Monday, November 20, 2006

An Update and a Request: Who is Your Favorite Plotter?

I've been making steady progress after my little writing crisis, and things are beginning to look up.

My regular readers probably know that I dropped my last novel nearly six months into its development. I promise you, that felt much worse than having all four of my wisdom teeth removed. Anyway, I decided that I need to write simpler novels for a while, at least until I get the hang of writing a plot inside and out, forward and backward, and upside down.

This means studying plots by other writers. I've done this with A Wizard of Earthsea by Le Guin, Casino Royale by Fleming, and Captain's Courageous by Kipling. But to meet my goal, I have to study at least ten more books. Upcoming novels include one more by Fleming and Le Guin, and at least one by Parker, L'Amour, Tolkien (The Hobbit), C. S. Forester (Hornblower), Harold Lamb (Wolf of the Steppes), and possibly Mickey Spillane and Agatha Christie. Notice that all of these are genre writers. I'm not going for grand here.

That's where you come in. If my readers know of any other well-plotted but simple stories, I would be most grateful for your suggestions. The authors I'm looking for can be as shallow as a teaspoon and as repetitive as a music box so long as they write page-turners. In fact, the more accessible the story, the better for my purposes.

So in fantasy, who's the best plotter you know?
In sci-fi?
Action & adventure?
Clandestine spy thrillers?
Or whatever floats your boat...


Friday, November 17, 2006

Kate Chopin

I've come down hard on naturalism around here, so I thought that now might be a good time to offer a wider perspective. If you happened to read my last post, perhaps you noticed that I spoke rather kindly about some of the better (early) naturalists like Tolstoy and Lewis.

It's true. Some of them were absolutely brilliant in terms of style. Here's one of my favorite passages. It was written by Kate Chopin, a naturalist who happens to be one of the most evocative stylists in all of literature:
"The voice of the sea is seductive; never ceasing, whispering, clamoring, murmuring, inviting the soul to wander for a spell in abysses of solitude; to lose itself in mazes of inward contemplation.

The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace."
From The Awakening, chapter VI.

Her prose would be purple if she wrote this way often — she doesn't — but this single, isolated passage appears at just the right moment in the story and for all the right reasons. One can almost feel the solitude and hear the waves coming in...then going out...coming in again and breaking...going out. Brilliant!


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

New Naturalism

I recently attended a Halloween party where I met another writer. Her horn-rimmed glasses screamed postmodernist, so I tried to keep the conversation away from writing, but this was not to be. She pressed me endlessly for personal details about my writing despite my attempts to demur until I finally gave in and said that I write a kind of new romanticism. She was thrown.

"There's naturalism and then there's romanticism," I tried to explain.

"But you're using those terms in a strange way," she instructed (not said but instructed).

I tried again: "Think of new romanticism as an action genre with killer heroes and extraordinary flights of fancy, only make it say something universal."

"But Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter..." Her voice trailed off, then her eyes opened wider and her mouth drifted shut.

I could see that this was a smarter than average postmodernist. She was getting the point quite nicely. Disbelief, shock, possibly even fear — I've seen it before. Poor dear. Yes, we romanticists are back and we're not kidding.

(It just occurred to me that it must be tough to be a failed postmodernist. Social recognition is everything to them. Success is measured by popularity. It's democratic. But as for me, if my life is going to be worth living, then I'm going to live it my way, on my terms, to the beat of my own classical guitar. I don't need to be liked. Isn't that just infuriating, my dear postmodernist ghoul?)

Anyway, we exchanged a few more comments before she found an excuse to scurry away into the safety of the costumed crowd. It was an interesting exchange. She was especially shocked that I would accuse many modern writers of being naturalists.

"Russo, Dybek, Chandra — these are nothing like Tolstoy," she said flatly. "Tolstoy was a conventionalist."

I noted her careful omission of the word "Duh!"

She's right, in a way. Naturalists used to be serious writers. They knew their craft exceedingly well, and they created some of the most finely-wrought and brilliantly conceived novels ever written. Their history reads like a Who's Who of literature: Tolstoy, Lewis, James, Crane, Chopin, and Fitzgerald, to name a few.

But a new kind of naturalism seems to be emerging from today's colleges. Some fifteen years ago, I was glad to see it. I thought it was a rebellion against the infamous LSD years. Maybe it was, only it's proving to be a poor alternative. While these new naturalists do attempt something like realism — at times even hyper-realism — this time around much of it is gritty, nihilistic, politically narrow, culturally arrogant, militant, linguistically debased, and sloppy. In short, it's postmodern.

Here's a sample from the venerable Glimmer Train Press, vol 35, "Donna Aube" by Thomas Kennedy:
"Already tipsy, he poured a vodka in his kitchen, glanced across the courtyard at the blue and white lamp. It was not even blue and white, it was green and beige. He snorted, stood swaying at the sink, infinitely grateful that he had said nothing suggestive to the young woman in the library. Yet the mere chance that he might have troubled him. Why? She might have wanted me. And? He thought of his dark-eyed student Marissa, of the woman who had phoned him the night before whom he perhaps would never see again, of his ex-wife's once-beautiful aunt with the melting-wax face, and reached up to the box of Havana Wilders. There were still two in the box.

He decided abruptly to allow himself to smoke them both. And then what?

'And then nothing,' he said aloud. 'And then nothing. Not a goddamned fucking thing.'

In the hallway he looked at the photo of his children flanking him beneath the Bridge of Sighs in Venice the summer he had defended his thesis. Realism & Other Illusions."

Mr. Kennedy, you're sooo coool!

And isn't that the point?

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