Gentle-monkeys, we're talking about Subtext.

This goes back to my earlier experiment with the negative space of words: How much can I show without explaining? How much about character can I illuminate with action and reaction, without coming right out and sayiing it? How much history and back story can I get away with not using in narrative?

Let's take another look at Ernie's quote. If your Plot Mountain is the single tenth of an iceberg protruding from surface of the water, how much of the bottom nine-tenths are you pointing out to the weary traveller, your reader? Is it a strange ripple here, and a wavery reflection there? Isn't it much more exciting to let them find out for themselves, the hard way? As ship's captain, you (hopefully) know how to navigate the treacherous waters of your story, but you're not going give a blow-by-blow account of what's happening beneath the surface--you're just going to drive on, informed by what you know is beneath.

Actors (at least, the good ones) do this with character. Writers do it with all their characters, especially their main cast. By knowing everything possible about a character, you will know how they will act and react on several layers, even if you're pantsing it. How will your reader know? By showing, not telling. This oldie but goodie doesn't just apply to word pictures.

As an example of what I mean, go watch the pilot episode of Mad Men. Go on, I'll wait. It's on instant play on Netflix (my archnemesis and verybestfriend.)  I also dare you not to get caught up in devouring the entire four season run.

Back? Yeah, wow. See what I mean? So much left unsaid about character, riding just beneath the surface. Pay attention, or you might miss it. This is what we call in the writing biz Meat. The stuff readers love to sink their carniverous teeth into. Being able to pull it off is what makes an aspiring writer, eventually, a Paid Author.

So, goals.


When Last We Goaled, I decided a frank reassessment was in order. So I did. With this whole Iceberg Theorum in mind, I decided I needed to go back to the drawing board (The character Drawing Board, that is) and take a good, hard look at our Fallen Knight's Dear Old Dad. (I just realized all my characters sound like Tarot cards from the Major Arcana. The Fallen Knight. The Minstrel. The Good Son. The Childhood Sweetheart and yea, verily, The Assassin. Heh.)

But Dear Old Dad has a story of his own, and it involves being the childhood hood companion of the major antagonist, The Traitor (there I go again.) It involves being instrumental in the exile of said Traitor, despite former alliances. So, how is Dear Old Dad, a man of honor and integrity, going to react when The Traitor turns up at Midpoint as the power behind all the destruction and mayhem of the first half of the novel--with the resources he needs for his town to survive the winter? How is he going to keep his town from splitting in two between those loyal and trusting of Dear Old Dad and those willing to put up with pretty much anything if it means not starving or freezing to death? And how am I going to write this for the next quarter of the story without pointing out nine-tenths of my iceberg? 

What it comes down to in the end is putting all other goals on haitus until I figure this s#%t out, hopefully only for a week or so. But until I do I'm momentary derailed. That, dear fellow writer monkies, is the million-dollar question.

In the meantime, let's go check out the shenanigans of our fellow ROW-ers and cheer them on.