Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: December 2007

Dry Spells

Sometimes you just hit one of those times when nothing is calling to be written. I had three days off after Christmas, and I spent them running errands and watching TV. I have several stories waiting to be written, but I haven’t been thinking about any of them. So when I sit down to write them, nothing flows.

I think the occasional dry spell is not too bad for you as long as you don’t put yourself in the mindset that you have to be writing. It’s a bit irritating to have all this time and not be using it, but it’s also good to relax and take a break once in a while. I’ve actually been enjoying the time off from work and from writing, so I think it’s been good. And the stories are percolating, it’s just been a busy month and I haven’t had a real chance to think about them.

What I’m going to do tonight is pull up a couple stories and just force myself to get back into the flow of them, now that my free time is almost over. After all, when I get busy again, I’m going to need some distractions, right?

I Totally Knew Where This Post Was Going

Those of you who’ve written stories and handed them off to friends are undoubtedly familiar with the feedback: “I figured out where it was going on page…”

It’s easy to be annoyed by that, because it’s often not phrased in a constructive form (e.g., “you tip your hand too early”). It’s more of a boast: I was smart enough to figure out where the plot was going before it was revealed. The flip side is implicit: I’m smarter than the story is, and smarter than you.

That is, of course, not what they mean at all. And you do exactly the same thing when talking about books or movies. The point at which you figure out the story is where it all comes together, where you see the author’s intent, and where the path becomes clear. It doesn’t make too much of a difference if that’s early or late in the story (with certain genre exceptions such as mystery and horror), as long as the story is well told. And indeed, if you hear the above statement, it’s still a good review as long as it’s followed by, “…but it still kept me hooked.”

Really, it’s not such a sin to be predictable (the dreaded p-word). We want our stories to be predictable, at least to the extent that the actions of the characters all make sense. But if that’s good-p, then there’s also bad-p: when the events of the story follow a pattern that’s dictated by convention outside the story. Again, for certain genres, it’s not a problem (would you object to reading “The Shining” if I told you it’s a horror novel where a family slowly gets exposed to more and more terrifying events, until the climax when they face off against the big monster?), but when you’re talking about the old “mysterious stranger turns out to be the villain/ancient hero” saw, it’d better be done right or else it’ll feel like you’re just doing that because all the other stories did.

And I think that is the real key to good-p versus bad-p. If a story follows certain conventions, but the plot and character actions all work well with the story, then it can be predictable to a certain extent, and you should be happy when people tell you they figured it out, unless you’re William Tenn and you were deliberately trying to surprise them. If the story follows certain conventions for no other reason than that they’re conventions, then it edges into bad-p, and a good critiquer will point that out. You just have to be able to separate the two, and when doing your own critiques, look at that point and see if it’s harming the story or not.

Cadences and Rhythm

Short post today, but this deserves more attention and will probably get more later. One of the items in the David Foster Wallace English essay that I thought was really interesting was his admission that he uses incorrect language sometimes because it sounds better. His example was “Where’s it at?” for “Where is it?” You can hear the difference between the two if you say them. I think this is also a reason for the prevalence of “ain’t.” We want a one-syllable negative, and “isn’t” is just too bulky sometimes. Imagine Hank Hill saying, “That boy isn’t right.” (I think, by the way, that this relates to why it’s a good idea to read your work aloud while editing–a good topic for another post.)

What favorite incorrect expressions do you have that sound better than their correct counterparts?

Setup, Buildup, Payoff

The “rule of three” is a pretty well-known one. I ran across this article today, talking about it broadly and then in a marketing context. Some of their examples are pretty entertaining (the Laura Kightlinger and Jon Stewart quotes); the whole article is worth reading. The interesting thing, I think, is that the rule applies on so many scales, from sentences all the way up to story structure.

Obviously, you don’t want this in all your sentences, but there are places where it fits well. You can use the three-part sentence just for flow:

“Jamie’s new car had power steering, a sun roof, and a V-6 engine that got her from her house to the office in ten minutes flat.”

You can use the first two elements to set up something that you pay off with the third:

“Every day before he left for work, John brushed his teeth, ate a Pop-Tart, and wondered why he did the first two things in that order.”

Notice how right the flow feels. Try adding one element, or taking one away:

“Jamie’s new car had power steering and a V-6 engine that got her from her house to the office in ten minutes flat.”

“Every day before he left for work, John brushed his teeth, ate a Pop-Tart, put on his shirt, and wondered why he did the first three things in that order.”

At a higher level of story structure, the same patterns work, although they’re harder to see. You’ll recall old fairy tales in which there are often three brothers, or three sisters, or three tasks (yes, I know the five Chinese brothers story, and the importance of seven as well). The evil queen tries three times to kill Snow White. Red Riding Hood asks the wolf three questions (“Are we gonna sit here all day talkin’ about how big I’m gettin’?!”). And if you get into screenwriting, you’ll know that all screenplays (well, most) have three acts. As I heard it once: “In act one, you chase your character up a tree. In act two, you throw rocks at him. In act three, he figures out how to get down.”

There’s something about a sequence of three that we find flows well and makes a story work. Just something to keep in mind as you’re doing your writing, outlining, and editing.

Writing for an audience

I’m reading Neal Pollack now (review forthcoming, eventually), because I got his book used for $4 and he’s part of that McSweeney’s crowd that I always thought were pretty good writers but never managed to capture my interest. Turns out this is no exception. Pollack writes from the point of view of a fictional persona who is an amalgam of every overprivileged, ego-driven white male writer, but he does it so well that unless you know the writers he’s lampooning, he just comes off as, well, an overprivileged, ego-driven white male writer who has done so much drugs and alcohol that he is delusional.

The point of this post, I guess, is to go back and revisit something I’d written before about writing to your audience. Pollack has a particular audience in mind here: people who read the New Yorker and Harper’s and who follow Gore Vidal and Truman Capote and who enjoy that style of writing, but find it a bit overblown. His parodies are interesting, but I’m left feeling like I’ve just read the punch line to a joke I didn’t know. (Aside: there are several punch lines that have become divorced from their jokes, the most famous being “Twenty bucks, same as in town!” which it took me a little while to uncover on Google because I always wanted to know what the joke was. There’s also “Wrecked ’em? It damn near killed ’em!” which was a big hit in my college days and is only funny if you say the first part fast enough to make it sound like one word. From these punch lines, it is possible to dimly intuit the joke, as opposed to the one I first read in King Kaufman’s column a couple years ago: “Know it? Hell, lady, I wrote it!” All of these are funnier without their jokes than Neal Pollack’s short pieces.)

Asides aside, I wouldn’t suggest that Pollack take his brilliant skewering of writers I’ve never read and open it up to the mainstream. He’s got his audience; it just doesn’t include me. That’s the risk you take when you tailor your writing that finely, and I’m well aware that were “NP” to pick up “Common and Precious,” he would likely discard it within a couple chapters (“this book has a ‘plot’…how common! how precious! ha ha! neal pollack provides his own amusement where none else can be found!” Yes, I picture him talking about himself in the third person. Yes, that’s probably just from his first name being phonetically the same as the allegedly third-person-talking Neil Gaiman.). So I guess we’ll continue to revolve in our separate spheres, him with his “book deals” and his fancy friends, and me with my blog, my small press, and all of you.

Doesn’t seem fair to him, does it? ;)

Writing and the Holidays

The holidays for me, growing up, were always very much downtime. Sometimes we’d travel to one place or another to see relatives, but for the most part, they were a few days off with a nice family ceremony somewhere in the middle. So I always look forward to the holidays as a time when I can get some writing done in longer stretches than a few hours here and there.

I guess I’ve become a little more social in my middle age, because this December has just been non-stop. I think this week will slow down a little, and then when the actual holiday kicks in, there may be more time to catch up on some of the writing I’ve meant to get done.

I really do think the holidays are a rich vein of material for writing, beyond all the schmaltzy stuff that ends up in the theaters around this time of year. The concentrated interaction and stress makes for some great stories. Characters! That’s what it’s all about, right?

So, does anyone else look forward to the holidays as a time to power through some writing? Or is that when you take a break from it?

Review: Wizard of the Crow

Wizard of the Crow, by Ngugi wa’Thiong’o
9/10, a terrifically engaging magical fiction story lampooning African dictatorships and modern society

I don’t remember where I read about “Wizard of the Crow.” Probably in Salon Books or somewhere like that. Anyway, it was slated to come out many months later on Amazon, so I put in a pre-order and forgot about it until the following year, when I got a message telling me it was about to be shipped. I vaguely remembered ordering it and thought, well, I’ll trust my past self; he thought I should have it.

It’s a bit intimidating, a trade paperback over 700 pages long with fairly small print. And it resembles “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” in scope, but it’s far more engaging and humorous, and just magical enough to be intriguing. It’s the only book I’ve read this year that almost made me miss a train stop. Fortunately, I have had enough plane rides over the last month to get through a lot of reading, including all of this delightful book.

The story, roughly: Kamiti (all accents on names are omitted from this review because I don’t know how to render the tildes over vowels), a young man educated in India returning to his home, the fictional country of Aburiria, to find a job, falls in with a young woman named Nyawira. In the course of running from the police, he calls on some of the pranks of his youth to masquerade as a sorcerer named “Wizard of the Crow” so that the police will leave them alone. His masquerade works too well; soon he has a line of people outside his door waiting for the cures the wizard is reputed to dispense.

Aburiria, meanwhile, is in the midst of petitioning the Global Bank for funds to build Marching to Heaven, a modern-day Tower of Babel, as a birthday present for its Ruler. The Ruler assumes various degrees of omnipotence depending on the situation, and his two highest ministers fight for his favor, to the point of having their eyes and ears surgically enlarged (the better to see and hear what goes on in his country). The way in which these two stories intertwine is skillful enough to be engaging, but it’s the backdrop that makes this a remarkable book.

Ngugi mixes African folklore and superstition with modern society, so that a man might call his wife on a mobile phone to tell her the latest rumor about the sorcerer in town. The Aburirian people love to tell and retell stories (one of the main characters, a policeman by the name of A.G., recounts much of his narrative from a bar), and the stories grow in a folkloric/magical kind of way. Ngugi sometimes shows the reader the original event and then the stories; sometimes he leads off a section with references to the event and builds backwards to it. Never does he lose sight of his many story threads (probably a dozen characters could be counted as important, with their own plots), nor of the silly, charming, ruthless, and brutal characters he has created.

There is humor both broad and subtle: the ridiculousness of the various cosmetic surgeries of the ministers, and the fact that despite the magic in the book, the “sorcerer” uses very little in his healing ways. There are lessons here about how to live, the power and corrupting influence of money and power, but it’s told comically rather than sternly. Kamiti is the one who learns several lessons over the course of the book, its main character who seems to start from a peaceful equilibrium but faces problems and temptations over the course of the story.

If you have a little while to devote to a good read over the holidays, pick up this book. It reminds me somewhat of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but more readable and more enjoyable overall: a great and unexpected surprise.

You Are A Writer, part 252

Guy Kawasaki writes about the effect of stereotypes on performance. Basically, if you’re told “part-time writers never make it big,” you’ll believe that. If you don’t think of yourself as a writer, you won’t write like one. Frame yourself as a “writer.” Believe in your own success. (But do remain somewhat realistic and open to criticism.)

Active Description

Being character-centric as I am, I focus on dialogue a lot. The journal story I’m writing, which technically has very little dialogue in it, is really like a monologue, so that doesn’t count. Anyway, it means that when it comes to writing description, I often flounder. How much longer do I need to go on writing all this boring stuff where nothing is happening, nobody is acting, I will often ask myself half a paragraph in.

(Strangely, I have more tolerance reading description, though I do tend to skim.)

Anyway, a trick I have been using lately to get through description is to try to make it more active. Whenever you can, use the description to help move along the story, or introduce it as other things are happening in the story. For instance, instead of:

“She wore a sleek, low-cut green dress. Her shoes were the latest fashion, matching her artificially blue eyes. Over her shoulder, she carried a small handbag bearing a Gucci label.”

Why not:

“The clack of heels turned my head. My eyes were drawn immediately to the low-cut neckline in the sheer green dress behind me, before a cleared throat drew my attention to a pair of annoyed eyes, tinted-lens blue. Having conveyed her annoyance, she reached into the small handbag at her side, its designer label too fashionable for me to know, and pulled out a compact. While I stared, she opened it and began a completely unnecessary examination of her face…”

You get all the description from the first example (mostly), but instead of the character standing still while you take a snapshot, you already have a sense of her character and the interaction with the main character. This is the kind of description I try to write when I can. Clearly, you can’t do this all the time; there are moments when you just need a paragraph to describe the room your character’s just stepped into, or the completely bizarre alien creature he’s just met, but whenever you can, try to include reactions and interactions, not just appearances.

At the very least, I will enjoy reading your stuff more. :)

Continuing Studies

I’ll be taking the “Fiction for Experienced Writers” class in Stanford’s Continuing Studies program in the winter term. It promises to be pretty interesting. If you don’t want to click the link above, here’s the summary: “Focusing intently on issues of structure, characterization, and point of view, we will direct our energies toward the creation of polished, seamless narratives and the further development of our own individual styles. In addition to reading and constructively commenting on one another’s work, we will continue to read published fiction from authors who both exemplify and challenge traditional concepts of storytelling. Finally, we will attempt to demystify—as much as possible—the process of bringing our work to the outside world, and students will actively explore places in the literary market where their work (as well as that of their classmates) might find placement.

So needless to say, I’m looking forward to it. Some friends of mine are taking Carl Yorke’s “Writing For The Movies” class, which examines movie structure and is a terrific class even for novelists. Movies follow a pretty standard structure which is also a good one to keep in mind as a basic story structure for your prose. Carl knows his storytelling inside and out, and is not just a good teacher, he’s a great guy besides (though he’ll deny that). If you’re interested in movies at all, or in story structure, I can’t recommend his classes highly enough.

Anyone else taking another Stanford CS class this winter? Anyone else taking one of the two above?