Guest Blogger: Jim Abbiati on Crafting Prose

Jim Abbiati-friend and author

Today’s guest blogger is Jim Abbiati. Jim is a gifted writer who has recently self-published a collection of his short stories—nine of them in total that make up and weave together a wonderful, mystical, and eerie world—in a series called Fell’s Hollow, available for download on the Kindle, Nook, or other e-book formats. I had the pleasure of reading Jim’s work during our time together at National University, where we both received our MFA degrees. Similar to writers like J.K. Rowling or Sara Gruen, Jim’s ability to bring Fell’s Hollow to life is amazing. You will be swept away into this dark, mysterious place where you will meet sailors and other memorable characters in a world riddled with sorcerers, thieves, and “bloodsucking creatures.” One of my favorite short pieces that Jim wrote as an exercise is a freebie on his site, a humorous and entertaining story where he details the devil’s day off.

Today, Jim is participating in a question and answer session on a particular methodology for creative writing in an excerpt from a book he is working on entitled The NORTAV Method. Therefore, Jim will discuss the NORTAV method and prose construction, offering creative writers helpful hints on the skilled craft of writing prose. Thanks, Jim, for your insights and your time.

So, what is the NORTAV Method?

The NORTAV Method is a new approach to learning how to craft prose. For decades writers have been forced to learn the most important aspect of their trade through trial-and-error and osmosis. Writers are taught language, plot, setting, characterization, point of view, etc., but they are not taught the fundamental skills required to craft accurate, consistent prose. Writers are told in order to learn those skills, they need to lock themselves away, read 200 books a year, and write 300,000 words. After that, with luck, they will have learned how to do it.  What does this tell you? It tells you there is a serious void in how we teach the craft of writing. This is what I suspected, and after years of research, this is exactly what I found. Why is there a void in how we teach? It exists, in my view, because we are teaching one or two concepts incorrectly, we’re blinded to the fact that there exists a set of fundamental rules for crafting prose. The NORTAV Method essentially corrects those few existing problems and opens the doors to discovering that secret set of fundamental rules.

Are you saying you can learn these new rules and not have to practice?

Of course not. But practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. You have to know the fundamental skills in order to practice them with efficiency.  A writer learning to craft prose by understanding the rules up front will perfect her craft long before another writer who goes about it the old fashioned way: by learning the rules subconsciously through endless reading and practice. Consider this. Two people decide to learn to play the piano. One is taught through music theory. The other is forced to learn by listening to CDs and watching videos of famous pianists. We know that both have the potential of becoming great pianists, but which one do you think will learn and progress faster? Which do you think has the better chance of mastering the instrument? The way we teach writing today, we teach only part of the theory. The rest we give over to trial-and-error. It’s like teaching the budding pianist only the rules pertaining to the white keys, and then forcing him to learn the rules for the black ones on his own.

What are the parts of today’s theory that are incorrect?

Point of view. I like to say that this term should be taken into the backyard and shot. Several times. We use it to represent two different concepts. We use it to try to define how a work of fiction is written. For example, in first person point of view, second person point of view, third person point of view, etc. We also use the term to describe the perspective of any given scene or segment of prose. For instance, you might say “this scene is written from Sam’s point of view.” As far as it goes, this latter definition is fine. The former definition, however, is far too simplistic to describe how a narrative is structured. It’s like being forced to describe each of 16 million colors as either red, green, blue, or yellow. Any work that goes beyond a straight narrative presentation can’t be accurately described this way. Take Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop. It begins in first person, shifts to third, then back to first. So which label is it? First person? Third person? First-third-first person? Or take the fact that nearly every writing book out there has a different list  of labels for the myriad types of third person point of views: third person omniscient, third person limited, third person fly on the wall, third person objective, etc. Why? Because there are too many possible permutations of a narrative structure. Everyone is trying to come up with their own labels for each possibility. They overlap each other. They miss some completely. Now, you may be saying to yourself, Yeah, okay. But so what? Why does it matter? Well, it matters because once you discard the old concept of point of view and adopt a more flexible and accurate concept, that of a narrative framework, you suddenly open the doors to understanding how prose is actually constructed.

Can you give us an example?

Sure. Let’s look at the first person point of view (old terminology, which I’ll refer to as ‘ot’). If we leave our understanding there, like we have for decades, we can’t differentiate between these examples:

— I stepped into the woods, not knowing what I’d find there, but hoping against hope it wasn’t a dead body.

— I stepped into the woods. It was dark. The smell of earth and mold hung in the air. It was quiet. Too quiet.

— Before I tell you what happened in the woods that day, I need to take you back to Boston, 1978.

Each of these examples would be labeled as first person, but each are constructed differently, and I don’t mean that the sentences are simply different. I mean they are built using a different set of rules that govern their construction. To you, they probably look as if they are all constructed the same. This is because your understanding of prose construction has been stymied by the inadequacies of the point of view concept. Once you understand the NORTAV Method, they will seem as different as apples, bananas, and oranges. The point of all this is that the concept of point of view does not dictate how prose is constructed. And that’s what we’re concerned with. Let me prove that. Here are the same three examples, recast into third person (ot):

— He stepped into the woods, not knowing what he’d find there, but hoping against hope it wasn’t a dead body.

— He stepped into the woods. It was dark. The smell of earth and mold hung in the air. It was quiet. Too quiet.

— Before he tells you what happened in the woods that day, he needs to take you back to Boston, 1978.

All I did here was change the ‘I’ to ‘he.’ That is, I changed the point of view. Nothing in the construction of these sentences changed at all. But notice how the examples no longer mean the same thing, especially the third example. Meaning may change, but prose construction doesn’t. So, you see from this how point of view does not dictate how the prose is constructed. And yet point of view is the only tool we use today to teach prose construction. (I say this with somewhat of a caveat. There are a few forward thinking writers/teachers who have gone one step beyond this: Evan Marshall, Karen Weisner, James Scott Bell, for example. Though incomplete and slightly inaccurate, it is their work, plus the tenants of narratology, that spawned The NORTAV Method.)

Okay, so then what does dictate how prose is constructed?

Well, you’ll have to follow my blog series to find out the details, or buy my book when it comes out, but I’ll give you a little taste here. Basically, each work of fiction has a narrative framework that describes its narrative structure. Or, in other words, the narrative framework defines how the story will be told to the reader. (NOTE: If the narrative framework determines how the story will be told to the reader, it determines how the story, i.e. the prose, will be constructed by the writer, which is what we’re concerned with.) The narrative framework determines who the narrator of the story will be, when the story is being told vice when the story occurs, and if the narrator will be overt, meaning noticeable to the reader, or covert, meaning the narrator is hiding in the background revealing only the experiences of a character to the reader.  These narrative parameters determine which of three modes of prose construction can be used by the writer. In a quick write-up like this, narrative frameworks may seem a bit complicated, but the truth is, they’re really pretty simple and intuitive.

So what are the three modes of prose construction?

You tell me. Based on what I’ve already mentioned, can you look at those six examples and figure out what the modes are?  Everything you need to know is there. Yes? No? The modes are Straight Narration, Narrated Character Experience, and Direct Character Experience. Each of these modes operate under a different set of rules. The narrative framework determines, amongst a few other things, which modes are feasible for a given narrative work. The writer then decides how to interweave prose from each of the modes in order to tell the story. Today, this all happens subconsciously.

This sounds a bit formulaic. Is the NORTAV Method a formula for writing?

I’m glad you asked that. In a word: NO. The NORTAV Method is just like any other set of rules in writing: grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. The rules are learned and practiced, and then used organically in the writing process. Having said that, the NORTAV Method can be used in a methodical approach in practice, or even as a formulaic writing process if the writer is one who plans out her prose in that level of detail. More typically, though, it comes through subconsciously when the prose is created, and then is used consciously in the editing process, just like grammar and spelling.

Can you give us an example of some of the rules for one of the modes of prose construction?

Sure. Let’s look at Direct Character Experience, as I’ve been blogging about that over the last few weeks. In fact, I’ll reuse some of the things I said in my blog to save myself some typing.

In a nutshell, Direct Character Experience (DCE) is created by alternating through the perceptions of a focal character. These perceptions are:

Observations: Notated as [O]. These perceptions are what the focal character experiences through her five senses–sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell.

Reactions: Notated as [R]. These are the involuntary internal or external reactions of a focal character: fear, disgust, joy, lust, a jerk of the head, a stagger backwards, etc.

Thoughts: Notated as [T]. These are the conscious or subconscious thoughts of the focal character: analyses, memories, musings, calculations, knowledge, etc.

Actions: Notated as [A]. These are the physical actions taken by the focal character: walking, grabbing, sitting, seeing, smelling, etc. Note: the act of ‘seeing’ or ‘smelling’ itself is an action. What is seen or smelt is an observation.

Verbalizations: Notated as [V]. These are the verbalizations produced by the focal character, such as speech, grunts, groans, etc. Note that dialogue is not a perception, but rather an exchange of [O]bservations and [V]erbalizations by the focal character.

Once again, keep in mind that the NORTAV Method is not a formulaic approach to writing. Though it could be used as a means to plan and/or construct prose, the NORTAV Method is a skill that is learned consciously and then used subconsciously throughout the writing process or consciously during the editing process, just like other spelling, grammar, and syntax rules are learned consciously and employed subconsciously. The NORTAV Method is precisely what writers have been learning for years (and years and years) through trial and error and by emulating the prose of professionals, who in turn had to learn their craft in the same painful, trial-and-error way. Now let’s look again at an excerpt from Greg Keyes’s THE BRIAR KING, notated using [O] [R] [T] [A] [V]s. (Note: this excerpt is used under the protection of fair use, for scholarly purposes.)

[O] Aspar White smelled murder. Its scent was like a handful of autumn leaves, crisped by the first frost and crushed in the palm.

[T] Dirty Jesp, the Sefry woman who had raised him, told him once that his peculiar sense came from having been born of a dying mother below the gallows where the Raver took his sacrifices. But Jesp made her living as a liar, and the why didn’t matter anyway. All Aspar cared about was that his nose was usually right. Someone was about to kill someone else, or try.

[T] Aspar had just walked into the Sow’s Teat after a week of hard going in the Walham Foothills. His muscles burned with fatigue, his mouth was grittier than sand, and for days he had been dreaming of the cool, dark, honeyed sweetness of stout. He’d had just one sip, one moment of it dancing on his tongue, one kiss of foam on his lips, when the scent came and ruined the taste. [R] With a sigh, [A] he set the grainy earthenware mug on the pitted oak of his table and looked around the dark, crowded interior of the tavern, one hand straying to the planished bone grip of his dirk, [T] wondering where death was coming from and where it was going.

[O] He saw only the usual crowd—charcoal burners mostly, their faces smudged black by their trade, joking and laughing as they drank away the taste of soot on their tongues. Nearer the door, which had been propped open to let in the evening air, Loh—the miller’s boy, in his clean, lace-trimmed shirt—gestured grandly with his mug, and his friends hooted as he drained the whole thing in one long draught. Four Hornladh merchants in checkered doublets and red hose stood near the hearth, where a spitted boar dripped sizzling into the coals, and around them gathered a clump of youths, faces eager and ruddy in the firelight, begging stories about the wide world beyond their tiny village of Colbaely.

[T] Nothing that even looked like a brawl about to start. [A] Aspar picked up his mug again.

[T] Maybe the beer was a little off, today.

[O] But then he saw where murder was coming from. It came in through the open door, along with the first tentative trilling of whippoorwills and a faint, damp promise of rain. [T] He was just a boy, maybe fifteen. Not from Colbaely, Aspar knew for sure, and probably not even from the Greffy of Holtmarh. [O] The newcomer swept a desperate, hurried gaze around the room, squinting, trying to adjust his eyes to the light, clearly searching for someone. Then he saw Aspar, alone at his table, and lurched toward him. The young fellow was clad in brain-tanned elkskin breeches and a shirt of homespun that had seen better days.

[O] His brown hair was matted, caked with mud, and full of leaves.

[O] Aspar saw the apple in his throat bobble convulsively as he pulled a rather large sword from a sheath on his back and quickened his pace.

[A] Aspar took another pull on his beer and [R] sighed. [O] It tasted worse than the last.

There is a lot more to learn about Direct Character Experience, but this little bit should give you a taste of what The NORTAV Method is all about.

Thanks for inviting me to guest post! It’s been a blast.

~Jim

For more about Jim, visit his site ajabbiati.com, or email him at author@ajabbiati.com. Steph’s Scribe thanks Jim for participating today and looks forward to hearing more in the future!

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