Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Old Spice Guy for Libraries

A brilliant parody . . . from the BYU college library!
(1.6m views & growing)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Confronting Creative Writing Habits Editors Hate

"It was a dark and stormy night when suddenly…."

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be an editor for a big publishing firm? Think of how many manuscripts they must read. Correction—think of how many manuscripts they must start to read.

I’ve often wondered what criteria they use to kick a book to the curb. I’m sure plot and characters are up there, but what about wording issues the beginner or even average writer may commit?

I knew suddenly was a no-no. But what else? I decided to do some research. Here are three of the more helpful sites I visited:

10 dialogue mistakes

Jerry Gross’ “The Most Common Mistakes I See in Fiction Manuscripts--And What to Do About Them”

“Words Editors Hate” discussion thread

There are tons of issues there to talk about. I’m focusing on three:

  1. Death by adverb – The whole problem with adverbs is they tell the readers what to think, leaving them little room for imagination. Wouldn’t you rather figure out that Jeff was angry because he spat and kicked the gravel than “Jeff angrily replied…”? If you have to tell readers how something happens, you rob them of getting to see it in their mind’s eye.
  2. Death by overactive action tags – To me this faux pas goes hand in hand with adverbs. We are caught between the need to paint a picture of what’s happening as our characters talk while not thinking for readers. I’m not saying we should turn Cormac McCarthy and use only “said” for every tag with no variation at all. But I think the trick is to put the detail into the dialogue and description and then we won’t feel the need to get cute with characters exhorting, chortling, and other -ings.
  3. Death by clich̩ РIck. It happens to the best of us. This is just where revision comes in.

So what can we do to improve?

  1. Read. Seems like that’s a theme here. But seeing others navigate these pitfalls can give us ideas.
  2. Be observant. How do you describe people? Get beyond “short, tall, blond, skinny.” What about the girl who looks like she bites her fingernails. What about the guy who always fidgets with his belt buckle. (As I re-read it, I'd like to give these descriptions more dimension, but this is a jumping off point to show how each layer of detail makes a story that much more real.) These are the action details about people that make them feel authentic beyond blond/tall/skinny. Learn character traits that you can put to work on your characters (and details you can use for places) without resorting to adverbs, action tags, and clichés.

So if you’re suddenly caught in a dark and stormy night, I guess take along a book and do some people-watching. What about you, aspiring writer? What are your fiction writing pet peeves and how have you learned to combat them?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Plot & Structure . . . and Movies?

Yesterday I completed James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure, a marvelous “how-to” book for those wanting accessible, appliable points to their fiction. I’m sure I wouldn’t have reaped so bountiful a harvest without being several thousand words into a long writing project. The book’s allowed me to immediately apply his points, make corrections to my underlying story structure, deepen my characters and their challenges, as well as think through muddy areas of subplot. Plus, at key points, he differentiates between commercial and literary choices while always insisting both can be used, so that’s helpful.

Bell also does a great job of using many concrete examples with each point, so that they’re easily grasped. However, he also falls prey to the same tendency most writing “how-to” books get mired in today.

Writing Books or . . ?

There’s a tendency in today’s writing books to reference movies as examples instead of … you know, books, the art form you’re supposed to be wanting to learn how to write. Bell only references movies as examples 40-45% of the time, but I’ve read others that seem to go higher than 60%. (And I’m not trying to single this book out as the primary culprit. It is published by Writer’s Digest, so we’re assuming MFA’s won’t be picking it up anytime soon.) Still, it’s part of a larger, pungent trend.

At no point does Bell reference Tolstoy, Flaubert, Henry James, or Faulkner. There is 1 Hemingway, 1 Dostoyevsky, 1 Cervantes, Mehlville, and perhaps a few Dickens. There are lots of Stephen King and Dean Koontz and Catcher in the Rye illustrations. There are also innumerable Casablanca, Godfather, High Noon and any number of other movies great and small.

To use a strained analogy, if you were reading a book on composing symphonic music, and the author kept referring you to TV theme songs and movie scores by John Williams, without once mentioning Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart, wouldn’t you find that . . . unsettling? Might you think it was time to find another book? Yet that mindset is de rigueur for most writing how-to books.

Are Writers Stupid?

Is this another sign of the dumbing down of our society—that most readers of these books wouldn’t know examples from the classics? (If you don’t understand why the historic writing greats are considered great, even if you disagree, how can you hope to make your mark?) Or is there an assumption that most writers don’t want to read? Or are “how-to” writers just lazy?

What’s also handily overlooked with these points is that novel-writing is almost completely a single person’s passion transformed into art, while films are entirely collaborative. Screenplays are almost entirely dialogue in 3 acts that rarely eclipse 120 pages. They are often rewritten during shooting by the writer, director, actors and any number of others. Yes, movies examples can certainly work as story examples, but I can never flush genius-crank Alan Moore’s evaluation out of my mind either; he says movies might be only the 7th most vibrant art form ever created. (So are we infatuated with 4-color inferiority?)

No Confidence in the Written Word?

I’m not saying film is not an art form or even unworthy of comparison at points. I am insisting of all the art forms, writing has the most examples since it is the oldest extant art form. So why are film examples even necessary in these types of books?

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Appendix A: Billionaire Book Club

Last month we linked The New Yorker's list of 20 Notable Novelists under 40 years of age. Naturally, this creates an impressive counter-list from independent publishers.
  • Don't despair! Tips on getting published!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Marilynne Robinson on The Daily Show

So, here's my first Stateside post after coming back from the Hexagon, the country otherwise known as France.

I have a nice, juicy French philosophy book to dive into to keep my French skills fresh, but now that I'm back home, I want to turn to an author I highly admire who actually wrote Home. Before that, she penned Gilead for which she won the Pulitzer.

Though I was surprised to see her featured on my favorite fake news show, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, it was so refreshing to hear her tempered answers to Stewart's (albeit gentle) prodding:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Marilynne Robinson
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

It's nice to know that a writer of faith can have a platform in a mainstream venue. There's something captivating about her quiet, temperate, reasonable manner. If you read any of her work, you would see the same quality in her writing. A still, small, solemn voice, but with a surprisingly powerful undercurrent which more than earns its merit.