Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lights, Camera, Action! -- Conflict in Storytelling

Whew! Week 1 just wrapped at Gateway. We had great opening classes and very powerful services each night. Where am I going with this, and what does it have to do with reading and writing? Well, in Rev. Jerry Jones' sermon, he indicated that contrast is often used in Scripture for emphasis. This sparked my interest because that day in class we had studied specific psalms from a literary standpoint, and one student had brought out that there was a lot of contrasted imagery and contrasted themes.


If biblical contrast helps emphasize meaning, perhaps contrast in fiction can help stress meaning and themes? I'm thinking of contrast in terms of multi-dimensional characters with seeming contradictions. I'm also thinking of convoluted action sequences in stories, since we know that conflict is a chief ingredient for a story.

My Dilemma

Having just put together 18 short stories over the summer (an all-out race by July's end--too much... never again), I talked candidly with one of my editors about what is the biggest challenge to me: creating believable conflict and action that can be resolved in 1500 words, and yet not to tidily. We walk such a tightrope in creating conflict that feels realistic and yet satisfying the reader with resolution to it in a way that doesn't feel contrived.

Many think of O.Henry when they think of an author who mastered the rise and fall of action adeptly in the short story genre.

Practical Solutions
I'm blatantly stealing my friend's advice here, but I've thrown in a few ideas of my own, so I don't think I'll get fined:

1. When brainstorming an action sequence, picture the characters in it and ask yourself if it feels real. Just imagining a cool plot twist isn't sufficient if you can't picture it working for your characters.

2. Draw a map of a house, road, area, so you can plot out the specifics of the action and keep it grounded in a realistic way. Faulkner jumps to mind with his mythical Yoknapatawpha County, which he mapped and then used in most of his work.

3. Walk yourself through the plot sequence and do a critical review to ask if it feels real.

4. Get a friend (or several) to read your work (ouch) and honestly tell you if the action is too contrived or the plot to easily wrapped up.

Your Turn
The above ideas are my guardrails for next time around. What do you think? What works and what doesn't? What am I missing?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

I Know Why Writer's Drink

It isn't a much discussed phenomenon anymore, but it wasn't that long ago that great writers (Hemingway, Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, F. Scott) used to be assumed to be drunks. Of course, as this article makes clear, that was when great writers were the rock stars of their day. Now rock and hip-hop stars are drunks (or some equivalent) and we don't think anything of it. (Probably because of the quality of their output. Faulkner has a legitimate chance at being read in 500 years, but who besides the Beatles - and maybe U2 - has a chance at being any more than a footnote in 100?)

Still, it has crossed my mind more than once this year. I know why they drink. It's when you're facing a day when you're just not sure what's going to happen to your story, you're not sure where it's going to go, and--even when you feel that old creative mojo slithering just below the surface--the fear of a false start, of drilling a dry hole, of not maintaining the necessary energy to breakthrough--keeps you from doing some real writing.*

You need something to reduce the fear. To calm your nerves. To build your confidence. But also, it needs to let the creativity, that light sliding mass of almost reachable goodness, flow. Because there's no higher earthly high than a good day of writing.

So the substitute needs to accomplish multiple, often opposing, goals simultaneously without diminishing your writing skills and forward motion. From the evidence, I'm guessing alcohol does that. Me? Too often I make a thick frosty shake out of Breyer's all-natural ice cream. Sometimes music works. Sometimes surfing the net or triple-checking my emails works. Sometimes I check off items on my "To do" list to "clear my head." More often they're time-wasters. But ice cream--now there's a guaranteed good night no matter what happens on the screen.

For me, the fear rises most with fiction, but it might be a thesis for you. Or memoir. Or something else.

Frankly, prayer doesn't guarantee anything except my acknowledgement of the Father's gifts to me. Yet, I need to remember it more.

Yeah, I know why writer's drink.

* Notice the mixed metaphors in just trying to describe the experience.

Currently Reading: Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, edited by Rob Spillman. Just started it this weekend, but--Wow!--the essays have been fabulous, great fiction by Chimamanda Ngozi Adicihie and others. In the 1980s/early 1990s, it was India bursting at the fictional seams. In the aughts, it's Africa. This proves why.

Appendix A: Penguin

The Atlantic Fiction issue is out at a newsstand now. Features stories and essays by Margaret Atwood, Paul Theroux, and Monica Ali, among others. Likewise, the site has interviews with several of the authors.

• Ernest Hemingway, KGB agent?

• If you enjoy classic fiction, it’s all due to Penguin. Here’s a quick intro on their start.

• The challenges of Recession Lit.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Northanger Abbey and Don Quixote?

I went into the archives of one of my favorite authors for my recent bout of classics reading—Jane Austen.

Northanger Abbey
I could reminisce over Darcy or smile ruefully at the caddish behavior of Willoughby (Is it me, or did it seem that Willoughby never got punished for taking advantage of Colonel Brandon's young ward?), but what I really want to talk about is Northanger Abbey. It's one of her earlier works.

What's great about it is Austen's very overt and biting sarcasm when parodying works that were common and wildly popular during her time, Romantic and Gothic novels. In making fun of the formulaic, banal characterizations of the unrealisitically noble and virtuous heroines destined to cross paths with a hero that populated the novels of Austen's time, she sets her own protagonist up as an anti-heroine of sorts from her upbringing, but goes on to add: "But when a young lady is to be a heroine, the perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her. Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way."

Here's the thing: It wouldn't be as funny if you didn't understand what it was she was parodying. Thank goodness for annotated editions.

Don Quixote
Interestingly, Austen's tone in Northanger Abbey reminds me of Cervantes' tone in Don Quixote. Similarly, this is a novel which is a parody of other genres which were highly romanticized and also wildly popular during his time—novels of knight errantry, pastoral novels and picaresque novels. When Alonso Quijano dons the title Don Quixote de la Mancha, it is only significant if one knows Cervantes was playing on the popular Amadis de Gaula.

Another element both novels have in common is intertextuality. There are actually references and even quotations in both novels from the works they are parodying. In both, literature itself also plays an important role. Don Quixote goes crazy from reading too many novels of knight errantry, while Catherine Morland becomes almost too enthralled with The Mysteries of Udolpho.

And so . . .
I always like to tie my literary musings in with the Bible. There is a school of thought that the Bible "says what it means and means what it says." But there are a lot of things that influence meaning. The Bible itself is rife with intertextuality, some references are contained in the canon (when passages in the New Testament reference passages in the Old, for example), but others are not. How can Don Quixote or Northanger Abbey have significance if the extra-textual elements they play off of remain unconsidered? How can the Bible say what it means if the reader is unaware of the extra-textual elements it's referring to?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

My Great Apostolic Novel

So, I just read Lee Ann's blog about relevance and it's relationship to writing the "great Apostolic novel" and it got me thinking. Content aside, have you ever began reading something and knew immediately that it was written by a Christian author? I am currently laughing my way through a novel by a Christian (not Apostolic, but anyway) author whom will remain nameless. Laughing because I can't get over how cliched the book is. Sure they have their little twist on the classic Christian novel, but really--they're all the same.

A good, strong, handsome Christian guy is single (because his wife died, of course) and meets a girl who is stuggling with her faith. Through events (such as helping her on the farm, or leading her to find a lost treasure, or saving her from her sinking car) she begins to see his faith and fall in love with him. They, of course, have a hang-up because he is a solid Christian and she isn't. So naturally there is a bit of tension and then she gives in, accepts Jesus as her Lord and Savior, and they get married and they live happily ever after in a nice 3BR 2B house in the Montana, or San Diego, or the Bahamas, or wherever--it doesn't really matter.

Even disregarding the plot, the prose is just as cliched. I've decided that Christian authors need only a 6th grade vocabulary. Actually, I'm pretty sure 95% of the words were on my reading flashcards in 1st grade. Whatever happened to authors such as G.K. Chesterton or C.S. Lewis or Gene Edwards? Granted they weren't Apostolic, but they were hardcore Christians who would rival any Apostolic's faith.

So, I have a goal, I guess. I'll be the one. I will strive to create the great Apostolic novel. It may take me years (just the thought of it makes me tired...) but I shall attempt to pull it off. I've got my thesaurus and my Christian novel plotline next to my computer and I shall begin.

"She looked up from her toil in the golden wheatfields that had once belonged to her father, but now were her responsibility. The sweat from her brow, stung her eyes and mixed with the tears that freely flowed. 'God, if you're really there, I need help....I need help.' As if an instantaneous answer to her prayer, she saw a lone figure materialize on the horizon. Even from the distance and even with all of the sweat in her eyes, she could tell he was strong, handsom, and was she just dreaming or did he have the most penetrating, gorgeous blue eyes she had ever seen?..."