I’m not getting paid to push his book, but I should mention that my Blog site’s title is inspired by Techniques of Fiction Writing: Measure and Madness, by Leon Surmelian. I chose that title because measure and madness are what creates a story. In his book, Surmelian blends suggestions for structuring a story with ideas concerning the creative process. The two—structure and creativity—are inseparable.
Before I tell you what I got out of reading Techniques of Fiction Writing, I want to say a little about my own reading tastes. I like good stories. I like genre and literary fiction. Many of my favorite novels would never win a literary award—unless for a specific genre, such as a Hugo Award, Spur Award, or Edgar Award. And I do not believe prestigious literary awards always go to the most deserving writers. I’m thoroughly convinced that Stanislaw Lem would’ve gotten a Nobel Prize in Literature if the Nobel Committee didn’t look down on science fiction. (William Golding and Doris Lessing both had written sci-fi in their careers, but their Nobel Prizes were for their larger body of work.) When it comes to my personal taste, I like fiction and am not a snob.
STRUCTURING A STORY
I wish Surmelian had used method in the title instead of measure; then I could quote Hamlet, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.” The way Surmilian’s uses measure is synonymous with method. Depending on the point he’s making, measure is a verb, to choose and control with cautious restraint, or a noun, an adequate or due portion. Regardless of the part of speech, measure is essential for creative writers. As Surmelian says, “Through measure a story is given the structure and style that snatch it from the chaos of reality and fix it in the memory [of readers]. . . .”
MADNESS IS DISORGANIZED IMAGINATION SEEKING ORDER
According to Surmelian, a kind of madness occurs when we tap into the inspirational part of our mind and find a story. For one writer, madness can be a chaotic fictionscape inhabited by a variety of weird, wonderful, kind, dangerous, helpful, extraordinary, and ordinary characters scampering around aimlessly, or floating toward unknown destinations for a variety of reasons. Madness for another writer might be a distant memory of people and events itching to be shaped into a memoir. Madness, imagination, artistic invention, creative juices—whatever you choose to call it—is essential for creating a story. And madness is as individual as each writer.
MEASURE AND MADNESS COMBINED MAKE STYLE
Techniques for bringing “chaos to order” also apply to memoir and other creative nonfiction. We use our imaginations to figure out what to write about. After all, a “real life” story is not a transcript account of an event or a series of connected events. With creative nonfiction, you imagine the people, events, and settings you want to include. You imagine the sequence of events, imagine descriptions of people, and imagine dialogue between those people. You also imagine the narration that compellingly moves the story forward. I say imagine rather than choose, because we do not have video and audio recorders in our brains. When pre-writing a “true story,” we interview (or eavesdrop on) people with unclear memories, embellish or diminish our own memories, and selectively take notes while doing research. And while writing our drafts, we revise and edit. I wonder if anyone has ever written a “true story” that none of the other people involved had a slightly or greatly different version of that story.
Even if we could mentally record the people and events in our lives with absolute accuracy, we’d still have to erase irrelevant scenes, exclude uninteresting people, and delete boring dialogue. Then we’d have to creatively assemble the leftovers into something our readers find interesting. That is, we’d have to discard most of what actually happened. Then we’d revise and edit our drafts a few times. We start off wanting to write what’s “true” and end up writing an interesting story. And the more well-written a true story, the more it resembles fiction. (Soon, I’ll have a post covering the ethics and honesty involved with writing creative nonfiction.)
WELCOME YOUR MADNESS
When an interviewer asked Sue Monk Kidd about her process for writing The Secret Life of Bees, she said, “The process of writing it was a constant balancing act between what writing teacher Leon Surmelian referred to as ‘measure and madness.’ He suggested that writing fiction should be a blend of these two things. That struck me as exactly true. On one hand, I relied on some very meticulous ‘measures,’ such as character studies, scene diagrams … I relied more heavily, however, on trying to conjure ‘madness,’ which I think of as an inexplicable and infectious magic that somehow flows into the work. Inducing ‘madness’ also meant that I often left my desk to sit on the dock overlooking the tidal creek behind our house and engage in a stream of reverie about the story.…”
WRITERS LEARN HOW TO MEASURE
Madness is too individualistic to be taught, but we can learn how to effectively use measure [techniques] when writing a story. There’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to books about writing. Even though I consider Techniques of Fiction Writing one of the top five fiction writing books, I recommend it only if you’re interested in literary fiction. Some excellent writers wouldn’t stay awake through the introduction. And many 21st century fiction writers might be put off by Surmelian’s use of only male gender pronouns when referring to writers. Because the gender neutral pronoun problem is still with us, we shouldn’t be judgmental about a very dead writer. And since Sue Monk Kidd has given Surmelian a posthumous pardon for his literary gender crime, I think the rest of us can do the same.
With so many excellent books on the craft of fiction writing, it’s not easy to recommend only a few. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, or John C. Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist are a good start. As far as finding a style book for grammar, punctuation, and usage, I hope you avoid E.B. White’s The Elements of Style. The Elements of Style is useful for English 101, but it is overly simplified, and its rules are too restricting for fiction. My favorites book on grammar and style is Joseph M. Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (or any of his other books). Williams believes in making choices rather than relying on prescriptive rules that are often not actually rules. If you’re a stickler for rules, Martha Kolln’s Rhetorical Grammar might suit you.
The next time you’re in a bookstore, or browsing books online, skim through a few writing books until something grabs you. When the right book grabs you, you grab it and read it often.
Good writing, good reading, good living to you.