April 7th, 2013

Fiction, Editing, and Polyvore

When I was teaching short-story writing to high-school students, the first exercises I asked them to do involved dreaming up a character. One assignment was to write a description of this character’s home (I also gave them the option of drawing the place, but few took me up on it). This assignment was amazingly successful–students wrote in great detail, especially girls. Some took it as a basically a shopping fantasty, stocking the fictional rooms with brand-name bling, but almost everyone was able to flesh out a setting to an extent that you could see it in your mind. I was impressed at how carefully they worked their way around a space, describing each piece of furniture in turn.

The reason I gave this assignment is it’s a good, concrete way to start developing character–showing the objects a character would acquire and keep close is a good way to start to edge in on who he or she is. If you were to realize that the only two items of furniture I contributed to the living room I share with my husband are an easy chair from my childhood bedroom and an end table my father got with green stamps in the sixties (like a prototypical Air Miles), you would know a few things about me: cheap, partial to nostalgia.

The problem was, I suppose, the leap I expected the students to be making when they did the exercises–I wanted them to use these bits of character development to guide the story they would write: a person who would dress like this, who would own furniture like this, would *be* like this and in certain circumstances… When it came time to put together a first draft of their stories, I said they could “draw on” any of the exercises they’d previously done. Mainly, this translated into a long, pointlessly detailed description of a room in every story.

I tried to explain that the room descriptions were for the *them*, the writers–a way to gain more insight into their characters. Once they knew enough, they could show the characters in tiny details a reader could absorb easily, and not need these towering stacks of details. If you know a character well enough, you barely have to describe him/her at all–you know exactly how to nail it down.

My students were pissed–the concept of writing for themselves, writing to make later writing better, writing that they got no marks for, all foreign to them. I could not convince most of them to remove these descriptions. Even when I suggested they didn’t need to replace it with anything, even when I said other character work elsewhere in the piece was strong enough to carry it, even with no word-count minimum, and my pointed comments that the description was making the story awkward and dull, they refused to take work they had done off the page.

Which is totally natural when you are 15 and never wanted to take a creative writing class in the first place. But it is a helpful reminder for those of us who are allegedly adults and writing for the love it, that just because I wrote it doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile, and just because it’s worthwhile doesn’t mean it needs to go *in* the story. I do a lot of writing *towards* a story–exploring backstory, motivations, minor characters–that seems to me as I write to in fact be part of the story itself. It will illuminate things for the reader, I tell myself, or else that this is part of the narrator’s thought process and should naturally be included. Then when I read it through, I realize I was just doing some kind of imaginative research in order to get to the point where i knew the characters well enough to write the scene and…chop, chop, chop.

It is too easy to leave that stuff in, because even unnecessary writing is hard and it hurts to kill something that took a long time to create. But it’s self-indulgent to do otherwise–ok for 15-year-olds, but not anyone who actually wants to be taken seriously.

I’m on this topic because I recently started researching clothing styles and brands. Normally, the characters I write about dress like people I know, so if clothing comes up I know how to describe it, and even if it doesn’t come up, I know how characters would react to, say, sitting on the floor, or spilled wine–I know what they’re wearing and how they feel about what they’re wearing. But I’m starting on a character whose clothes are a lot nicer than anyone’s I know, and they are important to her–important enough I can’t get away with a vague impression of silhouettes and shades. The Mighty J recommended a wonderful and addictive site called Polyvore. It’s basically paper dolls with current designer clothes, and it’s a wonderful way to make outfits for characters if you’re not too fashion-savvy and the characters are. It’s also SO fun playing matchup with unrelated clothes, and I’m saying this as a person who is currently wearing and orange skirt, orange tights, and one of her father’s dress shirts from the 60s.

Of course i spent a tonne of time playing around and I got to the point where I was able to imagine this woman’s clothes, her budget, her body issues, her brand awareness. I also had a couple nice outfits lined up and I knew where in the story she’d wear them. It is now *very* tempting to start putting brand names in the story, long descriptions of the exact sheen of shoe leather, the fit of a skirt. I need, largely, to resist this temptation. The character owns the clothes; she’s used to them, and not dazzled by how pretty they are because she has lots of pretty clothes. If I go all schoolgirl and start kvelling in detail about everything in her closet is, it undermines the character’s own take on things, which is much more arch and unimpressed. It will also take up a lot of space when the story isn’t *about* clothes; they’re really just a character detail that it was important to imagine correctly in order to imagine the whole woman correctly.

So, according to my 15-year-old students and sometimes my own interior whiny voice, I basically wasted several hours creating material–outfits–that can’t go in the story. Which is ridiculous–I couldn’t write about the character this well any other way. I’m guessing there are people in the world who are more efficient and don’t need to do this sort of research, and good for them, but I am learning to be accepting of my somewhat circuitous process. From talking to other writers, this is not so unusual, though they may be in the library, at an archive, or at a museum–it’s just hard to use most research most of the time. But it’s still really worth doing, I’d say (also, Polyvore=the funnest!)

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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