January 11, 2009: Keeping it in Proportion

After finishing  last night,  was restless and kind of out of sorts, not sure what I wanted to read next. I pulled out a lot of possibilities, including Lord Perfect for its umpteenth re-read, and ended up reading Catherine Mulvaney’s Wicked is the Night.

I’m one of the members of jCW she thanks in the acknowledgements, so I’d read one version of the opening already. That’s part of the reason I bought the book — that opening hooked me but good.

Happily, the rest of the book was as enjoyable as its opening. One of the things I enjoyed most — and the thing I can’t stop thinking about — is how beautifully proportioned the book’s elements are.

I’m not sure I can explain what I mean by beautifully proportioned, but I want to try because I think it might be an important thing to understand as a writer.

After a great deal of cogitation, this is what I have. Proportion means tone, story, characterization and style ae all in balance and work together. If the writing is over-the-top, then that exaggeration, however strong or faint, carries through everything. In the case of Wicked is the Night, the writing was clear and flowed without apparent effort. The plot and characterization flowed the same way; the tone was low-key, allowing the story to flow. The thing is, the plot involves elements that could be over the top — vampires, a creepy institution, a minor character who’s a demon hunter, mention of a plot for world dominance — but all those elements are presented in a calm, clear, low-key way that fits the tone of the story and doesn’t throw anything off.

Lord Perfect is another book whose proportions I admire, and, thinking about it, I think it has that same quality of consistency and balance. There is in everything an intense romanticism leavened with rationality. It’s there in the prose, there in the plot, there in the major characters.

A beautifully proportioned story, one with all the elements in balance, allows the reader to disappear into the storyverse. There’s nothing out of whack to make her notice she’s reading.

So what does this mean for me as a writer? I need to figure out what kind of stories and characters will best fit the way I write. Language is first for me; I can’t not write in the style I write (which has been described too often as lyrical for me to question the description). I’m also intensely concerned with how it feels to have an experience. That’s what the language is for: to convey how the experience feels.

From that alone, I know I’m not going to write fast-paced, snappy anything. My stories are going be slower reads.

I also think figuring out how to show worlds is important. It’s hard to make things clear while also being true to a character’s experience. We don’t think twice about our world — most of the rules are wallpaper, just the way things are. For a reader, unfamiliar with the character’s world, the rules aren’t going to be background noise. They’re going to be vital information that may or may not need to be spelled out. How to spell those rules out, while balancing language and giving the reader the character’s experience isn’t something I’ve really figured out yet.

I’m not sure thinking about proportion will help that, but I think it might: knowing that I will have to convey world-building information — which means a shallower POV than I prefer — can help me balance my story elements.


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