Monday, February 28, 2011
He mentioned this to the comic playwright Neil Simon, who said immediately, "You can't end with Vermont, because Vermont isn't funny." He didn't mean the state (which isn't more or less funny), but rather the sound. "Hampshire" is funny, see, because of that P in the middle.
Mr. Simon averred that propulsive letters (P, B, and F), the ones that SPIT, are inherently funny, and that an ending word with one of those will cause more laughter. (Also said that "L" was NOT a funny sound, which is funny, because, you know, "laugh.")
This goes along with my thought that ending words in sentences and especially paragraphs are either "upbeat" or "downbeat," and that an upbeat ending ("Okay?") calls for a downbeat ending ("Yeah, okay."). The sound of words-- even in written prose!-- causes an emotional and mental effect on the listener/reader, and if we want to have "natural" sounding prose and especially dialogue, we should be aware of that (unless we do it naturally, in which case we shouldn't mess with it... but if we're ever accused of having "wooden or stilted" prose, we're probably not doing this naturally).
Sound matters, even in written prose.... and it matters even more with sophisticated readers, and editors and agents (and bookbuyers) are usually sophisticated readers!
Sunday, February 27, 2011
Saturday, February 26, 2011
Friday, February 25, 2011
Thursday, February 24, 2011
The things men do for their wives, he thought. The door weighed nothing and slipped out of his fingers. It crashed into the metal chair rail on the full-length windows. Weird how he looked through all that glass and could only see himself. Distorted. Fuckin' A.
He'd expected sterile rows of glass grocery-store cases inside, with half-dome fronts. Instead of seafood, these would be loaded with truffles and bon-bons and bark and all that shit girls craved.
Nope. No cases. Tables. Round ones. They'd seat two in a restaurant. Each covered by a tablecloth so bright, he wanted his sunglasses. Each stacked with chocolate. Every table had a theme and a flower post on a pedestal -- every bit as gaudy as the damn tablecloths -- holding a hard-to-read, hand-lettered sign.
He groaned. Deciphering what was what would take all day. He'd need another day to decide what to placate her with.
He only had an hour.
When Susan and I were originally tweeting about her exercise, she told me she was struggling to get it down to 150 words and preserve the character voice. Even if she hadn't told me that, though, we'd be using this example as an opportunity to discuss point of view and setting.
Every detail in this setting is viewed through the strong lens of this character's point of view. This particular man notices particular details that another might not notice. This is great. This is what we want to see. This is step one in connecting the character to the environment. Maybe a PMSing woman walks in and sees only the truffles. Maybe a state health inspector focuses on the open displays. Characters perceive environments in different ways.
In this case, we have a musician whose eyes are probably sensitive from exposure to stage lighting, and consequently he notices the brightness of the colors and the tininess of the text. But the chocolates themselves hardly rate a descriptive mention after that first scornful "all that shit" line. This is all character-specific.
But that's just the first step in joining the character to the setting. What's step two? It's something Susan is doing very well here. All those viewpoint-specific setting details are pinging off this guy's radar. He is INTERACTING, not merely noticing. And he's doing it all without making a single gesture. First we get the contrast of his expectations versus the reality. Then we get a taste of his scorn for the very thing he's there to buy. Then we get his visceral reaction to the tablecloths, followed by an emotional reaction. Then we get his whining about the signs. It's very deftly done.
If this were a real piece rather than an exercise, I would be extremely pleased with the way the setting was handled, but Susan and I might be talking about ways to make this guy a little more warm in this moment. We might talk about tempering his negativity with genuine worry about his wife. We'd be killing that thought tag in the first line (it's unnecessary when the pov is already this deep and clear), and we'd be shifting that first paragraph so he's not thinking about himself but about his wife. But that's a separate issue unrelated to setting. I only point it out because, you know, I'm incorrigible that way. Tinkering with that first paragraph would shift the entire tone of the piece so that we might feel more sympathy for this guy.
Now, here's an exercise for anyone who cares to do it. I want you to take this chocolate shop setting as set up by Susan and put another character in it. In the comments, give me a one-sentence description of this character. Then give me three things this character will notice about this environment. And then give me one unique way this character will react to one of those three things.
Ready, set, go! :)
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
No. They wanted the person in the file they were holding. She leaned back on the old wooden chair and put her feet up on the matching desk. She had a moment's unease as she wondered if that brown stain was coffee-or blood. These men were an unknown to her.
The blue suit, as she thought of the slightly shorter, more dour of the partners, held her file. She recognized it from her stint in the military hospital after some freak biological substance had leaked in their neighborhood.
That was back when she was still married--she put an abrupt stop to that train. It had left the station long time ago. She stubbed out her cigarette in the small old-fashioned glass ashtray on the desk. They obviously didn't have an updated dossier on her or they never would have left her with such a hand weapon, much less matches.
Leona presents us with a great opportunity to talk about narrative balance. The setting details are sparse, but that doesn't undermine the piece. In fact, I think this is probably a very good balance for this excerpt.
Why? Because there's emotional tension in the moment that results from the character interaction and premise, and if we were to pause to describe the architecture, it would siphon off some of the tension. Instead, the setting details as presented contribute in subtle ways to the tension. There's a file -- we can't see inside it, but the character recognizes it and actively wonders if the contents have changed. There's a stain -- we don't know where, or how large or dark, but we know it could be coffee or blood. There's a lit cigarette and matches -- weapons in the hands of this woman.
The only setting details that don't ratchet up the tension are the ashtray, desk and chair. Everyone take a look at those particular details and then compare them to the other setting details. Notice anything different between the two groups of details? Really look and see what you notice. This is a chance for you to practice using an editorial eye. :)
Done looking? What did you notice? The tension details are presented very cleanly, but the non-tension moments have adjectives. Those adjectives add narrative weight to those non-tension details, with the result that the tension and non-tension details carry a similar amount of narrative impact. The tension details will still feel more oomphy than the adjective details, but adding those adjectives evens things out a bit.
Why would this be a good thing? If we want to create the impression that this character doesn't miss a trick, that she's on permanent high alert, this will get you there. And you won't have to slow the pace to let her absorb a lot of details in a static way. It's incorporated into the action of the moment.
The downside is that it does slightly dilute the impact of the "pow" moments -- bloodstain, weapon -- but those moments are strong enough, and balanced well enough, that they don't disappear. So this is probably a good choice in terms of narrative balance IF the character is meant to be a hyper-attentive type.
My one slight quibble with the setting details derives from this sentence:
She recognized it from her stint in the military hospital after some freak biological substance had leaked in their neighborhood.
Has this backstory been referenced elsewhere before now? This kind of sentence is a cheap and easy way to sneak in a bit of backstory, but there's a problem. We don't know why she recognizes it. What makes this file look different from any other file? Are there markings on it? Because, of course, she doesn't recognize it from her stint in the military hospital. She remembers it from then, but she recognizes it from its size, color, markings, etc.
So we're not getting a visual on this prop, and I think we ought to. If the backstory has already been presented elsewhere, you can pare it down here and replace it with a visual. You probably still want to link the file to her industrial accident somehow, but shift the focus off the backstory and to the present scene moments.
If the backstory has not already been presented, then keep this sentence more or less as it is, and give us a visual on the prop earlier, perhaps in that first sentence or even earlier.
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Once out of the park, Clotilde stood still, the sounds and sights of the city surrounding her. Brightly dressed people bustled past on the pavement and the street was full of large car and double-decker buses. Everywhere she looked, something was moving. Her fingers clenched the plastic bag with the advertisement. She resisted the urge to run back to the river and hide. She needed to find someone to give her directions - not the Yank, obviously, but someone who lived here and knew London.
Across the raging traffic she could see a small coffee shop. Clotilde waved at the car until one stopped. She smiled and stepped into the street to cross. The driver hooted his horn and she broke into a run, dodging the rest of the traffic. She practically fell into the coffee shop, shaking the rain from her hair.
What is done well, and what could be done better? I'm impressed with the way prepositional phrases are used to orient the character into a dimensional space. Out of the park, across the traffic, into the street, back to the river. We get a strong sense of what is before and behind the character. That's neatly done.
I think the sense of motion in the world around her is also clear, but I want it to be more concrete. Phrases like "sights and sounds of the city" are too abstract to register a sensory impression. What exactly does she hear? Cars. Footsteps. Horns. What else? What exactly does she see? Cars. People. Pavement. Coffee shop. These words are more concrete than "sights and sounds."
Do we notice anything else about those setting nouns? Most of them are general, though they are concrete. I think this is because the setting details are being presented in the aggregate. We see cars as a group rather than yellow cabs and black sedans and tiny green smart cars. Other than double-decker buses, the street traffic is presented without detail.
You might be thinking that it's better to treat cars and pedestrians in the aggregate in a scene like this -- after all, in this particular excerpt, it does contribute to the sense of busy-ness and bustle to talk about the big groupings of like objects. And that's a good thing. We like the way abundance and aggregation are used to almost overwhelm the reader and character, as if there's so much for her to take in that she can't possibly grasp it all.
But when that car almost hits her? That's when we need to get a bit more specific. That's when the character's focus will shift from the chaos of the many to the problem of the one. Describe that car more specifically. Don't rely on "brightly dressed people" to work as a tag for the driver, either. Give us a flash of him, too, as a specific detail within this setting.
Was anyone else surprised by the rain in the final sentence? I'm assuming that the rain would have been mentioned before now, perhaps when she's still in the park or by the river. But I wonder if it also needs to be mentioned in the context of the setting. Do the pedestrians carry umbrellas? Is there thunder contributing to the noise?
In all, I would characterize this as a good early draft. We have clear orientation and the setting supports and merges with the character's actions. But in a final draft, I would expect some of the less vague details to be made more vibrant and specific.
What else do we see in this setting example?
Thank you, Sylvia, for sharing your paragraphs. Overall, you're on the right track, I think.
This is a feature, not a bug
And can give me a couple examples, I'd be very grateful! I'm working on finding neologisms which are clever or useful, and this one seems to qualify as both. But I'm having trouble really grasping it.
Thanks for any examples or explanations!
Sunday, February 20, 2011
I was thinking, btw, of copyright issues. I remember when a friend wanted to use a popular country song as the epigraph of her novel, and she contacted the copyright holder (not the songwriter, actually, but a company-- made me think of how Lennon and McCartney lost control of their own lyrics and music). The company told her she could use the lyrics if she paid $800 and a 1% of the sales of the book. Even if her publisher would have agreed with that last part (it wouldn't-- 1% of the sales price is like 10% of the company's eventual profits from the book), she wasn't about to pay $800 for what would actually be free advertising for the song. So she wrote her own country song, just for the book.
But think about it. Recently I wrote a blog post about synopsis, and how it shouldn't be about the plot but about the whole story. (That's what our March class is about, btw-- described on the right there.) I wanted to make a graphic distinction of the difference between plot and story, and so I linked to a site with the sheet music of Ave Maria (plot) and a Youtube video of Pavarotti singing Ave Maria. So... does a link violate copyright laws? Or is that something Youtube can worry about and I don't have to? (I don't know, but if anyone's going to sue me, I'll take the links down. :)
Our articles and blog posts are frequently posted on other sites (sometimes with, sometimes without our permission), and sometimes there's just a link to our original. Of course, we prefer the latter, as it brings people to our site (not that this means much-- not like we charge or have ads). And it would never occur to me that there was anything wrong with someone putting a link to a post of ours in their own blog or article.
But I bet I would object if someone made a book that was composed primarily of lots of links to our articles and articles written by others-- "The Best Writing Advice Evuh Book!" At least, I'd probably object if the book's compiler made money from it. I don't want someone making money from something we give away for free, after all.
No great wisdom here. But I wonder if we're going to struggle with copyright issues forever now, or if that'll be resolved by people (I hope) smarter than I am.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
So let's take a look at what Jody can do.
"Sorry, sweetie, we're out of porterhouses." Annette, Harry's grey-haired waitress, slid a stemmed water glass onto the table in front of him and flipped her receipt book to the next page.
Out of porterhouses? How could Miss Sandie's Tea Room run out of steaks when he was the only customer who ordered them?
Harry stared at the frilly, blue-checkered menu as if another werewolf-friendly item were going to appear among the scones and scotch eggs. Miss Sandie's was his customary lunch spot, but he'd rather fire up the grill himself than settle for a fruit plate.
Which was saying a lot. Harry hadn't gotten a culinary gene, just a furry one.
"Are you sure, Annette? Did Sandie order T-bones?" He sniffed, but he couldn't detect much beyond the fresh flowers on his table and apple pie odor that saturated the dining room.
Yes, we like this. Notice that the setting is named, and then almost every other detail related to the setting is a prop. The water glass, the menu, the order book -- these are all items that reinforce the setting. Notice how Jody slips these details in as part of the action. The world is coming alive around the characters because the characters are interacting with the world. The pov character has a scene-level problem related to the setting. The elements are integrated and coherent.
For contrast, look at what would happen if we did a brief info-dump type description.
Harry sat at his usual lunch table in Miss Sandie's Tea Room. There were fresh flowers on the table, and the odor of apple pie saturated the dining room air. A frilly, blue-checkered menu was propped open at the end of the table right beside a stemmed water glass.
"Sorry, sweetie, we're out of porterhouses." etc.
A lot of the same vivid details, but the presentation is less effective because it's all static. Nothing is moving. Even where the verbs are interesting, they're immobile. Instead of a scene in which the story details are interrelated and support each other, we have a flatter version of the same.
When we talk about things like blending setting with action, this is what we mean. But it's also a good example of another principle: don't describe the setting detail until it becomes relevant to the action.
Take another look at the way the menus are used in Jody's good example and my junky rewrite. In hers, the werewolf is reading the menu and trying to solve a problem. The menu details are mentioned as he reads and thinks it through. In mine, the menu is mentioned before we reach the point where Harry has to read it. It's out of sequence.
Any questions? Any other observations?
Friday, February 18, 2011
I'm especially interested in sites with information about publishers and contracts.
But also in sites that help writers connect with other writers, especially for critiques.
And really any site you think would be helpful, especially for those just starting out or those just starting to submit.
Any ideas? Thanks! You make my life easier!
So here's the first example, from an anonymous submitter.
Franque the mathematician sat up in bed. The bobble of his nightcap bounced gently on his ample cheek. He pulled the cap from his head, twisted the bobble on its plaited threads, turned it so far, then let go, watching it unwind.
The sleepy voice of wife seven, lying beside him, asked, “You alright?”
“Yes, I'm fine. Need to sort something out. You go back to sleep.”
Franque swung his legs over the side of his bed, shuffled forward and dropped the three or so inches to the floor. For the three thousand six hundred and fiftieth time he said to himself, Must get a lower bed. He donned a fluffy white dressing gown, slipped his chubby feet into a pair of leather flip-flops and flapped his way through the dimly lit halls of his huge home, down wide sweeping stairways, along vaulted corridors, to his office.
I've bolded two types of details in this passage. The first are the props -- the dressing gown, the slippers, the hat -- and the second are the proper setting details -- the bed, the corridors, etc. Although these two categories of details read differently, and although the characters might interact with them differently, they still hold down basically the same job in the narrative. Concrete details in the story world help to bring the reader into that world. Whether it's a shoe or a speedboat, it's accomplishing that same basic task.
Here, the details are weighted toward props. The great thing about props is that they can change fairly easily, and as we know, change can create dramatic interest. If he's wearing pajamas in this scene and a track suit in the next, we can conclude something about a change as the character moves forward through time. This is minimal change, of course, but don't overlook even these micro-ways to manipulate the way the reader interprets the story. You want some mix of both props and immutable setting in each scene, in most cases.
Let's take a look at how these particular props and setting details are communicating character and story details.
--bed, nightcap, dressing gown, slippers, dimly lit hall.
These indicate the time in which the scene occurs. We're never told it's the middle of the night, but we know it from the props and the action. I'm all in favor of this kind of suggestive writing because it can lead the reader into a more engaged state. Details are presented that allow us to draw a conclusion on our own. The trick in this sort of writing is making sure the details lead the reader to the correct conclusion. Here, because there's nothing to contradict that impression and there's a wealth of facts to confirm it, we can be assured the reader will correctly conclude "dead of night" as the time.
Are we actually talking about a tassel here? A bobble is a little lumpy bit knit into fabric. Here's an example of a bobbled hat. Here's an example of a hat with a corded tassel. If the mathematician often misnames objects or stumbles over words -- I'm thinking absent-minded professor stuff here, not so much malapropisms -- then this works to help establish his character. But it would work better if we saw him stumbling for other terms, too. This could be a hallmark of his behavior when he's trying to work out a problem. Do we see any other evidence that he might be a bit garbled when he's thinking hard? Hmm. The "three thousand etc. time" seems to work against that -- it's a funny line, but it's a little too precise if we're aiming for an impression of confusion.
--three inches or so from the floor
Yes. This. Why is this a great detail? Because it focuses on something slightly out of the ordinary. This automatically lends a bit of interest to the setting. Do you all remember in one of the setting posts when we talked about how it's better to skip the expected details and focus on things that are unusual? This is a strong example of that principle. We're not just told, there's a bed, there's a blanket, there's a pillow -- although any of those details could accurately describe a bed. Instead, we're told he has to maneuver to get out of this bed and that it's too tall. There's a nice subtextual suggestion that he's small, the bed is large, he's small in the bed as he wrestles with his problem -- almost a hint that the problem itself is too big for him. Throw in the bobble thing, and maybe this guy is more lucky than bright? Good detail. (Assuming this is the impression the author is trying to create.)
But contrast this with,
--his huge home, down wide sweeping stairways, along vaulted corridors
So, we're told it's a huge home. Okay. And then this impression is magnified with the stairs and corridors. Okay. It ties in nicely to the giant bed, but where the giant bed was unusual, the big stairs and halls are sort of expected in a huge home. Right? There's nothing wrong with these details, but they don't have quite the same impact as the big bed. As an editor, if I were working on this manuscript, I would mentally flag these details. If the halls and stairs are important in later scenes -- if, for example, there's a chase through this labyrinthine network of passages, or if our absentminded mathematician gets lost in his own home -- then setting up for it now is not a bad idea. Otherwise, different details might work better here.
I also want to point out that the details are feathered into the action very nicely. It's a good blend, and it moves at a pretty solid pace.
Is anyone else wondering why Franque can't sleep? I am. It's a good scene question, but as we're in his point of view, I almost wonder if we shouldn't be getting glimpses of the problem keeping him awake. We hear some of his other interior monologue. Why not this, too? If the paragraph starts giving us this insight, then I think this might be okay. Hard to know for sure without seeing the whole piece, and I won't make any judgment on this, but I did want to flag it for the author as something to think about during revisions.
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
A hard trend is one that is going to happen, while a soft trend might seem to be inevitable but isn't.
For example, the baby boom generation is going to age. Hard trend.
There will be greater employment soon as baby boomers start to retire. Soft trend. (Boomers could work till they're 80, and might have to.)
So I'm thinking of what the trends are for story. I'm not going to say "novels" or "books" or "publishing," because I don't know that those are really eternal. But I think "story" is eternal-- we've probably always had it, and always will.
What's a hard trend that might affect the future of story? The Flash Foresight author identifies "globalization of literacy," that more and more people will become literate across the globe.
What's a soft trend, something that has been true in the past but might not continue to be? Maybe that NYC will be the center of publishing, or that "books" will continue to be the way story is transmitted. I wouldn't bet a lot on either of those at this point.
So put on your pointy cap and let's speculate about the future. What are other "hard trends" that will affect story? And what can we learn from this that might influence us as writers?
One question I have is whether English will continue to be the dominant language for global communication. Of course, other languages are spoken as first languages in greater quantity (Mandarin), but when it comes to second language, will English continue to dominate? If so, does that give English-writers an advantage?
Does the global communication of the Internet mean greater literacy in English?
Will people from other cultures still want to experience the myths and stories of their culture even as the Internet leads them out of the culture? I ask because I wonder if we writers would benefit from studying the stories of non-Western cultures, expanding our cultural stew.
Should writers go beyond their own borders for publication? With the Internet, of course, there really are no borders. But what if you want a book-book, in print? Should you consider publishers that are in other countries? Is that worth trying?
Have we finally (finally... boy, am I impatient... it hasn't actually been more than a decade!) gotten the "e-reader" app that will open up the new world to us as writers? The instant transmission of books, the lack of shipping requirements, the un-cabling of written story from paper.... Does this open up the market beyond where the post office can cheaply reach?
What about other forms of entertainment? After all, video can be transmitted almost as quickly as prose these days. Should we writers think of ourselves as competing with film and TV, or are those just providing another type of story?
Okay, how about "reality?" You know, that thing that happens outside of story. :) Facebook, Twitter, reality TV, news, those are all in contrast to fiction/story. Can we co-opt that, I mean, can we learn from that? Should we, or is fiction a necessary and eternal alternative to reality?
Just some thoughts as I watch the Big Thaw outside-- the first time I've seen the driveway in 9 weeks! And that reminds me that everything changes. Even the snow and ice, which seemed so permanent, will eventually change. I hope. Tired of winter here!
Anyone around who can give weather recommendations on the trip over the Rockies? Everything's melting around here, but how about in the West?
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Anyway. Re-reading Moore, and ran across this paragraph which I thought I'd share. Not about character craft, but about audience relationship with the performance. From the chapter Elements of an Action, section Communion--
To make the meaning and logic of his actions understandable to the spectators, an actor must communicate with them indirectly, through his communion with other actors. ...[W]hen an actor has direct contact with spectators he becomes merely a reporter instead of a live character. This relationship disrupts the truth of the performance and distracts the audience from the play itself. An honest, unbroken communion between actors, on the other hand, holds the spectators' attention and makes them part of what takes place on stage.
This reminds me of a drawing we used in one of my dramatic writing classes in college. Character One and Character Two interact with each other, and the audience witnesses the interaction:
Please forgive my insanely crappy drawing skills. But despite my inARTiculateness *har*har* this drawing might make clear what we're talking about. It's about how a scene is perceived and how to control the attention of the viewer.
When we translate this concept to fiction, we're basically talking about point of view and the old "show, don't tell" rule. In other words, whether in theater or on the page, when characters interact directly with each other, the action is more interesting. When the characters interpret the action directly TO the reader-- whether through omniscient narration, exposition, or other methods -- it's less compelling.
Why is this? Dunno. Maybe we're just hardwired for it. I mean, what's more likely to capture your attention -- film footage of a train colliding into a car, or a guy with a mic talking about it? Direct experience just feels more compelling, even if we're merely witnessing that direct experience from a safe distance. I mean, nobody actually wants to be driving that car. But the film footage of the wreck itself might go viral.
So, how do we work this to our advantage in fiction? Use some of the things we've spent over three years exploring on this blog.
- Pay attention to how your narrative is weighted. Check the proportions of your narrative elements. You do this by looking at how much space they take on the page. In most ordinary commercial fiction scenes, there should be lots of action and dialogue, with the next biggest chunk coming from interior monologue, and then description. Exposition should be minimal, regardless of the form of the exposition. (NOTE: I'm not telling you to totally eliminate your exposition. Just keep it lighter than the other elements.)
- Make sure your interior monologue is true interior monologue, that is, not summary that tries to pretend to be interior monologue. Example: She wondered if he would like an apple pie for their picnic is not true IM. Would he like an apple pie for their picnic? is IM. She wondered is a thought tag that interprets the nature of the thought for the reader, so it removes us from the direct experience of her interior monologue. (NOTE: I'm not telling you that all thought tags are per se evil. But use them deliberately and sparingly for effect. Okay, Alicia? lol)
- Use gestures in place of mood words to make the experience more vivid. (Show, don't tell.) Example: She felt angry at him is less effective than She threw her napkin at him.
Do you see how these things sort of interrelate? They all have to do, more or less, with narrative distance between the reader and the characters. The default should be something closer, rather than farther, but the main thing is to become conscious of the ways you can push the reader back just by simple word choices and narrative choices.
Monday, February 14, 2011
And now we're going to talk about your stories.
If you've been following this blog for a while, you know that we periodically open things up and ask for you to send in short examples of your work. We post those examples here (anonymously, if you prefer) and talk about what we see, what works, and how we might edit them.
Now we're going to do that with settings. Send an excerpt of no more than 150 words to edittorrent at gmail dot com if you would like me to analyze your work. Make sure this excerpt has something to do with setting because that's what we're focused on right now. If you don't expressly say you want us to identify you as the author, then it will be posted as an anonymous submission.
If you have questions about how this works, post them in the comments.
Saturday, February 12, 2011
Let's see. I'll just type what comes to me. I was born in December 1955, so right in the middle of the baby boom. In high school, I did read and still remember those three books you asked about:
The Diary of Anne Frank
Catcher in the Rye
The Bell Jar
To some degree, they typify the big issues of the 60s, though they were written earlier, at least Anne Frank and Catcher in the Rye were, and represent a world that was sort of irrelevant by the time I read them. But they represented issues of importance--
Catcher, the rise of youth culture
The Bell Jar, the women's movement
Anne Frank, race, though her story was very European-- antisemitism wasn't the real issue for us in the US (not that it didn't exist, but it wasn't enshrined in the constitution!), of course, but racism against African-Americans.
When I was in grade school, we all read a very important children's book -- I've been trying to find the title, but can't-- based on Ruby Bridges's integration of a New Orleans grade school (the famous Norman Rockwell painting of the little black girl in the white dress, surrounded by
federal troops as she walks to school, is also based on this incident). I remember in the novel the girl was named Mary, and I thought that if everyone could read this, no one would ever say little children couldn't go to school together. Funny that I can't remember the title, because I think it
was that book that taught me that novels can change the world for the better, by making people identify with characters who are different-- make people empathize.
Another book like that, not a novel, was Black Like Me, where a white journalist darkened his skin to get the experience of racism. It was an interesting trick, and sold the book, but I do think
he might have just asked some black people. :) He ended up dying of cancer, and it was said it was due to this skin darkening.
Oh, another huge issue at the beginning of my conscious time (that is, after say 1963 and JFK's assassination, which was the first public event I really remember) was The Bomb, always capitalized. We'd just been through high anxiety with the Cuban Missile Crisis, though I was too
young to notice, and everyone pretty much believed that we'd have a nuclear war in the coming decade. Never happened, but that anxiety might have contributed to the extreme, frenetic nature of the late 60s. I remember reading a kit of dystopic novels like Alas, Babylon and On the Beach which were set in a post-nuclear-war world, and that genre definitely reflected (and contributed to) the sense of impending doom. (In fact, you know, the whole forgotten Y2K panic-- remember how there were dire warnings that planes would fall out of the sky and money would disappear from banks as soon as it became Jan 1, 2000?-- was, in some ways, an echo of
that apocalyptic fear, more extreme and immediate-- I mean, really immediate-- everything was going to change at the stroke of midnight!-- and ephemeral, but the same sort of dire "the world will end" dread.) I can recognize in Catcher in the Rye and the Bell Jar that sort of formless crawling dread-- young people believing secretly that there won't be a world there when they grow up. Anne Frank, of course, had very specific dreads before the Cold War, so the dread wasn't formless there. There really was no future for her.
Anyway, I'd say the central issues of the 60s (for the young) were the rise of the youth culture and the extraordinary explosion of art, especially music, that fed the endless desire for stimulation in the young people. :) And the war-- Anne Frank's war was very different than Vietnam, as the racism that affected her was different from what we were going through in the US. Civil rights and racism... this was more like an issue that finally came to fruition-- it had truly been an issue since the Jamestown settlers first brought slaves there in 1609. I was living in Virginia then, and in my childhood, everything was still segregated, so the great years of the struggle for integration were going on right then as I grew up. And finally, the sort of "sleeper issue", the one that ended up having a huge effect but went on sort of in the shadow of the civil
rights struggle, was women's liberation, and the discontent and sense of entrapment that led to that is fully described in The Bell Jar.
So, let's see. I read these probably all in high school or junior high. (In my town then, the high school was 8th-12th grade, so we were children when we entered and adults when we graduated.) I can't tell you how much changed just in that time. As I entered 8th grade, girls were required to wear dresses and stockings, and by the time I graduated, we were all wearing jeans and t-shirts like the boys (I actually was in a big protest and student walkout about the dress code... we won). The war was at its height when I started high school, and the senior boys were all expecting to be drafted, but by the time I graduated, the war was over (for the US) and the draft was a horrible memory. The school was just starting integration my 8th grade year, and a young black man was elected homecoming king my senior year. (Yeah, he was a football star. ;)
I have to distinguish between these three books. The Diary of Anne Frank we read in school, for school, I mean, probably in 8th grade history class. Oddly, given the subject matter, I don't much remember it. I remember of course the iconic photo she took of herself, but I don't remember much about the story. Recently a friend mentioned Anne's difficulty with her mother, and I had to admit that I didn't remember that at all. Maybe this is what happens when we get assigned a book! We didn't choose to read it, so we forgot it. Of course, I do know the story in the main, and I think her courage is an inspiration, but sometimes I think that it's impossible to
read literature of the Holocaust. We know the ending, and it's too much to bear, and it tells too much about the human race. I think very likely I reacted against Anne Frank the way I have always reacted against books about the Holocaust-- I simply shut down and can't deal with it, can't deal with what it means about my fellow humans (and maybe me).
What's kind of ironic is that we were assigned this book about the terrible inhumanity of humans, and Catcher in the Rye was banned. I know now it's "canon" and kids read it in school, but back then, they banned it. It wasn't in our school library, and when I wanted to take it out of the public library, they said my mother had to come with me and sign a permission slip. (My mother was a great reader and thought we should read anything we wanted and we'd sort it out, so she just bought me a copy-- I still remember-- it was a dark red paperback.) What was the banning
offense? Oh, there was the word "fuck" in there. No joke. We were supposed to read about how the Nazis enslaved and then murdered millions, but we couldn't read the word "fuck" because it would corrupt us.
So of course we all loved Catcher in the Rye, because it was forbidden. It was actually kind of earlier than the 60s. (side question-- why no good fiction about the 60s? There were a couple good novels about Vietnam, but I can't think of a great novel set in the 60s-- the real rioting in the streets 60s, not Portnoy's Complaint. And you know, I grew up then, and I'm a writer, and I never thought to write about the time-- I think it was so much about experience, about the moment, that it can only be captured in music, maybe, and the music is great enough, who needs novels? Just crank up the Stones. "Paint It Black!")
Okay. We were the TV generation, as our parents had been the radio generation and their parents the movie generation. Most families had TVs by 1963, and there were only the three networks, so we all watched the same shows. The sitcom was big then, and silly, a talking horse and a talking car and that sort of thing. Lots of variety shows-- watching the Rolling Stones get censored on the Ed Sullivan show ("Let's Spend the Night Together") was like seeing the 50s collide with the 60s. By about 1968, though, the stereo record player was making more of an impact on the TV generation. That was huge-- for the first time, really, the price of a stereo was within reach of teenagers if you pooled your money-- $300, which was about what a TV cost, and think of what that would be in today's dollars, probably about $1800. But while we still watched TV, music became much more important. The stereo was the same level of technological advance as the Sony Walkman (personal stereo) was, but different. The stereo was a communal technology. We'd all sit in a dark room and listen to King Crimson or Jimi Hendrix, you know. Together. Music was a social activity. You'd buy an album ($7... see, I remember prices because I had to babysit 14 hours to buy an album!) and call your friends and they'd
all come over and listen to it over and over and over. My brother Greg used to buy singles (because he was younger and had no money!) and listen to the one song over and over. He'd be really embarrassed if I reminded him that his favorite songs were a Jackson 5 song (Easy as 123) and some treacly ballad named "Traces". Anyway, the rest of us would get REALLY sick of Greg's favorite songs. He'd commandeer the stereo and play his singles over and over.
We all read Catcher in the Rye and thought we were very sinful. It actually made an impression on me not because it was so wicked (it's not), but because the voice is so colloquial and young. It was like the narrator Holden was talking straight to us. That book keeps showing up in weird places. It clearly inspired films like Garden State. And of course, John Lennon's assassin was holding it when he killed John: "very strange," to quote the Beatles.
The story of Holden Caulfield didn't actually make that big an impression. It was the voice of the narrative that was memorable. I think Holden's world of prep schools and Manhattan was about as alien as Anne Frank's attic to me, a girl in a little town in Virginia. I kind of think back fondly on his absolute narcissism, though of course at the time I thought he was very deep, but he's spending 90% of the book thinking about himself, because heck, what else is there that's important! (Ah, to be 17 again... NOT! Never! I'd die first! :) It's a spot-on portrayal of that age, and brilliant, although now the only thing I can remember that remains very wise and worthwhile is something that his (older) teacher says to him, about how he might grow up just knowing enough and thinking enough to despise people who said, "Between you and I," and that would be tragic. And Holden ignore that because the teacher was a "poof" or whatever he called homosexuals, and made an advance on him. Holden missed how great an insight it was, that learning and growing are misused if all they teach you is contempt.
But you know, the whole Manhattan scene was so exotic, but not in an enticing way. In the 50s, all the thoughtful young people wanted to go to NYC and be philosophical. In the 60s, we all wanted to go to California and be beautiful and free. Holden so much describes a world where
grownups rule, where the world was all about work and drinking for stress relief and desperate but secret sex, and he's the one who brings the whole youth thing-- he wants to be candid and open and speak his emotions and be crazy and creative and never get trapped in a job and an apartment and a bank account. Doesn't he at the end ends up in... California? In a loony bin, but, well, that's what California is/was.
Sylvia Plath's book takes place the same basic time, also in elite schools and Manhattan. (You know, I went off to college and met a girl from that exact milieu-- professional class Jewish New York, and she went to a prep school, and she thought I was the exotic one!) By the time we all read -- all being only girls; I don't think I've ever met a man who admits to reading that book-- The Bell Jar, we all knew about her suicide, and that this book was based on her life, and we looked for clues to the death in the book.
Looking back, I think of The Bell Jar as, again, the portrayal of a world that was shortly going to vanish-- very shortly, so that by the time I read it, only a decade after it was written, it seemed like Gone with the Wind. But I did sort of know that world, because my mother, for a while, tried to live in it, buying a sewing machine to make these glamorous dresses like the kind the singers wore on the Ed Sullivan Show and the models wore in The Bell Jar. Of course, she couldn't live in that world-- being a poor ethnic girl who was the first in the family to go to college, etc., but I know she did feel that she SHOULD be like that, glamorous and artificial and brittle. What a weird ideal that was, and yet that was the world Plath was writing about, the world of the glam magazines. No wonder she committed suicide!
Two things come to mind-- one is that girls STILL read Plath's book and feel that what's her name is like them. I never did-- maybe because she was so recent when I read it, and I think also because girls today also have pressure to be "effortlessly hot, beautifully perfect," and for a brief moment in the late 60s, that pressure was off, and that's when I was coming of age. Not that we didn't want to be sexy and all, but you know, YOUTH is sexy, and we knew it-- the youth revolution thing. We knew that we were beautiful because we were young, and we were important because we were young, and that everyone older or younger than us wanted to BE us.
You could wear makeup or not, you could wear hose or never even shave your legs, and you'd still be considered beautiful. Weird time! But of course, Plath didn't live to that time. She lived just before that, in a time like right now, where even the most beautiful girls don't think they're beautiful enough. But at least now beauty is not all the matters, as it was in her time. Now you can succeed in life and love in other ways, although I suspect that those ways are still seen as a bit lesser than the beauty route.
So, as I said, I think girls today probably feel closer to Plath's heroine than I did. The daughter of a friend of mine actually read The Bell Jar and attempted suicide-- btw, she's now getting her PhD in English at Yale. :) That febrile narcissic intensity was something she understood viscerally, and I think the suicide attempt was almost an emulation (though she told four friends and a teacher that she'd taken all these pills, so natch, she was saved).
Other thing-- the part I remember most, and what does this say :)-- is when the heroine sees her first lover's genitals and thinks that they look like "a turkey neck and gizzards." Now that's pretty funny, and it reminds me that the first grenade thrown at the wall of patriarchy was
ridicule. That is, the heroine (or author) being able to laugh at the man was significant. The whole Freudian penis-envy thing was absurdly prominent in the 50s, and the patriarchy was huge in the US, all these boys like my father, coming back from the war and pretending to be men because the male adult was the ideal then, the silent, knowing, secretive, brutal, war-winning man. The 50s were all about shoving women back into the box (it's happening again, I tell you!) because they got too independent for male tastes during the war-- working in factories and going out afterwards with their friends and drinking and sleeping with other men. As soon as the war ended, all the boys came home and had to re-assert the patriarchy, and part of that, I think, was the attempt to pathologize being a woman. See, women were -wrong-, they weren't what they were supposed to be and knew it, and they envied men and that attribute of maleness-- that was the myth. Freud had sort of taken over in the US (I mean, his theories-- he was dead) in the 50s, and so serious women and ambitious women and smart women had to be told that all of that wasn't because they were serious, etc., but because they wanted to be men, and so it was wrong to be a woman and wrong to want to be a man if you couldn't (poor thing) be one. (This is all happening at the very same time as the civil rights movement, of course, so read "white men" there... but it was all very soon going to start sputtering to an end, the veneration of the white male, and about time!)
So anyway, when Plath's heroine got her first glimpse of the vaunted male attribute and made a joke, that showed that the wall was coming down. The ramparts were being stormed. If she could laugh at a man's phallus, well, all those phallic symbols that represented power were revealed in their absurdity too. Plath's heroine was NOT a feminist, but she became a feminist icon because she could laugh, if only secretly, at the symbol of male power.
Now that I'm all adult and (I presume) beyond adolescent narcissism, I do see that Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar are beloved precisely because both the protagonists are such narcissists, and maybe that's why I liked those books so much more when I was that way myself. Anne Frank's story is just too.... real. It's too much the misery of reality, while the other two books are about the inner misery of the privileged and educated, and I find that more amusing than apt these days.
I always want to tell people that yes, those are great books, but that's not what life was like for most people back then. But actually, it was, in the sense that every adolescent feels uncertain and lost and like he/she is not sufficiently appreciated. I bet if you gave that book to high school students in Bangladesh, they'd read it at night in their tin shacks by the light of a flickering candle and go to bed hungry because there wasn't enough food for the whole family, and fall asleep thinking that Holden and Sylvia really understand me, and my parents, who will shortly get up at dawn to go labor in the fields for $3 a day, don't even know who I really am.
I think that's why both of those books are always in print-- because there all always 15-year-olds who think there has to be something beyond this life of theirs, whatever it is.
So what about you all? What were the important books of your youth? What books do you think really exemplified that period of life, and period of history?
Friday, February 11, 2011
This example comes to us from "Agnes and the Hitman" by Jenny Crusie and Bob Mayer. I think I might have used this book as an example once before, but I can't remember what purpose it served then. This book is good enough that we could use it as examples of lots of great things -- action, comedy, pov, emotional writing, pacing, beats -- you name it, we can probably find an example in these pages.
So let's take a look at how setting details are made relevant. This passage comes on page 27 of the hardcover edition. Agnes, our heroine, is a food columnist who has just been the victim of a crime in her home. Shane is the man who has been sent to protect her.
Shane had started in the kitchen, a big warm room with red walls and white counters that smelled of chocolate and raspberry, quiet except for the rumble of voices from the hall.
"That's Detective Xavier and Joey," Agnes said, looking worried.
Everything in Agnes's kitchen was neat and professional, but nothing said big money, ransom kind of money. In fact, the only thing that had caught his eye was the row of gleaming razor-sharp knives stuck to the magnetic bars on the wall, and next to them long-handled forks that looked sharp as spikes, and beyond those more sharpened, shiny tools, every damn one of them lethal as hell.
Agnes worked in the Kitchen of Death.
There are several reasons this run of setting information is well written. It incorporates many sensory details -- color, sound, temperature, and scent all appear in the first sentence alone. It's relevant to character, both to Agnes as the woman prone to weaponizing her kitchen tools and to Shane who would evaluate the environment for threats. It taps into the air of mystery surrounding the crime when the question of ransom is raised and discounted. It breaks up the description with a line of dialogue to keep the pacing quick, and it keeps us pretty solidly in Shane's point-of-view throughout. It even ends in a punchline to sum up the environment and enhance the comic tone.
And it does all this in 116 words.
Now that's some efficient writing.
Thursday, February 10, 2011
Do you have to write a synopsis? Do you dread it?
Are your queries and proposals being form-rejected, and you know you’re writing well?
Is your synopsis too long and you can’t figure out how to cut it?
Well, this class is for you. In two weeks, we’re going to work on creating a sensational synopsis of any length, from the one paragraph version for a query or pitch, a one-pager, or a longer one to go with the proposal. You choose!
The trick is to leave the plot behind. Too many writers get bogged down in events, and end up with a boring chronicle of “this happened, then this happened.” I can tell you from having to evaluate many proposals that this sort of synopsis will bore the editor– yes, no matter how good your story is. Instead, we’ll concentrate on writing a synopsis that reflects your entire story, not just the plot. I call it the SCORE method:
By focusing your presentation on that, you can weave in plot events but never lose the coherence and intensity of the story. In this interactive workshop, you’ll work on presenting your own story in your own voice, so that the editor will want to read the book.
If you’re facing the difficult job of writing a synopsis, here’s your chance to get expert guidance and feedback. This two-week class will be conducted entirely in an email list, with a limited number of students. SCORE with Your Synopsis will start March 1, and costs $50. To sign up and pay for the class, click the Buy Now button in the sidebar, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyway, at one point a writer who just saw a major character development turn to dust said plaintively, "But this is fiction, right? So I can do what I want."
Ah, the eternal allure of fiction. You can make it up!
So, anyway, yeah. Good thought. Now what? What would you say is a good guideline for what-- in your opinion-- should be accurate, and what can be modified to fit your story's needs? What can you make up?
How about some examples. What fictional license would you allow yourself in your own story, or (more importantly, perhaps) allow in a story you are reading?
For example, I remember reading a book set in my own town, and it had Ohio Street running north-south. In fact, Ohio Street runs east-west, and the author grew up here, and it's an important street he'd probably know, so I figured there was some reason for this. Or is it silly to worry about that?
I needed a mall somewhere in a book, and I placed it in an actual town where there is no mall. (This is a peril of living in a big city-- I can't even imagine a world where there is no mall within driving distance.
What about some professional procedure, like (I'm severely hampered by my lack of experience in Real Life :) a nurse bringing her daughter's preschool class into the nursery to see the babies? Or a clerk at the BMV typing out a new title right there in front of the customer instead of sending the information to the printing section to have it done on antelope-skin parchment or whatever the heck they do in the two weeks between applying for a title and getting it?
What about calling it "BMV" in a state where it's "DMV?"
What about things that contradict what we might think of as modern life, like a teacher being fired because she was seen in a bar by the principal? (In the 21st century, I mean. And public school.) What if we made it a private school? I'm not looking for advice here, but just some sense of whether it would worry you if you felt the author wasn't following due process and the law.
What about -- as happens all the time in cop shows-- the police officer slams a suspect into the wall of the interrogation room and demands a confession, and the bloodied suspect confesses, and it's not a problem?
Those all sound sort of easy, actually. We should find out if it's BMV or DMV, and what way Ohio St. runs. What's harder to decide?
What about things that could happen but probably wouldn't, like a minister at a church letting his non-ordained friend do the sermon on a Sunday when the minister has tickets to the early football game. (hey, that would be a serious dilemma.... 11 am service, 12 noon game... 45 yard-line seats....)
What about putting a fictional restaurant on a real corner? Like 42nd Street and 8th Ave? What if there's a famous actual restaurant right there?
What about putting a non-actual big event at a real place? Like a fictional mass murder at an actual college? What if it's in backstory, like she arrives for her freshman year at Harvard a few months after the murder?
What sort of debate would you go through? For example, when would you decide this isn't important, and when would you decide it is important? When would you change the name to something other than Harvard? Would you make up a "Gotham City" rather than use Manhattan?
When do you decide not to do the research needed to make sure that this is authentic? When do you go ahead and do what you want even after the research says the opposite of what you hope?
Just some insight here? Is this a dilemma you've faced?
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
I had Jess seeing Lisa at the precinct house, then driving from there up to his house. There he sees Lisa sitting on the stoop waiting for him. Okay, maybe she drove REALLY fast, but I wanted to have more sense of her -waiting- for him, like some time had passed while she was sitting there in the cold.
It's the noticing that matters, I realize. Once I realized that I needed her to get there at least a few minutes before he did, I just put in a line about him stopping for gas, and that was all I needed. Nothing interesting (I might replace it with something more exciting), but serviceable for the nonce!
Tuesday, February 8, 2011
The "On the Road" gallery displays in a glass case part of the 120-foot long paper scroll Kerouac used to type his story, and includes the old Olivetti typewriter he used to type it.
Okay, too much used to type! Quick fix to eliminate some of the redundancy:
The "On the Road" gallery displays in a glass case part of the 120-foot long paper scroll Kerouac used to type his story, and includes his old Olivetti typewriter.
Now generally I like to put the longest element in a list last, so I might revise to:
The "On the Road" gallery displays in a glass case Kerouac's old Olivetti typewriter and part of the 120-foot long paper scroll he used for the story.
Just another in a long series of fascinating glimpses into my motley career.
Oh, notice that whatever comes first, that's when I have "Kerouac's," and I have "his" second. That is, I identify the name and then replace it with the pronoun. I really wanted to end "scroll he typed the story on..." but you know that blamed preposition. I must fiddle some more.
Will even one student appreciate my obsessiveness? Probably not. I also don't like "displays in a glass case," but I need to get the glass case in there because, see, in this imaginary paper I'm not going to write (I'm just teaching introductions here), there's a whole section on the glass case. I must stay true to the imaginary paper!
I don't, however, have to put all this into one sentence. Must remember that. Pixels on the screen: Not so expensive as diamonds. Can waste them.
Saturday, February 5, 2011
I found a great example of this in "The Dangers of Deceiving a Viscount" by Julia London. This paragraph comes about two pages into a scene in which a character, Will, arrives at a country estate after an absence of some years. We're led to understand that he was reluctant to return and that he's been traveling on three continents.
Ordinarily, when a character first walks into a room, we don't want to see the walls and furniture described. Ordinarily, this would slow the pacing of the scene by stopping the action. This is so frequently true that we might even try to craft a rule to prevent unwary writers from falling into this pacing trap.
But let's take a look at London's passage to see why that rule wouldn't always be true.
The foyer was empty. Completely empty -- devoid of furniture and accoutrements. The only things left were the very large paintings of mythical scenes that filled an entire wall. Will walked on, vaulting up the stairs to the family rooms on the first floor. But as he reached the first-floor landing, he stopped, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. A broken chair was lying on its side. Papers were strewn across the carpet as if they'd been scattered by wind. A large black area in the carpet appeared to be the result of a burn, and the candles in their wall sconces had been left too long, the wax having melted onto the silk wall coverings and the carpet beneath them.
That's an effective use of descriptive detail, and I think there are two main reasons it works. First, it's important to the plot, and second, it's active and change-oriented.
Yes, the destruction and neglect are interesting, but that on its own isn't why the passage works. The setting details manage to simultaneously convey past splendor and current decay -- change! -- yet we don't get a lot of detail about the way it used to be. It's more about how it is now, and we can guess at how it used to be.
We also have a sense of the character moving and interacting with the environment. He vaults. He stops. He examines. It's active, as are the verbs and verbals used to convey a sense of action -- broken, strewn, scattered, melted. These are strong, vivid words that convey to the overall dynamic sense in this passage.
What else do we notice about this passage?
Friday, February 4, 2011
I'm officially dug out and mobile again. Normal blogging will resume just as soon as my fingers thaw.