I try to put at least a little effort into the writing every day, if not actual copy then reviewing, editing, considering or noting whatever the current project might be. I call it trying to maintain some kind of continuity, when I have to call it anything. It’s the answer I give whenever the question of “writing process” comes up at a conference, a panel discussion, whatever. Like most everything else to writing there’s no single definitive way to do anything. I’ve just found that if I do something, anything, each day, seems to be surest way I have of insuring continuity in the reading experience – which is more than a little critical, I think. I might even go so far as to say that the reading experience is so deeply related to the writing process that any deviation in the latter directly effects the former. At least that’s what I take from its mathematical corollary, “continuous function,” which is where even a small change in the independent variable produces an in kind change in the function. Who knew?
Anyway, there have been a couple of significant interruptions to that continuity lately. One joyous, Joseph’s wedding, as you recall. The other not so much: we buried dad a few weeks ago. His sudden death and the necessary return to Syracuse have left me feeling like I’m barely treading water since (or maybe I’m just thawing out from days spent in a place where people actually say things like, “Tomorrow’s going to be much nicer. It’s going to get all the way up to 35 degrees,” and actually mean it). As suspected, writing, even talking about writing is my most certain lifeline, a lifeline that goes all the way back to Fuchu, Japan, and Don Eric Davis.
That’s what we did, mostly, just talk about writing, not in any direct way, that I recall, just in general. We talked about the mystery that some books moved you in a palpable way and stuck with you long after closing the back cover, while others dissipated almost immediately, like morning fog that’s there one moment, gone the next. We talked about how preposterous it was to suppose that one day either of us would actually put some words on a page that someone else would want to read. Sure, we entertained all the usual fantasies, about movie productions, awards, fame, fortune, immortality, discovering, in the end, it’s all about the work of writing, the nuts and bolts of putting words together. It’s about the continuous labor of love/hate that writing is. In fact, I’ve grown fond of answering that standard question of most any Q&A session, “Did you always want to be a writer?” with some version of, “No. No one who values their sanity or stability should want that.” Or even more to the point, “I actually believe that if you could quit writing, you probably should. You’ll be happier.” But if, like me, you can’t quit, what then?
Let’s talk about that. How do you begin a story or a book? As earlier, clearly, there’s no single definitive answer to that, which is why it’s worth talking about. Consider these two things: far and away the most common suggestion I make whenever someone asks me to look at a manuscript is that the beginning doesn’t seem right. And – maybe the most important writing tool I’ve picked up over the years – when something doesn’t feel right, the very least you can say about it, maybe the only thing you can say, is it’s wrong. It’s got to be fixed, or it’s got to go. See, I think most everyone has a pretty good sense for when something’s not quite right, in their writing, or life in general, for that matter. Whether it’s a single sentence, a bit of dialogue, double-parking the car or vacuuming the carpet, you know, you hear that little voice whispering, “Come on, you can do better than that.” Problem is, while you can take another pass with the Ford or flick the Bissell back to life, you don’t often have that luxury with writing. You don’t often know exactly what’s not right, which makes it pretty difficult to come up with what might be more right. All you know with any certainty is that it’s not right, and almost always the only thing you can derive from that is it’s wrong. Fix it, or cut it; neither is particularly simple or painless. But worth talking about.
Those beginnings that didn’t seem right? In no instance was the suggestion: “Start earlier, give me some more introductory comments or preface the story further.” Not one. In every single case it was what journalists call “burying the lead.” I think of it as sneaking up on the story, quite possibly because of the absurdity of the proposition Don and I talked about. That’s where it helps to know the “continuous function”: if you’re sneaking up on the story, you’re making the reader sneak up on it, and that’s probably not going to work with any readers beside spouses or mothers. While I might not believe there are such things as rules to writing – don’t think you can “teach” writing, like you can mathematics, for instance – there is definitely a cardinal sin to writing: try as best you can not to give the reader an excuse to stop reading. Sneaking up on the beginning is one of many, many, many ways of committing that sin.
Where, exactly then, is the buried lead? Let’s talk about that, or any other aspect of the work. Post a question, or if you prefer a more direct exchange, send me an email, joeformichella.author@riversedgemedia.com
I’ll even go first, if you like. One reader, one of the most important readers, actually, told me he initially questioned the wisdom of opening Waffle House with a funeral. Made me think about it, plenty, so I’ve got an answer, again, if you like.2014-12-11 06.01.07

One thought on “The Value of Continuous Function

  1. Good Work. When I’m asked where I learned to write, I usually say “First grade”. I’m not sure I’ve learned, but have blessed that it put me in contact with you and Suzanne. And, strangely enough, there are those who have read my words. You are a great teacher.

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