Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Chris Miles: How I Work

It can be tough for newbie writers to "see" what the process of writing really looks like. Someday I'll be in a better position to blog intelligently about that, but not yet.

So for now, here are some lessons to be learned by way of analogy. Check out this interesting view of a painter at work. Notice that artist Chris Miles is not just engaged in a sensuous dance with his on-again, off-again muse. It's also a lot of damn hard work and learned skill. Take a look.

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The End of the Line for Naturalism?

From Writer's Blog:
Joyce Carol Oates Apologizes

Joyce Carol Oates has apologized to those who were upset after reading her short story "Landfill," which recently appeared in The New Yorker. The story is based on the tragic death of a real student and many were shocked at the realistic details used in the story.

Where on earth will literary naturalism go from here? Has naturalism really become so reportorial that it can no longer be distinguished from journalism?

Imagine if a grieving family could sue a naturalistic author for incorrect fiction. That might cause a bit of writer's block in the Oateses and Proulxs of the world. It might also sink a few of the businesses where naturalists gather to feed such as The New Yorker and Glimmer Train Press.

Let's hope it never comes to that, if only out of concern for First Amendment rights.


Friday, October 13, 2006

Search Shakespeare

Check out this awesome resource for Shakespeare lovers: Shakespeare Searched.

I already own the Bevington edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, and it has an excellent index, but this search engine is much more useful than an index.

I especially like the fact that I can search for lines by character. For example, I remember Phoebe saying, "Sweet youth, I pray you, chide..." something-or-other. So I select Phoebe from the list and type "sweet youth pray chide" as the search string and I get:

As You Like It – Act 3, Scene 5
[surrounding text][citation]
66. Sweet youth, I pray you, chide a year together:
67. I had rather hear you chide than this man woo.

How awesome is that?!

Hat tip to Scripsit for letting me know about the Clusty search engine.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

In a Word: Sheepish

Are sheep innately guilty animals? Are they pathologically naughty, and therefore always ashamed of themselves?

Why exactly do we say that a shame-faced man looks sheepish?


Monday, October 09, 2006

Over the Road Bump

To sum up my last post, here's what I think the school of hard knocks has been trying to tell me: Before a novelist should attempt to create slowly rising conflict by means of subtle emotional dynamics — slowly rising conflict being the core of what makes a novel a novel — he had better first learn to do it by means of murderous plots, crooks, kidnappings, and so on. In short, he should start his career by writing melodrama.

After all, what skill is not acquired this way? Witness: every young apprentice first takes the basic jobs and does them over and over again until he feels as if he can't bear to do them even one more time. For example, the son of a blacksmith must pump the billows and shovel coal. He may see his father creating fine works of craftsmanship, and he may wish that he could do the same, but he will face many years of drudgery before his father will finally hand him his own set of tongs and a raw strip of iron for the first time.

As a practical matter, then, a burgeoning writer should first practice what he learns from reading simple novels, like those of L'Amour and Le Quin. Only when he can write a novel at least that well is he ready to move on. Next, he should practice what he learns from Agatha Christie and Tom Clancy. After that, maybe Dumas and Kipling. Perhaps some day he will even be able to employ the tricks of the masters, say, a Rand or a Tolstoy, but he will never live to see that day if he doesn't first persevere through more basic stages of learning.

So here's my strategy: First, I need to learn how to distinguish more clearly between melodramas and higher forms of literature. Then, I must study simple melodramas until I can see a novel's basic structure forward and backward. Meanwhile, I must sort my collection of story ideas based on how difficult they would be to write, then choose a simple one to write next. Then after I write it, I will repeat the process, taking great pains to avoid letting my literary senses outpace my skills.

I know how to write literary short stories. That I have learned how to do fairly well. Also, my one and only completed novel is fairly literary although it is also fairly simple and short. Even so, it is time for me to go back to my roots. No more high or even semi-high literature for me, at least not until I have become an expert at pumping the billows and shoveling coal.

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Saturday, October 07, 2006

Road Bump

So you want to know what that “road bump” I mentioned here is all about?

Several months into my current novel, I have come to realize that I can't write it. It's too complicated for me given my nascent novel-writing skills.

Now, doesn't that explanation sound up-front and professional? Maybe I should be a little more direct about it. How about this: I overshot my skills, and it sucks like nobody's business. In fact, I've been off-and-on miserable for months.

Since this blog is partly about “the synaptic anatomy of a struggling writer”, I'll let you in on some of the inner workings of a writer who wonders sometimes what the hell he got himself into.

(By the way, if I hadn't already developed a plan to solve my problem on my own, I wouldn't be posting this information, so take it as an interesting set of experiences.)

Here's a selection from my personal journal, which, like this blog, is solely devoted to discussing my work:
“I think it's time to move on. I can't get this story started the right way. I can't figure out what's wrong with it. I'm buried in questions, and I'm buried in even more answers. Which ones do I choose? What's the matter? God, I wish I new!

It's too conceptual for me, too touchy-feely, too emotionally complex, not concrete enough. It needs a simpler plot, like one of those guns and bombs novels. It needs fewer emotional denouements, more crashing cars. It needs a “thing plot” not a “thought plot”.

But you thought you had plot. It was beautiful. Glorious. Original. Moving.

Oh, yes! Plot, plot, plot! More like plodding.

“The seagull appears in the fog...blah, blah, blah.” Jesus Christ!—no, a story about Jesus Christ would be much more interesting. This story feels more like: "Nice Joe Smith and his pet mutt go to the beach for a pleasant vacation. Joe gets a sunburn, his mutt swallows a crab and nearly chokes to death, but overall they have a good time."

Will somebody please wake me up from this nightmare?

No, Toiler, that's your job. Wake your own damn self up. Get your own act together. What the hell good can come from your plan if you aren't getting a damn thing done that's worth doing. Snap out of it! Repeat after me: Get something done! Get something done! Get something done!"

This entry continues along the same depressing vein for a bit, but I think you get the general idea. It was dated August 22, 2006. Yes, I've been developing ulcers for going on two months now. Of course, what writer hasn't ever felt that way? This is nothing new. Just ask any serious writer, artist, or intellectual anywhere. Even so, it's gut-wrenching when it's happening to you.

So I was sweating bullets one day in my office when I looked up at my shelf and — God have mercy! — I see a book entitled How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James Frey. This little book is currently one of the hot sellers among "how to" guides. I don't know why I hadn't read it yet. Maybe I thought I didn't need it. If so, I was wrong.

As you may gather from the book's title, it is aimed at teaching the practical nuts and bolts of writing basic genre fiction, not high literature. Frey breaks a novel down into a set of rules, and he does so in simple terms using straightforward examples. It's a remarkable little book in that regard. His advice reminds me of the still lifes and musical scales that were discussed in this thread. He makes writing novels sound easy.

Well, in fact, it ought to be much easier than I'm making it out to be. And that, I believe, is the root of my problem. I'm once again trying to run — nay, leap into outer space! — before I really know how to walk, by which I mean, before I really know, know, know how to walk — and that kind of knowing can only come from learning, learning, learning, then doing, doing, doing, and then repeating, repeating, repeating!

The last thing I should attempt right now is an emotionally complex novel. If I'm going to write a novel, it ought to be another simple melodrama — a James Frey novel — then another simple melodrama after that, and then another. Like playing musical scales, I won't come to know how to write a novel merely by slogging through one once (which I have). I must become an expert at each level of writing before I move on to the next.

Isn't that what a real skill is after all? It's not just a point-in-time discovery; it's a continual state of acting by means of both automated and conscious effort — mostly automated. It's a state that can only be achieved through practice.

I see now why Frey and several other editors and writers, including the authors of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (Browne and King), counsel young authors to avoid serious literature altogether. Unless a new writer is a budding genius, then there is no other logical place for him to start than by writing the very simplest tales (and perhaps even if he is a budding genius).

In my defense, I do in fact know how to write literary short stories. That I seem to have figured out well enough. But I don't want to write short stories. I want to write novels.

"No problem," someone may say, "just write a very long short story." Not so! Short stories are to novels what cookies are to wedding cakes — totally different ingredients, totally different recipe, totally different methods all around. No one would ever claim that a wedding cake is just a great, big cookie. Likewise, those who only ever write short stories generally know precious little about how to write novels.

I do still believe that my current project is profound and wonderful. I have no doubt that a better writer could make magic with it. It has all the potential to be the next Chocolat (the movie, not the book). In fact, several days ago I extemporaneously narrated the opening scene to my partner. He put down whatever he was doing at the time, walked over, and sat down in front of me, never taking his eyes off of mine, and his eyes were wide with fascination. He was hooked — hooked well! I know there's magic in this story — but I'm not Gandalf yet.

This is also part of my problem. When I peruse my stack of ideas for stories, I see that most of the best ones are literary. In other words, I have a mind that is able to imagine stories that I can't yet write. Coach Toiler says, "Pace yourself!" But it's not that easy. Knowing what makes a story difficult to write is not obvious to a beginner, at least not to this one.

So there you have it: a big, ugly road bump. But it's not the end of the road. It's not even a crash in the road, though it feels like one right now. It's just a big bump, and maybe I hit my head on the ceiling and got a bruise. It'll heal. Pick up that pen and keep moving forward.

Who knows? Maybe one day I will have earned the skills that I need to tell this wonderful, lyrical story of mine. Until then, it's back to writing about guns and bombs.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Toiler Does Genre

I see that there's something I should be a bit more clear about, since it's not obvious to my visitors.

Almost all of my reading up until college consisted of fantasy, adventure, and science fiction. I had read The Lord of the Rings at least twice before I graduated from high school, and to this day, reading Bradley's The Mists of Avalon ranks as one of the most important moments in my reading/writing career.

The first real story I ever wrote was fantasy, and my first attempt at a full-blown novel was science fiction. In fact, I may still find myself writing just that kind of story in the near future. It's fun, and I like it. (That's partly why I expected to like Asimov.)

So you won't find Toiler dissing the genres on this blog. He's a fan.

Also, you'll learn a bit more about this topic in an upcoming post. It seems that I've hit a road-bump on my writing path, and I'm in the process of planning my next move. More news to follow...