My Writing Life: 3

When I first decided to try writing full-time, I attended many writers conferences so that I could learn about the writing business and various publishers. One piece of advice every established writer gave — advice that is still given today — was this: Don’t quit your day job.

This is good advice for the simple reason that writing doesn’t pay well, at least not in the US. Back in 1950, the average advance for a first novel was about $3,000. Today it is still that. Or, in many cases, less. According to a 2015 survey of Authors Guild writers, those full-time writers who were earning $25,000 in 2009, were earning $17,500 in 2015. That’s a 30% decline in income. And the part-time writers who earned $7,250 in 2009, earned only $4,500 in 2015. That’s a 38% decline in wages. The majority of writers are poorly paid for their work and are thus forced to earn income in other ways.

Many writers teach, as I did when I taught college English. Some writers give speeches/presentations, as I do. Some writers earn income doing something totally unrelated to writing. I did that when I worked as a typesetter and later when I worked as a letter carrier for the postal service.

Another good piece of advice (in addition to “Keep your day job”) for writers who are starting out is to seek out writing-related work. Usually this is part-time work such as being a stringer for newspapers. I did that for a year, covering local sporting events and town board meetings. (Yawn!) But producing x-number of words under very tight deadlines (an hour!), and having those words published, not only develops your writing skills — it also gives you credentials if you want to apply for a full-time writing job in some field.

After going through the stringer experience, I decided to apply for a job as a writer-producer of educational filmstrips back in the late 1970s. I was hired and immediately was assigned a series of four related filmstrips on a language arts subject. I don’t remember what my first filmstrip set was, though I do remember some of the later ones. 

It was my job to figure out how to teach students a topic such as “How to Read a Newspaper” in four filmstrips, maximum number of 60 frames in each strip. So I had to think, analyze, outline, and then create the characters in the filmstrip, write their dialogue, draw little doodles of what the graphic frames would look like. Then I hired the photographer, the student models, and arranged for photography to take place at a certain location. As producer and director, I was always present on the location site. (No, I did not get to shout “It’s a wrap!”). 

After selecting the photos I wanted (usually 10-15% of what the photographer shot), I arranged them in order, took them to the film department, worked out a production schedule for the filmstrip to be ready. Meanwhile, I had to audition and hire narrators for the project, then accompany them to the recording studio and listen very carefully to everything they said as they narrated.

Of all the surprising things I learned while writing and producing filmstrips, the most surprising one was How. Many. Takes. it took to narrate each filmstrip. Narrators, even professional ones, stumble. They pop the letter P into the mike, so it sounds like a small explosion. They slur over the “ing” or “ed” endings of words. In Chicago they pronounce the word may-or as if it were mare. And so on. I have never had to be as vigilant on any project as I had to be while listening to narrators. 

Speaking of narration, I spent many months writing audio tapes aimed at high school students. Each tape was 30-45 minutes long. I can barely remember what the topics were: obviously something that could be explained via the spoken word, without visuals of any kind. I seem to recall something about how to make a schedule, how to read a book, how to balance a checkbook.

That was in the late 1970s or early 1980s. I don’t think audiotapes are used much today, unless they are merely the audio part of a visual lesson. 

What I remember most about writing those audios was that in order to write a good one, I had to organize the topic really well. Logically, so that one point flowed into another. And I had to explain the steps clearly and concisely, with examples or analogies. Writing short, as they say, is a great way to learn how to write well — it teaches you to make the writing flow logically, and it teaches you how to cover each step with no more than the necessary information.

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When Barbara Gregorich wasn’t busy listening to studio narration, she worked on writing Dirty Proof, a mystery novel.

Narration: Overarching Words

Narration is, for many readers, one of a book’s most appealing features, perhaps second only to story. Narration is all the writing that is not dialogue. Dialogue consists of directly spoken words, words with quotation marks around them — everything else is narration.

Narration shouldn’t be confused with the Narrator, which is the consciousness that tells the story. I wrote about the Narrator in an earlier blog.

Plays and movies do not have narration. They have actions which help tell the story, they have settings, they have movement and color, and they have, above all, dialogue. But they do not contain overarching words that tell the story, both present and past — words that do not come from any character within the play or movie, but words which come from the consciousness that’s telling the story. (Some movies and plays do have narration, but it is usually brief and often serves to provide background information that it might be tedious to listen to as dialogue.)

In fiction and nonfiction, narration adds richness, texture, and scope to the story. It allows the reader to know the depths of the story and to intuit the writer’s views.

Barbara Kingsolver begins Prodigal Summer with narration, not dialogue. Here is the first paragraph of the novel:

Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits. But solitude is only a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot; every choice is a world made new for the chosen. All secrets are witnessed.

This is narration written by a great writer. The reader can sense that the story about to unfold may place non-human life on the same plane of importance as human life . . . that the story may be about making choices . . . and revealing secrets. Prodigal Summer offers readers a good story told through strong narration. You can see how readers would be drawn in by this narration: by this consciousness that knows the whole story and will reveal it the way it sees fit. The narration contains unstated but discernible beliefs and judgments.

Narration serves many purposes, one of which is providing necessary information, usually in condensed form, in order to introduce the story or move it forward.Note how much information is contained in the narration of the second paragraph of Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides.

I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat. Because I was a Wingo, I worked as soon as I could walk; I could pick a blue crab clean when I was five. I had killed my first deer by the age of seven, and at nine was regularly putting meat on my family’s table. I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island and I carried the sunshine of the low-country, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders.

Through narration a writer can write description, can show action, can reveal a character’s thoughts, and can provide exposition (necessary information for the reader to know). A writer can provide description and exposition through dialogue if she chooses, but most times that will sound unlikely or even false, resulting in bad dialogue.

In writing, Voice is the distinct personality and artistry that every good writer has, the thing that makes Faulkner Faulkner, that makes Stegner Stegner. A writer’s voice is established through various aspects of narration, including but not confined to choices such as sentence structure, vocabulary, and breadth and topic of observation. You can see that in the two examples I quoted earlier, Kingsolver and Conroy are both writing, in part, about nature — but each writer has a distinct voice. Through voice as well as through narration, the author’s world view emerges.

Because the narration of a book of fiction or nonfiction does so much work (story line, exposition, summary, condensation, description, setting of tone, etc.) and because it’s such a large part of any book (well over 50%, perhaps even 80%), some writers take the writing of narration for granted. That is, they don’t pay much attention to perfecting their writing of narration, thinking that maybe their story is so gripping that narration doesn’t matter much.

The opposite is true. Narration matters immensely. The great writers of the world have been masters of narration, lifting readers out of the the mundane and into a different world.

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For nonfiction narration, read Charlie Chan’s Poppa: Earl Derr Biggers