Slack or Self-Conscious or Fussy or Bloated or Boring. . . .

It’s New Year’s Day and I’m starting a new book that has no plot.  Yet.

I’m not very interested in plot.  For instance, in a mystery, I don’t care who did it.  I seldom notice inconsistencies in a story line.  (“Well, if they lived in Cincinnati for three years, how come the divorce occurred in Albuquerque when they should still have been in Cincinnati?  Where is the editor: sleeping?”)  And I am easily bored by recitations of a novel’s action.  (“And then her career fell apart, and then he started drinking, and then the bank foreclosed on their house. . . .”)

The thing that controls paralyzing anxiety when I begin writing a new book is knowing that I don’t have to write story or plot.  All I have to do is write language.  If I find the right language, it will lead to plot.

Language creates the body of my novel.  The words I choose form its skeleton, organs, and skin.  While I’m busy rewriting a sentence so it reads and sounds right, the content is taking shape. If the tone comes out wry or earnest or terrifying or whimsical, then that leads me to better understand the characters and what they might do next.  They’re nudging me through the prose.  If the tone rings false, then I’m off-track.  I’ve wandered away from the story.  Listening to language relaxes my plot phobia and lets the characters glide into action.  Or lurch.

(I can imagine another kind of writer consciously creating a tone that supports the characters and plot she or he already understands.  There are surely many kinds of writers.)

But back to my kind of writer.  While the elements of written and listened-to language are rolling along the tarmac of my mind, they don’t have grammatical names.  They’re simply making sounds, noises, and I’m hearing them.  If the engine doesn’t sound right, well, that’s what the buttons and knobs and controls are for.  And I can always bring the plane to a screeching halt, let my prose dribble onto the runway like emergency exit ramps, and see what the characters do when they emerge.  Or I can make the plane wait eight hours while the bathrooms overflow and passengers run out of their meds.  I can even preside over a crash.  I can lose control of metaphors, too, the way I’m doing now.

In a writing class at the New York State Summer Writers Institute, Rick Moody, wonderful novelist, taught us that when language grows slack or self-conscious or fussy or bloated or boring, then we are off-course in our story.  Language is a diagnostic tool to test the story.  It tells us what we need to know.



  1. judithkunst · ·

    Wow! Fantastic new post for what may be a fantastic new year! Your thoughts remind me of a lecture at Sarah Lawrence College given by novelist Michael Palmer. He said, “When your words fall apart on the page, rejoice: the work is finding its own form.”

  2. Lavetta McCune · ·

    This is fascinating . . . and also explains why I have been a pretty good writer of grants, promotional material, even “purpose-driven” drama, but not a good – or even interested -writer of “literary” prose or poetry. I so appreciate powerful, evocative writing (especially that of my sister and my daughter!), and your comments ring true: the love of language – the obsession really – is the source of that power.

  3. Jan Elvee · ·

    Fascinating, Marlene. An insightful analysis of your process.

  4. I was never very good at plotting, and I think that’s why I gave up on fiction writing long ago. And when I tried to let language guide me, as you do, that didn’t get me where I needed to go, either. I needed structure. Otherwise I floundered this way and that way, and the work seemed endless. But I’m glad to hear letting language be your guide works for you. Writing is in part a discovery process. That’s what makes it so compelling and delightful to do!

    1. I do love your nonfiction, Lois. The style is fluid and rhythmic. We all eventually find our niche. . . .

      Sent from my iPhone

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