16 November 2011: The heart of the matter

Posted: November 16, 2011 in Uncategorized

“The job which the writer is doing is to tell you a moving story of the human heart in conflict.”

–William Faulkner

That’s a pretty simple and — for Faulkner — straightforward sentence. But there’s a lot going on it. I like the fact that Faulkner calls writing a “job” — sometimes that feels like what it is, and if you’re a journalist, that’s exactly what it is. In either case, it’s work. I’d like to say that writing is something I just do, that comes naturally, but the truth is, it’s work. And it takes a certain amount of discipline and focus. Not Marine Corps discipline (but it helps). When I was writing A Simple Murder, I did it one hour at a time, every night. After putting in a day in the newsroom and eating supper and getting the kids to bed (they were small then), I would sit down to spend an hour, minimum, writing, whether I wanted to or not. And certainly whether I felt inspired or not. I just did it. Most nights I found myself going well over an hour, but that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t forced myself to sit down and get an hour in.

Next, Faulkner said the writer’s job is tell a moving story. Not just a story, but one that moves the reader. That’s where a lot of hours writing amount up to squat — and a lot of rewrites trying to get it right. In other words, working. It took me a couple of tries to understand this — that’s it not the plot of a story that matters, it’s the story itself. If that doesn’t hold a reader, then you’ve failed your first duty as a writer.  Which leads to the really hard part:

The human heart in conflict. It took me even longer, and only under the instruction of a terrific writer, to learn that the craft of fiction — the beauty of it — is that there has to be conflict for the story to work. Real conflict. I think that’s probably the hardest part for most writers today, in a world of commercialized fiction (in print and on screen), where the story is too often a plot and the conflict involves a physical conflict between a hero and a villain. And in Hollywood, this story usually ends in a nice little bow — boy gets the girl, common guy sticks it to the man. True, it’s a formula that works for entertainment. But it’s not realistic — it doesn’t represent the true human condition.  Which, as Faulkner said, is often a human heart in conflict. And that’s what makes it real. That’s why a movie like Sling Blade works and Iron Man doesn’t.

Now, I have to admit that my first two novels were not exactly in line with Faulkner’s vision — more Iron Man than Sling Blade. That’s why it’s called a craft. You have to learn it, practice it, hone it, and try. And try. And try again. That’s what I’m doing with my current manuscript, Deep Blood.

More on that later.

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