Recipe for a 10-stone story: Souffles as boat anchors

“Good writers have two things in common: they prefer to be understood rather than admired; and they do not write for knowing and over-acute readers.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

1. Expanding on Nietzsche’s insight

The writerly impulse to be admired rather than understood is generally associated with certain stylistic horrors.

Right away, seeking the admiration of “knowing and over-acute readers,” the unwitting writer  serves up long and complex sentences like a tangle of  spaghetti. The more clauses the better, eh? And you should pack each sentence with as much information as possible, so both writer and reader can congratulate themselves and each other on their perspicacity and champion short-term memories.

A closely related blunder is the profligate use of polysyllabic words, notably latinate instead of Anglo-Saxon. Lumbering sentences full of 20-dollar words are typical of academics (establishing their street creds), bureaucrats (establishing their creds plus obfuscating both lack of real substance and responsibility for any actions referred to, supposing any actions were ever undertaken) and a certain class of writer (pretending to wisdom and hoping to score skinny babes in leotards who read critical theory for fun).

Note to the reader: If that last sentence made ready sense, congratulate yourself — you qualify as one of Nietzsche’s “knowing and over-acute readers.”

Nietzsche’s advice could also be taken as a riff on the following venerable wisdom, phrased in one way or another by any number of red-hot writers:

Don’t sit down to write a story with the intention of communicating a universal message for humankind.

That’s a recipe for literary disaster, akin to dumping cement in the soufflé mix. Much better you simply spin a ripping good yarn with engaging characters and dramatic relationships. You may then find (as I believe Isaac Bashevis Singer has suggested) a universal message for humankind in fact emerges by story’s end, a message that takes readers — perhaps even the writer himself — by surprise.

2. Doing what I say you should never do

Having said all that, I’m currently busy trying to dig myself out from under a rubble of ideas, both solid and only half set. I need to better frame a story that uses novel worlds and lofty themes as simple background. I’ve beaten the first and second installments in a science-fiction series, I believe, but the next book is flirting with the soufflé-as-boat-anchor syndrome.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that my narrative lies in a future 50 years down the road, and I have to construct a succession of convincing worlds within a speculative evolutionary framework, all the while presenting, within these worlds, compelling characters ensnarled in engaging relationships. (Sara: Do not conclude, merely on the basis of that last sentence, that it’s really only bohemian babes I’m after.)

3. Godly vicissitudes

Building successful, self-consistent worlds isn’t always easy — such a task reportedly exercised even the Christian God for several days.

Meanwhile Sara is asking — politely enough, for someone who lives with a struggling youngish writer — whether I couldn’t see my way clear to abandoning my future worlds long enough to take out the garbage, which is currently stinking up this world she and I share in common.

Theologically unschooled as I am, I have to ask: Did God really take the seventh day to rest, or did Mrs. God drag him away from Genesis to attend to a few chores in some other sphere? That would explain all the half-finished business here on Earth, including badly designed knees.

“Sore knees,” Sara says, “come from too much sitting around building worlds. Don’t try to blame them on taking the garbage out. Or on God.”

Of course Sara is Buddhist, and may not entirely understand such matters.

Nietzsche portrait by Hans Olde.

Isaac Bashevis Singer (1973) portrait by Nancy Crampton.

“God Creating the Universe”  by Virgil Solis (1514-1562)


3 thoughts on “Recipe for a 10-stone story: Souffles as boat anchors”

  1. You lost me at the word “youngish.” However, I have never seen that photo of Nietzche before, and just from looking at him I can tell that this man was seriously dysfunctional. Nobody grows a mustache like that without having issues about his personal self-esteem.

    God rested on Saturday because he had to take a pee. So would you if you had been creating stuff for six days without a pee break. And now he’s on vacation, being extremely disgruntled about how all that turned out.

  2. Oops, I see that I misspelled the great man’s name. Well, that’s what you get when you have a name with six consecutive consonants.

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