Distractions are bad. Except when they’re good.
Here’s a useful rule of thumb for writers: Don’t distract your readers. They shouldn’t have to stop to look up a word or allusion. They shouldn’t be confused by a character’s puzzling or inconsistent behavior. Sentences should make sense the first time they’re read. If you’re writing words or phrases in a foreign language, the context should make the meaning clear.
I’m thinking right now of one of my all-time favorite books, The Hatter’s Phantoms by Georges Simenon. (Go to the Barnes & Noble website if you decide to buy it – the description of the book at Amazon.com gives too much away.)
Why would I read a mystery over and over? Surely I know all the twists and turns by now. The answer is that The Hatter’s Phantoms makes me feel as if I’m in a small town in France, and I love that feeling.
Good writing is like that. Your everyday reality dissolves, and you find yourself living someone else’s life, or embracing their ideas, or taking on their problems or successes. Nothing should be allowed to break that spell.
Simenon (a Belgian novelist who was one of the world’s best-selling writers) was a master at drawing you in to the characters and settings of his books. Pick up anything he’s written (his Inspector Maigret mysteries are wonderful) – and you’re off to France, the setting he chose for most of his books.
But sometimes distractions are good. Sometimes (and this is a postmodern idea) writers want to call attention to themselves. Writers with an agenda employ various strategies to ensure that you hear their voices while you’re reading – quite a trick, when you think about it, but some writers (Bernard Shaw was one) are masters at it.
I’m about halfway through Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On, a marvelous book about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby. Corrigan’s writing is so good – often so clever – that I keep putting the book down to take a breath and wonder how she does it. That’s a distraction – a wonderful one.
And then there are writers who take on someone else’s voice. I’m thinking of the five-year-old boy who narrates Emma Donoghue’s Room (one of the best novels I’ve ever read). In order to figure out what he’s talking about, you have to become a five-year-old yourself. (More distractions while you figure out what he’s seeing and unable to understand.)
And now two things are going on inside your head. You’re making plans to get your hands on one of the books I’ve recommended, and you’re also trying to figure out how distractions – which seem to be a bad thing – can also be beneficial.
I’m trying to get you to question the way you usually write your stories or present your ideas. Most of the time we adopt a traditional third-person, omniscient narrator or expert. There’s a wise, anonymous person offstage who’s doing the talking (as I’m doing here).
But your writing will be richer and more interesting if you try your hand at other possibilities. Invent an “I” to tell your story. You can be a wise old sage, a young person on the brink of adulthood, or a person of the opposite sex. You can take on another identity even if you’re writing nonfiction. Try sounding younger or older, or angrier, or funnier, or…just try something different.
Very likely you’ll return to the traditional third-person, omniscient narrator or expert after your experiment. That’s fine – honest! The benefit is that you will have explored some new writing options, and that experiment will bring new vitality to your writing.
In other words: Make a mess. Fool around. Get it wrong. All writers need to stray from the tried-and-true pathway once in a while. Please give it a try!