Friday, July 31, 2009

conventional wisdom

publishers' conventional wisdom--an idiosyncratic sense of knowing what the reading public wants and how to reach it; a series of reasons publishers give for taking on some projects and not others; reasons mainstream publishers give for removing mention of oral sex from YA novels; rationale behind enormous advances given on celebrity titles.

Publishers have their individual conventional wisdom, which is their pole star. Similarly, writers have their individual conventional wisdom. This is as it should be. Occasionally the two overlap and a partnership is formed. This is precisely as it should be. Neither should adjust his conventional wisdom to conform to the other; what happens should be of a sincere feeling of chemistry or, better yet, the remarkable symbiosis achieved when particles in a nuclear accelerator crash into one another and produce a reaction.

Hint: It is one thing for a writer to research a publisher so that the odds of colliding particles is enhanced, but it is yet another for a writer to alter or diminish his own conventional wisdom to suit a conventional wisdom of a particular publisher that is entirely supposition. One of the reasons Kenneth Millar (aka Ross Macdonald) submitted his Lew Archer private eye novels to the publisher Alfred Knopf was because, at the time, Knopf had no mystery list. The best conventional wisdom to follow is this: The more unlike others you are, the more likely you are to find a readership. It may not happen as soon as you wish; it may not happen at all, but you knew that all along and, somehow, the knowledge of it fueled your work.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Apocalyptic Fiction: If Sarah Had Become VP

apocalyptic fiction--short stories and novels framed on the premise that civilization, as it has evolved until the time of writing, has been traumatized by some natural or man-made catastrophe; narratives dramatizing the consequences of severe trauma to earth and its denizens; the evolutionary unthinkable, come to pass.

Whether it is a nuclear holocaust, tidal waves, epidemic,eruption, greenhouse effect, or some politically inspired pandemic, the story of apocalypse begins with the consequences writ large, dramatizing its effects on the lives and status of the survivors. No matter if the catalyst is a metaphoric result of the sorcerer's apprentice, atomic rockets fired by insurgents, or a worldwide flare-up of mutant salmonella, the story is about what the characters do next and how they accomplish what they do. The apocalyptic novel thus begins with the literary equivalent of Mr. Dickens telling us, It was the worst of times. The English writer H. G. Wells (1866--1946), with his frequent ventures into the medium of science fiction, is often thought of in connection with the apocalyptic genre although Mary Shelley's much earlier work, particularly the 1826 novel, The Last Man, is a place to draw the historical if not the dramatic line.

Like Wells, the American writer Jack London had strong socialist beliefs and wrote about them throughout their careers. In his apocalyptic mode, London produced The Scarlet Plague in1912, depicting a San Francisco of 2027, after a global plague pandemic has killed off enormous chunks of the population. No stranger to her own political extrapolations, Margaret Atwood added another dimension to her speculation, The Handmaid's Tale with the overtly apocalyptic 2003 Oryx and Crake, which builds on extrapolations of genetic engineering and bio-technologies to produce various species who can then be exploited. Earlier, Richard Matheson's 1954 I Am Legend, posited a bacterial pandemic in which Los Angeles resident Robert Neville is the only survivor. The symptoms resemble vampirism, to which Neville, having once been bitten by a vampire bat, is immune.

Apocalyptic novels involve Earth being struck by asteroids and comets; as well there are cultural and political wars, and in John Wyndham's 1951 The Day of the Triffids, an invasion by plants of particularly aggressive behavior who are able to communicate with one another. The triffids are particularly fond of feeding on humans. Nevil Shute's 1957 novel, On the Beach, tunes in on Melbourne, Australia, dramatizing the effects of the survivors of an atomic holocaust as they await the effects of death from the radiation. Walter Miller's plangent 1960 novel, A Canticle for Liebowitz, remains one of the archetypal novels of apocalypse and reconstruction. Cormac McCarthy's 2006 novel, On the Road, is yet another example of the flexibility of the apocalyptic novel; things were worse than bad--a cataclysm (probably nuclear, but not specified) has wiped out most of the population of the earth, leaving an unnamed father and son, who undertake a journey toward the sea.

There are literally hundreds of apocalyptic novels readily available for study, many of them from experienced and prolific science fiction writers, just as many others from men and women who have turned from more literary pursuits, driven by their individual senses of concern and politics, to this genre. The apocalyptic story begins with some worst-case scenario--the worse, the better--impending or having taken place. One or more characters is selected to sort through the wreckage and remains, then set forth to do something about making a contribution to the continuation of the human race.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Go West, Young Writer

Western novel, the--a longform narrative set in the area defined by the western slope of the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, from about 1850 until the present day; any pulp, mainstream, or literary narrative dealing with a combination of moral and ethical issues being investigated in an atmosphere suggestive of Western issues and needs; a regional novel evocative of the customs, language, and politics of the American West.

The Western novel was thought by critics and publishers to have had its heyday before the ending of World War II, a belief ratified by the press run of Larry McMurtry's 1985 novel, Lonesome Dove, a sprawling, laconic, and limber narrative, reminiscent in its evocative way of a clutch of wild horses at playful romp. Lonesome Dove, which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature that year, has cowboys, Indians, cattle drives, cattle rustling, saloons, and dance hall girls; it had the dry stoicism of aging lawmen, broken relationships, sudden and violent death, horses, and the relentlessness of the overhead sun, scorching everything including the patience of otherwise taciturn men. 

 Also included were women who resented the dull humdrum of prairie life and the need to have a decent dinner for the men who worked the farms and ranches. In short, Lonesome Dove had humanity, just as surely as McMurtry's earlier works, Horseman, Pass by, and The Last Picture Show captured core samplings of the artifacts and zeitgeist of particular times in the American West. So too did Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose bring to dramatic life the conflicting personality types who were taken up with the grandeur of the landscape.

It probably began with Owen Wister's The Virginian, which helped articulate and define codes of behavior that through cliche and repetition became stereotypes of what to expect. Ditto that for a seemingly iconic work from dentist-turned-author Zane Grey, and his Riders of the Purple Sage, who did give us Lassiter, a prototype Western hero who can also be seen in Jack Schaefer's Shane, although more nuanced and believable in Schaefer's Monte Walsh. Walter Van Tilburg Clark's 1940 Western, The Ox-bow Incident, is set in the Nevada of 1885, taking on the theme of frontier justice and its applications to strangers appearing in the midst of a small town where everyone knew everyone else. A.B. Guthrie's 1947 novel, The Big Sky, uses three fictional mountain men to dramatize the early Caucasian denizens of the West, foragers, hunters-and-gathers, to use the anthropological terms, setting the stage for the farmers and ranchers to follow. 

The Big Sky is undershot with a sense of Paradise about to devolve, of a persistent sense of impending foreclosure as humanity en mass moved to encounter it.

The Western novel is an historical novel, just as likely to have its pulp and mainstream visions as any other genre, but equally apt to have works of substantial worth, works that accurately define and dramatize the human condition, as it was and as it still is. The 1975 Glendon Swarthout novel, The Shootist, has been acclaimed by the Western Writers of America as "One of the best Western novels ever written," an indication that John Bernard Books, a legendary gunfighter who arrives in the El Paso, Texas of 1901, has about him an aura and subtext like that of Monte Walsh and of McMurtry's iconic Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call. Although now recognized as an idiosyncratic and vital force in the field of the thriller, Elmore Leonard has many a memorable Western novel and short story to his credit, notable among them and worthy of study, 3:10 to Yuma, Hombre, and the short story, "The Tonto Woman."

Western themes abound, barbed wire and its implications being one, a logistical impasse between cattle and sheep ranchers another, and free range versus controlled range yet another. Even with the enormous success of Lonesome Dove, the historical writer is likely to find a sense of publishers' conventional wisdom that the Western has seen its heyday, but it would be a shame for the writer who has a genuine feel for the land, people, history, and potential of the American West to be barbed wired off by such conventional wisdom.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Historical Fiction Writ Large

historical novel, the--a novel or short story set in a specific historical era, often involving actual historical events and personalities; ab increasingly popular choice among genre writers and readers for the mixing of genera (for example, historical romance, historical mystery).

The historical novel readily absorbs details of setting, customs, and mores; readers not only want to be transported to a particular time and place--they want to experience it. So the obvious question arises: How much detail? The answer: Enough to move the story along, but not enough to impede it.

The historical novel has a strong enough foundation to stand on its own as pure history. Jean Auel researched the Ice Age people known as Cro-Magnon, then detailed their activities in a series, Earth's Children, dealing with individuals who populated the Danube River Valley some 25,000 years ago. In The Clan of the Cave Bear, she provided a Cro-Magnon orphan who'd been raised by a band of Neanderthal.

Mary Renault took us back respectively to the times of Greece in The King Must Die, using historical background and archaeological research to trace the young years of Theseus, an attractive mythological character. The work was well received, motivating her to a sequel, The Bull from the Sea, in which Theseus's life is expanded to the time of his marriage to another well-known character, Phaedra.

A serious rival to Renault's historical novel output was Mary Stewart, particularly her version of the Arthurian legend, The Crystal Cave. By the time the English language version of Umberto Eco's novel, The Name of the Rose, was published in 1983, the novel had reached best-seller status in Europe. Set in 1327, The Name of the Rose takes us to a monastery where a murder has been committed, thus showing how historical and mystery genera are natural allies. 

 Moving a bit forward in the time of setting, Leonard Tourney moved us to the times when the husband and wife team of Matthew and Joan Stock began a career with the urban and rural backgrounds of Elizabethan England set before us in The Players Boy Is Dead. Tourney used his Shakespearean literary background to set the scene for whodunits. In 1959, James Michener published yet another of his enormous histories, this one a replication of the background of Hawaii. Some forty years later, Thomas Pynchon found enough material to fill 788 pages of his historical postmodernist romp, Mason & Dixon, a celebration of the two iconic surveyors for whom the Mason-Dixon line is named, and an awareness if not understanding of the cultural division that line represents.

While all this was happening, another kind of historian was producing work that still draws new readers as well as re-readers--that sturdy band of men and women who contributed to the dimensions of the American West, thus such names as A.B. Guthrie (The Big Sky), Mari Sandoz (Old Jules), Dorothy M. Johnson(The Hanging Tree), Larry McMurtry(Horsemen Pass by, and Lonesome Dove), and Elmore Leonard (The 3:10 to Yuma). (See the Western novel).

As well as standing firmly on its own, say I, Claudius (Robert Graves)or Hadrian Remembers (Margurite Yourcenar), the historical novel mixes well with mystery, romance, YA, fantasy, science fiction, alternate universe, and political; all it requires is imagination, research, and a willingness to take risks.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled MSS

cliché--an overused meaning or rhetorical device; a stock character or dramatic situation that precludes or at least stifles any potential for originality; a form of literary shorthand that presents a person, place, circumstance, or thing in such a commonplace way as to avoid any further need for description or individuation; a deliberate or unconscious statement from the author that all is vanilla.

One of the more persistent cliches is a four-to-five-hundred-word feature composed of as many cliches as possible, demonstrating dramatically how what was once fresh and plangent with originality has become trite and predictable. Another is the easy-as-pie Internet cliche finder. Most cliches were at the time of their origin an highly visual or descriptive trope that became overused because of its clarity but has become through overuse an irritant.

Cliches do not stop as catch phrases, they extend to characters such as the absent-minded academic, the hit-person-for-hire who is kind to animals, the Irish cop, the Jewish pawnbroker or banker, the Italian criminal, the lazy Mexican, the red-neck Southerner, the effeminate male homosexual, the butch female homosexual, the bored housewife, etc.

The acquisitions editor confronted with an engaging story is likely to begin with a higher tolerance to an occasional cliche, growing more alert to these infractions if they persist. Thus the cliche joins the comma splice, indifferent spelling, and questionable usage as mechanical causes for rejection. The dedicated writer makes a search-and-destroy (probable cliche here) anti-cliche mission a part of every revision, starting with word usage then moving to an examination of each character who makes an appearance, finishing with any characters who may be mentioned but not brought on stage, thus coping effectively with the built-in writers' hubris of writing unquestionably cliche-free prose.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Political Seance

political novel, the--a fictional narrative constructed to evoke political commentary; a novel formulated to level criticism, even ridicule, at a present-day or historical circumstance.

For the politically minded writer, the novel of politics represents an attractive target genre, allowing flexibility in choice of historical eras, narrative tone (gravitas, humor, satire, etc)and the mixing of actual historical characters with fictional ones, or the use of the roman a clef approach to strongly suggest an actual personality through the portrayal of an invented one (as in Robert Penn Warren's All the Kings' Men, in which Willie Stark is conceded to be taken for Huey P. Long.)

The short story writer and novelist Junot Diaz would not be thought of as a political writer at first reading, but even before his stunning novel, The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao, appeared, it would be possible after considering his shorter work that Diaz had a shrewd eye for the social politics of Dominican Republic emigrants to America, the politics of Latino families, and the politics of outsiders trying to establish identity and place within a large social landscape. Even though Oscar Wao is highly personalized and because of its close-up focus transcends into a metaphor for coming of age in most forms of civilization, the work also details with some imagination, rage, and sophistication the effects the U.S. has had on smaller countries at a considerable remove from it.

Although associated with political causes in his personal life, Dashiell Hammett was more frequently associated with stories of crime and detection--The Maltese Falcon, or The Thin Man--thanks to the general awareness of his having been associated with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Yet Hammett's 1931 novel, The Glass Key, plays heavily on political themes, introducing a protagonist, Ned Beaumont, whose association with a crooked political figure, leads him to investigate a murder, the trail of clues gradually transforming his views of the world about him and his self. The tenor and scope of Beaumont and the noir atmosphere of corruption in politics led to an influence in crime writing that has had profound effects on writers, on crime novels, and political novels. An arguable heir of Hammett and his Ned Beaumont is Sara Paretsky's Chicago PI, V. I. Warshawsky.

Political novels are like thermometers: They reflect the temperature of a given era’s political symptoms.

Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 political novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, is one many critics and historians argue as a significant catalyst. This sentimentalized accounting of the American experience with slavery fueled the Abolitionist Movement, which in turn influenced the American Civil War. Uncle Tom, his family and slave owner Simon Legree evolved from fictional presences to stereotypical realities well into the 20th century.

Richard Condon's 1959 thriller, The Manchurian Candidate, took the political novel on yet a new vector. In this conspiracy theory thriller set during the Korean War, an American platoon is captured and brainwashed to believe that one of their number heroically saved them during combat. The “hero” has been further brainwashed to serve as a sleeper agent for the Communists.

Alan Drury's 1959 novel Advise and Consent, was designed to show the intricate workings of the United States Senate. The narrative posits the nomination to the secretary of state position an individual with liberal politics and a background as a former Communist. The Senate, with a duty to advise the U.S. president and consent to his programs, is seen in action, vetting the individual and the implications of his service as secretary of state.

To demonstrate the potential for humor and satire in the political novel, Graham Greene produced the 1958 novel of politics, Our Man in Havana, where a genial but passive British expatriate working in pre-Castro Havana as a vacuum cleaner salesman becomes a British intelligence agent as a way of making more money to pay for his daughter’s convent education. This elaborately constructed satire effectively ridicules the often-unseen consequences of a mismanaged intelligence program. In many if not all his novels, Greene was able to blend his religious and philosophical views with some form of political commentary, yet another demonstration of the flexibility and attractiveness of the medium.

Whenever two or more characters gather, there is some form of politics in play. The writer see this and takes notes.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Flash Fiction

flash fiction--short stories of vignettes of under seven hundred fifty words; preternaturally short fiction pieces, often with an arbitrary word limit; a prose narrative conspicuously shorter than the conventional short form.

Earlier referred to as the short-short story or, on occasion, sudden fiction, the characteristic trait of the format is the trumping of plot over character, thus such a story is more apt to have an ironic payoff or some observable turn in which the protagonist is blown up by his own device (the biter bit). On occasion such stories can have a resonant frequency that makes them memorable. They are certainly attractive for editors who can then use three or four of these for every story of a conventional length (say 3500-6500 words), but the down side is that because of their formulaic overload or their tendency to the punch-line type of ending, they emerge sounding like a joke. Much is made of a six-word short story allegedly contributed by Ernest Hemingway, which would almost by default become the high watermark for the medium, but the greater likelihood is of the story about Hemingway having written such a tale being without foundation.

It may help a writer of short stories to attempt to characterize a particular story, and it is arguably a help for the story teller to have to learn how to use language as though it were a precision tool, but these two factors, even if used in concert, do not guarantee a successful story. The better approach is to write early drafts long, then cut them short.

Friday, July 24, 2009

All Requite on the Western Front

quiting--a literary "conversation" in which a writer answers or responds to a previously published work; derived from Middle English requite "a return to someone or something."

A noteworthy contemporary example of quiting is Jane Smiley's Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Novel, which requites the title and content of Wallace Stevens's poem,"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." In similar fashion, Wallace Stevens requited John Keats's Ode on a "Grecian Urn" with "Anecdote of the Jar." When he composed "Troilus and Cressida," Shakespeare was requiting Geoffrey Chaucer's Middle English "Troilus and Criseyde," which Chaucer actually picked up from the "Roman de Troie," written in French in the mid-twelfth century by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. Each of these versions added changes and perspectives, two essential elements to quiting. Similarly, James Joyce requited the poet or poets we now think of as Homer in Joyce's famed recounting of The Odyssey, known to us as the novel Ulysses.

Quiting may also be seen as a payback, as Montresor requited or paid back Fortunato in Poe's "A Cask of Amontilado." thus a contemporary writer may indulge in a "conversation" with another writer, even one long dead. American copyright laws that are interpreted to support a writer's use of his property expressly supported J.D. Salinger when another author sought to use characters based on his own inventions from The Catcher in the Rye. In this same construct, no one complained when Valerie Martin retold Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde through the point of view of an Irish maid in her novel Mary Reilly, nor of Herman Melville's Captain Ahab in Sena Nasland's novel, Ahab's Wife, one evident message being: if you're going to requite an author, pick one whose work is now safely in public domain. Another message is to make some recognizable contribution to the effect and understanding of the original work.

You could argue that Shakespeare was one of the great quiters, having refurbished or reformulated the works of earlier writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth (appx. 1100--appx. 1155), notably in Julius Cesear, Cymbeline, and Lear, not to forget his use of the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus (1150-1220) for materials inspiring Hamlet.

Contemporary quiters have conjoined Jane Austen characters with vampires in what appears to have been a coup for followers of vampire fiction. The late, lamented Ed McBain, creator of the famed Eighty-seventh Precinct police procedural mysteries, was given to naming junior high schools set in his novels after his friends, a milder but amusing example of requiting

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Dystopia

dystopia, novels of--narratives in which the ills of society are exaggerated for thematic effect; cautionary tales demonstrating social, moral, economic, sexual, and religious agendas allowed to run wild.

In the story-telling sense, utopias--stories of perfection and accord--are not really stories because they lack the major dramatic ingredient of conflict. Thus grace is boring, the fall from grace and its consequences a magnet for interest. If everyone gets along, is his brother's keeper, does not covet, etc, the reader will have little reason to continue because, redemption being precluded, there is no big finale to anticipate. If, however, a protagonist, say Ray Bradbury's Guy Montag from Fahrenheit 451, has a gut feeling that there is something wrong about what he is doing, the reader begins to see the inevitability of Montag going up against something quite larger than himself, forced to deal with it.

Seen as a paradigm of a dystopia that cautioned against the consequences of war, The Iliad's most seemly character is Hector. His tragic fate elevates him to a role model for the conflicted protagonist. It was a dumb war to begin with, started when Hector's brother, Paris, made off with his prize from having judged a beauty contest. Hector's wife, Andromache, pleads with him to abandon the war they will surely lose, reminding him that were things to continue, she'd probably be taken as a prize of war and their son, Astyanax, would be killed. As devoted to his wife and son as Hector is, even though he agrees with her assessment, he knows he could not face life, even a life in exile, were he to turn from battle. Nor is Hector naive or insensitive. He well foresees the consequences, but feels obliged to continue, nevertheless.

The backstory conditions of the dystopia--See Brave New World, Logan's Run,1984, The Handmaid's Tale--is the unthinkable come to pass. The present-time narrative of the dystopia sets a protagonist with whom the reader can identify in motion to cope with it.

In its own idiosyncratic and memorable ways, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is welcomed company in the genre of dystopic fiction, offering forth its modern-day Hector in the form of the bombardier Yossarian. For all her bombast and philosophical sturm und drang, Ayn Rand easily is awarded membership in the Dystopia Society, primarily with Atlas Shrugged and its driven protagonist, Dagny Taggart, but not to forget Howard Roark of The Fountainhead. And not to forget the preternaturally bright Alex, protagonist of Anthony Burgess's enduring dystopia, Clockwork Orange.

Hints: There are seeds of dystopia in every satire, just as there are seeds of satire in every dystopia. If you were to look closely at Tess of the Durbervilles, Jude, the Obscure, and The Mayor of Casterbridge, you could find cause to think of Hardy as a writer of dystopian fiction. Hardy (1840-1928) was a close contemporary of another dabbler in the dystopic, Mark Twain (1835-1910).The 1950-90 science fiction era is larded with dystopic visions, one of many reasons why that genre became literature.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Letters from Whom

epistolary novel, the--a long narrative related through exchanges of letters between characters.

As technology expanded from the handwritten letter to the post card, the typed letter, and telegrams, the epistolary narrative could reasonably be expanded to include messages left on telephone answering machines, While-You-Were-Out messages, email, text messages, journal entries, blog posts, and one-hundred-forty-word Twitter entries. In short, anything that could be taken to have come from characters with agendas and intent.

One of the earliest examples of epistolary novels came from the printer, Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), with Pamela, the first of three. Pamela carried the subtitle, Virtue Rewarded; it appeared at a time (1740) when the English reading public was not as used to the concept of fiction, consequently believing it to be a real account involving real persons. It was so successful that Richardson was motivated eight years later to produce another, Clarissa: Or, The History of a Young Lady, and yet another, The History of Sir Charles Grandison in 1753.

The most notable contemporary epistolary novel is Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, a series of letters written by John Ames, an elderly Protestant minister to his young son, the delightful surprise evolving from his later-in-life marriage to a younger woman. By 2004, when Gilead was published, the reading public was sophisticated enough to understand the concept of fictional characters, applying the standard of willing suspension of disbelief to it and to any novel they read.

Since Gilead, at least one other epistolary novel, The White Tiger, by Adida Aravind, appeared to great critical acclaim. In between Pamela and The White Tiger is Ring Lardner's iconc letters from Jack Keefe, a bush league baseball player, published in 1916.

There are enough epistolary and epistolary-like novels in the publishing stream (The Beatrice Letters from Lemony Snickett, Flowers for Algernon from Daniel Keyes, and Nick Bantock's imaginatively extravagant Griffin and Sabine) to suggest that the epistolary novel has a solid footing in the literary landscape, relying for its effectiveness on the same elements a traditionally narrated novel uses: intriguing characters, believable situations, surprise, and revelation.

Mainstream and literary writers alike (Vladimir Nabokov with Ada, John Barth with Letters, to name two) have ventured into this stream with works that are likely to last.

Hint: Back in the day, when Richardson was attracting readers to his seemingly actual characters, his contemporary, the great satirist Henry Fielding, was inspired to quit Pamela, which is to say answer it (See quitting). He did so with Shamela, which also used epistolary format to show that Richardson's virtuous serving girl was actually lascivious and scheming, using her wiles to effect a good marriage for herself. Accordingly, think of the fun inherent in such possible approaches as Letters to a Young Screen Writer, or Hester Prynne's Guide to Feminist Freedom.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Everyman's Library

writer's bookshelf, the--a close-to-hand selection of books in the writer's work area; an idiosyncratic selection of reference guides and comfort reading the working writer will use; inspiration and edification between covers.

For some writers, the basic reference guides--The Chicago Manual of Style, an unabridged dictionary, Fowler's Modern American-English Usage--are enough; others still have titles related to a specific project in the works. Yet other writers have titles at hand to remind them of the cadence or vocabulary of a particular work. It is also possible that some works, discovered early in the writer's development--works such as The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-exupery--elicit a sentimental and inspirational connection. The important consideration: Past, present, and future reading are essential to the writer's continuous engagement with craft. The temptation to rely on easily accessible Internet references, the quid pro quo of you look, they tell, does not enhance retention where it matters--in the storage vaults of the senses.

The compiler of this lexicon keeps at close hand, in addition to CMOS, the (unabridged)American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language 3rd and 4th eds., Fowler, and The New York Public Library Literature Companion, Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, Love and Death in the American Novel, by Leslie Fiedler, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom, The Oxford University Press Classical Dictionary, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley, The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler, Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. These titles gravitated through frequency of use to the bookshelf adjacent the writer's desk.

What are yours? On consideration, what do they say about you and what you write?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Writing on Spec

speculative fiction--a novel or story that produces an alternate historical reality in which improvised or extrapolated events occur; a narrative that expands on an if-things-continue-as-they're-going theme; a story framed on the enhanced consequences of political, religious, scientific, or social consequences.

Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel, The Handmaid's Tale, takes as its premise the overthrow of the U.S. government as it now exists, replacing it with a totalitarian theocracy under which women are vastly subjugated to the point of being assigned the role of concubine. This alternate/speculative historical approach allowed Atwood to create a new country, Gilead, complete with different social classes and agendas. Think of The Handmaid's Tale and Michael Chabon's 2007 The Yiddish Policeman's Union as book ends, encompassing for the writers' reference a shelf of earlier works as well, many of them selling to readers who normally read science fiction (which, see).

While you are thumbing your way to science fiction, consider some of the titles between these bookends, all beginning with an author asking the famed What-if question.

Some memorable speculative novels include at least two by George Orwell, 1984, and Animal Farm. Aldous Huxley’s better-known Brave New World unfairly eclipses his After Many a Summer Dies the Swan.

Philip Roth and Saul Bellow have speculated to great effect, but one of the great speculative novels of modern times made its way tentatively, as a triad of short stories appearing in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Having participated in the bombing of an Italian monastery during World War II, Walter Miller began setting down his account of a post apocalyptic world, starting in a Roman Catholic monastery in the American Southwest, spanning the regrowth of the civilized world. A Canticle for Liebowitz has been in continuous print since its 1960 appearance; it is speculative fiction writ large across the forehead of inventive creativity.

Michael Chabon’s 2007 venture, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which is an adept marriage of alternate history with mystery/suspense and political. In this textbook example of the speculative, Chabon demonstrates how such work can include characters of memorable dimension, provocative themes, and a brooding sense of plausibility.

Such is the flexibility of speculative fiction that writers from all genera may resort to it as a means of expressing fables or cautionary tales at the extreme edges of their convictions and imagination.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Any Portal in a Storm

fantasy--a novel or story in which magical, supernatural, and preternatural elements are presented as though they were real; narratives in which alternate universes, mythic creatures, imaginary worlds, and extraordinary mental and physical abilities prevail; stories involving clashes of power between rival forces who have rival thematic agendas; stories built on the consequences of spells, curses, and charms.

Ever since Alice (of Wonderland fame) fell into the rabbit hole, fantasy writers have capitalized on the portal or entry way into worlds of their own creation, worlds where often enough there may be intended comparisons between individuals, institutions, and places in the real world. These are worlds where magic--abilities that extend beyond the boundaries of reality--flourishes, but just as contemporary pharmaceuticals do, the magic has a known list of side effects: spells do not last indefinitely, curses may exact a reaction onto the curse giver, and such desirable abilities as invisibility have strict time limits. Portals have led readers and, of course, characters to antique shops, restaurants, book stores, even pawn brokers. The consequence of such visits become manifest when the protagonist of the story attempts to return to the venue of the portal.

Fantasy worlds often parallel the real universe in most details except for those one or two of the author's choice. Thus in Rachel Maddux's short story, "Final Clearance," written during the days of Congressional hearings and loyalty oaths, the payoff comes in the form of a recently dead atomic scientist being denied actual death because of a failed security clearance.

In one form or another, fantasy has been with us since there was a spoken language; it plays a significant part in, for instance, Gilgamesh, which has fantasy themes revisited in The Iliad and even more so in The Odyssey, where it is often used as a metaphor. The contemporary writer, Ursula K. LeGuin, has written a short story, "Horse Camp," in which two sisters, Sal and Norah, along with a friend, Ev, go to horse camps during the summer and are transformed into equines. In yet another of her fantasies, "The Professor's Houses," there is a thematic counterpoint between the house where the Professor lives and a doll house he has made for his young daughter. LeGuin has done in her book, The Language of the Night, what Stephen King has done for horror in Danse Macabre.

Just as the historical story has done for the mixing of genera such as historical thriller, historical mystery, historical juvenile, etc, so too has fantasy become a pairing genre, often seen as magical realism (See any work by Alice Hoffman). This mixture easily extends to work that is by any account considered literature, Robertson Davies' The Rebel Angels being a significant example.

Hint: Check out via Google and Wikipedia the pulp fantasy magazine, Weird Tales. Also of seminal interest to fantasy writers as a source of inspiration, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, and the near-iconic Harry Potter books.

Additional hint: Start with a short story in the works, then add to it one magical element, keeping everything else as grounded in realistic detail as possible.

Yet another hint: Do not ever forget The Wizard of Oz, which is not only pure fantasy, it is a paradigm for the structure of a novel, so much so that Margaret Atwood uses it in an essay ("In the Heart of the Heartland" available on Google)in which she shows the connection between Richard Powers's literary tour de force, The Echo Maker, with The Wizard.

Saturday, July 18, 2009


science fiction novel, the--longform narrative extrapolating on a hard science or special science theme; a novel in which the major thematic problem and its solution relate directly to scientific observation; a novel in which laws governing the property of elements, forces, and species are extended to produce a moral problem and its solution.

The common denominator of science fiction is plausibility, demonstrated when the reader, writer, and characters accept the reality of the concepts that are inherent to the final result of the story. Accordingly, the science fiction reader has no difficulty accepting the speculative reality of Ray Bradbury's (1920--)Fahrenheit 451, which features a repressive society bound up in book burning; nor does it fail to see the issues raised about prolonging the human life span from Aldous Huxley's (1894-1963)After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, nor indeed the issues of morality and prejudice raised in Robert Heinlein's (1907-88) Stranger in a Strange Land, predicated on the journey through earth of a human born on the planet Mars. These titles represent the broad spectrum of subject matter inherent within the genre, which, like other genera, has morphed its way from plot-driven entertainments to character-driven and issue-driven literature. Theodore Sturgeon's (1918--1985) success d'estime, More Than Human, probed the boundaries of the human condition, positing relations among humans that were symbiotic. In one of the few notable cases where a writer's work benefited from screen writing, Leigh Brackett, who began her career writing pulp sci-fi stories, morphed into a hardboiled mystery writer, from which genre she brought an edgier, noirish type of character into her prolific output of science fiction.

Although few if any critics have seen the work of Richard Powers (1957--), particularly his 2006 novel, The Echo Maker, as science fiction, but thanks to its relentless probing of the meaning of individual identity and the self, it could well be shelved among the more literate and literary works of science fiction.

The true meaning of humor--the sad truth revealed--is a frequent theme in science fiction, particularly as articulated by anthropologist-turned sci-fi writer Chad Oliver, by Alfred Bester, and Frederic Brown.

Science fiction bears a close relationship to much mainstream fiction, in that each begins with a what-if premise, which is then pushed beyond accepted limitations. The writer who is curious about science fiction may discover commentary about it in which it is spoken of as speculative fiction. Philip Roth (1933--), for instance, is rarely thought of as a science fiction writer, and yet his The Plot Against America speculates an alternate universe theme in which Charles Lindberg became president of the United States.

Friday, July 17, 2009


nuance--the use of a particular word, concept, gesture, or intent for the best shade of meaning possible; the right word or concept in the right place in a story or novel; the difference offered to the reader between two or more possible interpretations; an opportunity for the close reader to appreciate the intent of a story in greater detail.

Nuance is a major challenge to the reader and the writer, a trail of literary crumbs left by the writer to lure the reader onward much as the crumbs left by the witch were used to lure Hansel and Gretel deeper into her clutches. Flaubert gained some note of attention because of his preoccupation with finding the right word. Mark Twain played with the same notion, speaking of the right word, not its second cousin, then to even greater effect, " The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

Accordingly, nuance and subtext are not merely second cousins, they are kissing cousins, forcing the reader and the writer to examine the words that will best radiate the intent of the characters behavior and perceptions. Not one character in The Remains of the Day called Mr. Stevens, the lead, a naive narrator, and yet the reader knew through nuance and subtext of the numerous instances where Stevens simply did not "get" or properly read the intent at hand. When Lord Darlington asked Stevens if any of his employees were Jewish, for instance, Stevens was unable to read the implications, nor was he able to see Miss Kenton coming on to him. Indeed, Stevens' new employer, the American owner of Darlington Hall, has to remind Stevens to loosen up a bit, and Stevens dutifully reports to us that he will attempt to do so.

Ford Maddox Ford's breakout novel, The Good Soldier, begins with John Dowell, the first-person narrator, telling us, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Dowell continues at somewhat of a ramble, seemingly looking for a way to introduce the story of a nine-year friendship he and his wife, Florence, have shared with an English couple, the Ashburnhams. At length, Dowell decides to imagine himself at the fireplace of a country cottage, "with a sympathetic soul opposite," the best way of telling us his story. By this point, it is possible to suspect motives of Dowell, sympathy from us not the least of them. As Stevens does in Remains, Dowell presents a scenario of events which, through their highly nuanced nature, suggest an outcome that pays off directly on the opening line, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard," but does so with a payoff that has lingering, ironic consequences.

Hint: Look for the effect you wish the reader to arrive at, then construct a situation in which one or more of the characters can demonstrate that effect. Dramatize, not state. Show by inference, not tell by authorial intrusion.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

O! The horror, the horror!

horror novel, the--a genre which the reader knowingly seeks in anticipation of experiencing fear and possible revulsion; narratives which exploit the hidden menace in ordinary characters and details.

Just as historical fiction has morphed into a convenient hybrid force combining it with the likes of romance, mystery,fantasy, and speculative fiction, horror fiction has proved agreeably flexible. So long as one or more characters is placed in chilling, frightening circumstances, horror stories are appropriately set in past, present, or future surroundings in which other generic categories play supporting roles.

The quintessential late twentieth- and early twenty-first century horror writer is Stephen King, whose prolific output of fiction might cause the reader to overlook his text-book-perfect 1981 publication, Danse Macabre, a personal-but-highly evolved history of horror fiction and, via the frontage road of subtext, an excellent resource for horror writers.

The primary goals of horror fiction include frightening the reader, unsettling, disorienting, and bombarding the reader with potential conspiracy theories that often involve supernatural elements. Haunted houses are so plentiful in horror fiction that they have become a sub-genre. Vampires are another recurrent horror theme, with zombies and werewolves representing yet another fork in the road.

Robert Louis Stevenson's novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde, certainly fits the category as does Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Another contemporary writer to consult for insights into the medium is William Peter Blatty (1928--), whose The Exorcist uses the extreme vulnerability of a twelve-year-old girl as a host for invasion by a malevolent, deamonic force, and allows a natural match-up between dark forces and religion.

Henry Farrell (1920-2006) produced instructive examples of horror fiction with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, and How Awful About Alan.

In Danse Macabre, Steven King has credited Ira Levin's 1967 novel, Rosemary's Baby, a progressively more horrifying novel in which a vulnerable protagonist is impregnated by a demonic force, as his early inspiration.

Not to forget William Faulkner's notable horror story, "A Rose for Emily."

Nor to forget Howard Philips Lovecraft (1890-1937), whom Steven King has also called out as the greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale in the twentieth century. Lovecraft, a brooding cynic and pessimist, was in his way a polar opposite of the religion-based optimism of C.S. Lewis; he relentlessly took on such major icons as Romanticism and Enlightenment, saving major dramatic thrusts, almost as though he were a Cyrano de Bergerac in a sword fight, against Christian humanism.

Until Stephen King's popularity became established, horror fiction was more likely to be shelved in libraries and bookstores as weird fiction or weird stories. Indeed, a major pulp magazine published between 1923 and 1954, and which featured stories by Lovecraft, was called Weird Tales.

Hint: If the explanation for the horrific or supernatural elements in a story is too rational, the work is more likely science fiction or at least speculative fiction than it is horror.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

When a Link Is More Than a Sausage

linkage--a useful connection between writing fiction and one or more other crafts; awareness of an outside analogy or philosophy to writing that, when applied, imparts another dimension to writing; a way of placing writing in a context that will result in helping the writer implement the originality of his voice.

Two obvious links to writing are acting and musicianship; all three are predicated on timing, all three convey emotion, all three have an individual rhetoric which, on closer examination, address the same concepts and techniques. 

Acting is a moment-to-moment representation of a theme or agenda under development. Musicianship relates to the performance of a particular work with the intent of development and interaction. All three disciplines are built around the same set of notions--relating a story.

Writers are more likely to recognize common interests among actors, seeing them as extensions of the characters the writers have created from whole cloth. The writer is perhaps slower to recognize the fact that their craft and the musician's craft each uses a system of notation in which time and timing play important roles, complete with notations to represent durations of time, intensity, and meter. 

 In addition, certain forms--rondo, concerto, symphony, etc--have thematic patters, extensive as such conventions for fiction as flash fiction, short story, novella, serial, novel.

The Japanese novelist Haruki Murikami openly expresses his fondness for jazz, having written copiously about the influences of the medium on his work, while Jack Kerouac openly tried to use his understanding of jazz improvisation as a defining template for his own written improv and tempo. 

 Two robins do not make a Spring, nor six or eight, thus no more examples of the men and women who write with some conscious or close-to-conscious awareness of music for inspiration because the point is not in the number of examples which may be sited but rather the actual similarity inherent in these media.

To get his or her work beyond the stage of imitative and philosophical reverence for individuals who are writers, the emerging writer will profit from seeing the discipline in terms of yet another discipline, say astronomy or quantum physics, but also in potential relationships with astrology, mythology, and Jungian psychology. Or baseball.

To those writers familiar with the theories of circularity of events as expressed by Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), the structure of James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, not the least of which being the opening and closing lines, will come as no surprise. Nor will the seemingly effortless understanding of seamanship surprise readers of Joseph Conrad nor the comprehensive understanding of bullfighting to readers of Barnaby Conrad.

Does this infer the need for a writer to have a hobby or avocation or other compelling interest? Yes, although there is more to be done. Whatever the "other" interest or discipline, the writer needs to exercise extreme caution against installing reader feeder into the work at hand merely for the sake of using the gleaned material. 

 The linkage awaits, in as much relative importance as the understanding of characters and their goals. Metaphor for its own sake is nothing more than stylistic showing off. Metaphor for enhanced understanding and for articulating the lines of linkage is another matter altogether; it is the matter of the story or tale that once told begins a reverberation that has a half life of centuries.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

It's All Relative

relationships--associations, connections, or the lack thereof among characters in a story; the attraction or force of obligation and/or distaste between a character and an institution, organization, or place; an awareness of romantic, social, and ethical potential among characters in a story; the degree of resident empathy between the writer and the characters created by the writer.

The writer has created every character in the story, a given that is the baseline of all other relationships in the narrative. Now the writer must establish with each character enough of a relationship to convey by direction and nuance the intent of the entire ensemble of personalities. Next comes the writer's awareness of each character's goal in the story, followed by the writer's awareness of the subtext among characters in every scene, while each individual is acting on his own agenda and intent.

Effectively taking the place of the standard Shakespearean Prologue, the equivalent of three bag ladies, off their meds, appear. All right, they're witches, who let us know they have some ability to "read" the future. They foresee a meeting "ere the set of sun," on the heath, there to meet with Macbeth. Next scene, establish Macbeth as a loyal captain. Establish also King Duncan, deciding that Macbeth is to be promoted to Thane of Cawdor. We have not seen Macbeth yet, but already we have information about him, including the fact that his promotion comes from his loyal service. Now we're back to the three witches, gloating a bit about their witch-like activities, then, just as they'd foreseen, noting the arrival of Macbeth and his coeval, Banquo--two great chums at day's end. The witches greet Macbeth, first by his old title, then, just as Duncan had decreed, as Thane of Cawdor. The third witch delivers the kicker: "All hail,Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!" Music to Macbeth's ears. estate management. He already has inner plans and dreams. Call it a hidden agenda. We have barely met him and yet, look at the details of his position and relationships we have gleaned.

Early in A Streetcar Named Desire, before she has uttered a word of dialogue, Blanche Dubois is seen taking a quick slug from a hidden bottle, then turned down the lights, giving us a highly intimate view of her relationship with her self-image.

Characters are in the constant flux of defining their relationships to their surroundings, their circumstances, and to those about them. Even in such subjective constructs as sobriety or romantic involvement, a character responds by carefully articulating his movements, thus not to reveal his drunkenness, or to reveal by body language, facial expressions, and words his regard for the object of his devotion. From these definitions, the reader is able to interpret dramatic intent.

Monday, July 13, 2009


structure--a process in writing where first the writer then the reader observe, then respond to, the placement of dramatic elements; a systematic arrangement of dramatic events; the order in which key story points are set forth with the expectation that they will reveal the writer's intent.

The decision Wilkie Collins made to deliver elements of the suspense thriller, The Moonstone, included his structural strategy for using multiple point-of-view narration from key cast members. Thus came an introduction to Franklin Blake as narrator, giving us background about the eponymous jewel, also revealing his love for Rachel Verinder, who is to be given the Moonstone on the eve of her birthday. Rachel, we are pretty sure, also is into Franklin Blake. When the fabled gem goes missing and all are shocked by the crime, Franklin Blake still narrating, Rachel turns on him, says she never wants to see him again. Stunned, he asks why. Now it is our turn to be stunned. "Because you stole the Moonstone," she tells him. "I saw you with my own eyes.) End of chapter.

Collins did not have to end the chapter at that point; he could have chosen at her structural approaches, but none would have so effectively created the desired drama Collins wished to present.

F. Scott Fitzgerald experimented fitfully with the narrative of The Great Gatsby until, at length, he stumbled on the decision to demonstrate the events through the eyes of Nick Carraway, a cousin of one of the principals, thus necessitating a change in structure.

Valerie Martin encountered her own structure with her novel, Mary Reilly, in which she rearranged the structure of Robert Louis Stevenson's novella, The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by recasting the story through the eyes of an immigrant Irish girl who had signed on as Dr. Jekyll's maid and who ultimately found herself vulnerable.

Hint: A useful way of looking at structure in a short story, novel, or play is the positioning of the discovery. In a mystery, one or more bodies should be discovered early on, with scenes engineered to suggest to the reader/viewer the potential for yet additional discoveries. In bedroom farce, the adventurous lover is discovered hiding under the bed or in the closet later in the proceedings.

Seemingly indistinguishable from design, structure may take on a life of its own if, as a concept,it is questioned by the writer during a stage of revision. The question for the writer to pose at that time is: Does the inherent energy of this work cry out for a different emphasis? Depending on the answer to the question, the writer is led by enthusiasm beyond the academic quibble of the difference in meaning between structure and design. The goal is to find the most resonant arrangement of characters, scenes, and issues within a particular story.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Critical reading

critical reading--the observant way a writer reads fiction; a focused gleaning of technical and emotional tools the reader may use to strengthen his own work; the things a writer looks at and for when reading the works of other writers.

Even when it becomes apparent to the writer who is reading for more than the transportation of enjoyment and enlightenment that a particular story or novel is a disappointment, there is still value to be had. The writer-reader should pause to delineate specific complaints: Is the story line too simplistic? Are the movements of the characters predictable? Do the motives feel appropriate? Does the dialogue crackle with the intensity of complex individuals? Are there distractions?

Reading the work of another becomes an exercise at the level of revising one's own work. Are there unnecessary elements? Are the elements arranged properly? Do the characters aspire to an attain connection with the reader? Could I have done this more expeditiously, and if so how, and if not, what have I learned?

The writer-reader becomes anxious at first to determine if the narrative voice is agreeable, then goes on to wonder what the story is about. What, the writer-reader asks, is the goal of the story? What are the resident emotions? What are this author's strengths? Weaknesses? Then come the heaviest questions: Do I care? What made me care or not care? If I did care, when did I begin caring? If I did not care,what could have made me? What could I have done to make this story matter more. What special use does this writer make of the senses?

The writer as reader then goes on to ask some of the questions a literary critic might ask. What is the theme? What social, moral, and political issues does the writer appear to be engaging? But even these questions and their answers have story telling at their heart; it is well and good for a writer to observe ways Jane Austen used the dialogue and behavior of her characters to make fun of then contemporary social structure, but to gain technique from these observations, the reader must be able to experience the prejudices and humiliations of the characters. This awareness comes from the readers' need to appreciate on an emotional level the sense of social condition and obligation of the characters, then to observe how these behaviors are demonstrated in the text.

A simple approach to employ while reading the works of other writers is to imagine yourself being cast in the role of one or more characters in a particular novel or story, noting the chemistry and constraints of each character for all the other characters. Another informative approach is to use marking pens to note places where a character's agenda, whatever it might be, finds expression in narrative description, dramatic action behavior, and/or in dialogue.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


counterpoint--the dramatic play of two differing, possibly even opposing themes within the same story; the overall relationship between two voices or agendas in contour and pace; a blending of two seemingly disparate points of view resulting in some added dramatic effect such as irony, satire, humor, or pathos.

Two of the three most obvious examples of thematic counterpoint in literature were composed by Jane Austen (1775--1817); these are Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. The themes are not only sounded in the titles, they are given full orchestration in the thematic use of the characters. 

 Who can forget Elizabeth Bennett as she responds to the chemistry of Fitzwilliam Darcy, each in turn battling against the inner conflict of romantic interest and social position? Another English writer, Aldous Huxley (1894--1963) has a title right on the mark, Point Counterpoint, its opposing themes being reason and passion. 

 Notable among the array of characters in what could be thought of as a run-up to the talky and pretentious 1981 film from Louis Malle, My Dinner with Andre, Huxley presents himself in Point Counterpoint as a novelist who is not very good at getting characters down on paper.

Yet another, wickedly inspired example of counterpoint is found in the Canadian writer, Robertson Davies (1913--95), whose The Rebel Angels appeared in 1981. Long interested in myth and mythology, Davies interests gravitated toward the psychology of Jung. 

 His contrapuntal Rebel Angels appeared to be playing the themes of pure academic research and the effects of mysticism and magic against one another. A significant character in this novel is Maria Theotoky, a graduate student researching Rabelais, which sets the theme of academicism in motion against the likely prospect of her stern discipline being overrun by the overt sexuality and emotional gormandizing of her subject matter. Davies does not stop there. Maria, through her Gypsy heritage, leads the reader into the murky areas of concert-level violinists having their prized instruments temporarily buried in horse dung to impart the true clarity of their voice.

Any seemingly disparate subjects can be employed, provided the characters have sufficient dimension to support the investigation. Of the four examples given, the Davies far outshines even the iconic Pride and Prejudice, suggesting that novels of ideas must have more weight to them than the sense of talking heads in serious discourse. Indeed, the Davies has humor and satire bordering on the blasphemous.

Academic-college-based novels have an open-door policy to thematic counterpoint, the novels of David Lodge and Lucky Jim, the one venture into the medium by Kingsley Amis, added examples of how effective the medium can be. Saved for last is a strong candidate for the most sublime example yet of the effects of counterpoint in story.

D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers engages the theme of a woman of breeding, education, and sensitivity, who meets a rough-and-tumble coal miner at a Christmas dance, falls into a sensual relationship with him almost immediately, then marries him. Together, they produce two sons, each of whom contributes in his way to the counterpoint. 

 The character of Paul Morel has become synonymous with D. H. Lawrence, who was a living example of the unharmonic conflicts visited on him by his mother and father. Watch Paul Morel's relationship with each parent, and then watch his urgent need to leave the atmosphere of the coal mining village and its stiffling effect on him. Now you will have seen and understood counterpoint, the better to use it as a tool in short story, novel, and intermediate lengths, seeing characters for what they represent through articulation of their needs and the circumstances they have built for themselves.

Friday, July 10, 2009

So Predictable

predictable--a narrative condition in which the reader correctly guess the intent of a character and the outcome of that intent; dramatic circumstances in which there is little or no nuance, where the reader is neither surprised nor challenged.

If a reader is truly caught up in a story, he will have taken sides, begun to root for the success of some and the failure or worse (humiliation) for others, indulged in the trope of reader as matchmaker, seeing potential romantic entanglements. Additionally, the reader will be able to take cues from the text much as a dog about to be taken for a walk will take cues from the master putting on a jacket, clanking house keys, or reaching for a leash. Certain situations in story provoke the speculation that something--a disaster, a reversal, a surprise--is forthcoming. The shrewd writer, which is to say the writer who understands the dynamics of story, will be aware of these anticipations, then prepare for them in a way that will provoke surprise and keep the reader off guard and guessing to the point of not being able to take time away from the reading.

Never take the reader where the reader wants to go. Readers do not wish to be left standing still, which they may easily feel themselves to be if they are presented with laundry lists of details, forced to listen to long, philosophical discussions, subjected to weather reports or travel-writing descriptions of scenery. At the extreme least, readers want to feel as though they were eavesdropping on some form of intimacy; better still they wish to feel compellingly caught up with the execution of a particular character's agenda.

It is the task of the writer to make the reader feel the intensity of the characters and their involvements with the issues of the story. Anything else is predictable.

Even if you are not a fan or fancier of the suspense-based thriller, it is worth critically reading at least one novel by Harlan Coben, comparing it will one by Lee Child and Nelson Demille. Couldn't hurt to read Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, which presents yet other variations on the theme of surprise and unpredictability, then consider Louise Erdrich's A Plague of Doves.

Dealing with predictability in story provides another set of reasons to consider and absorb acting techniques from the likes of such actor coaches as Stella Adler, Sanford Meizner, and Uta Hagen, wherein actors learn where to find within themselves the emotions, gestures, and visions of surprise. In this sense, surprise is the discovery the character makes about himself/herself in times of weal and woe--discovery that before our eyes transforms the predictable into the truly remarkable.

Thursday, July 9, 2009


dramatic--having the inherent suggestion and quality of story; implicit content of elements that produce conflict, interaction, goal search, revelation and reversal; a narrative that contains one or more characters in pursuit of an agenda or embarking on an internal or geographical journey; a quest which will involve reversal, frustration, and competitive exterior forces.

A successful dramatic narrative reflects the goals and intent of characters set against the counterpoint of the writer's personal goals at the time of writing. Thus stories may reflect an attitude of cynicism, pragmatism, sadness, bitterness, expansive optimism, and transcendental anticipation. Differing readerships will be particularly drawn to one of these qualities or perhaps even a combination of them. You might liken the physics concept of water, seeking to find its original level, to the literary concept of story: readers seek to find their target level. One thing all stories have in common is a voice or governing personality. It properly should be the goal of the writer to seek its own level, which becomes the pressures informing the voice, timbre, and intensity of its persona.

On a basic level, to say of a work that it is dramatic is to say of it that it is act-able, performable, readable. On a more nuanced level, to say of a work that it is dramatic implies that the work has skillfully designed ventures of men and women engaged in dealings with the enormous varieties present in life. If these dealings appear piled on or contrived, the landscape in which they appear may be spoken of as melodramatic, exaggerated, even operatic. Thus does balance come into the equation of which dramatic is an integral part.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sarcasm Writ Large

sarcasm--pointed and exaggerated irony, intending to derail or deflect a status quo; a blistering overstatement of intentional underplay of a character's self-interest or agenda.

Arguably the most difficult emotion to convey in writing because of its heavy reliance on context, sarcasm found one of its most enduring modern spokespersons in Dorothy Parker. In a review of a book, she said, "This is not a book to be set aside lightly. It should be hurled across the room with great force."

Look at it this way:

The humorist pokes fun at himself.

The ironist pokes fun at the human condition.

The satirist is a moralist without the clerical collar.

The sarcasm maven wants to elevate his own status at the expense of yours.

Proceed accordingly.

A current sarcasm maven worth watching (because of his superb control) is Stephen Colbert. His targets are well articulated, his irony extends from verbal acuity to a perfected tone (see Dead pan delivery) and impeccable sense of timing. So deft is Mr. Colbert and, thus, worth study, that on many occasions even his targets of opportunity are convinced he is arguing on his side. Few persons are as repelled by his on-stage persona as they are by the persona and likes of Don Rickles.

Hint: Even if you find sarcasm attractive, spend some time crafting irony before you proceed into the print and digital worlds.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


tradition--a system of customs, rituals, practices; a long-standing literary apparatus for passing myth, history, and cultural beliefs from one generation to the next; a genre or platform for presenting story or coded cultural lessons and information.

Story is carefully arranged dramatic information, arranged to have maximum effect on the hearer and then, as language became written, then printed, to have the added effect of being transcendental. Quite a daunting gulp to lay on a writer, nevertheless it is so; story is the dramatized version of traditional information and social behavior options. People tell stories to instruct; people read stories to learn or to be transported to places and situations they have not themselves experienced.

Story in the aggregate is a record of evolved cultural tradition. Many stories that frightened us in our childhood amuse us in our adulthood or dotage. Story is the process by which tradition undergoes evolution, both in content and form. Just as music may be placed in time by an assessment of its tonality, story may be a reflection of cultural growth by close observation of the traditions it extends and perhaps even breaks. Short stories have evolved more radically than novels, but such novels as Annie Proulx's The Shipping News have stretched the traditions of style, place, and internal rhythm; novels such as John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men have stretched the traditions of theme, place, and the moody sense of life's purpose.

Tim O'Brien broke a number of narrative traditions in The Things They (the they being U.S. servicemen in Viet Nam) Carried, while Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler broke the traditions of place, motive, language, and construction in the novel of mystery and suspense.

Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones broke the tradition and convention in which a principal character could not, once dead, be the narrator of a long form story. Susy Salmon, protagonist of Bones is dead by the second paragraph.

It is no guarantee, but a story that somehow pushes the envelope of tradition to the breaking point is more likely to be remembered. That said, story construction is of paramount importance; so are characters, motives, point of view, and voice. When they are altered merely for the sake of alteration, nothing is gained or served. When traditions fall in the service of providing a memorable story, reader, writer, and characters are served.

Monday, July 6, 2009

What's in a Name or Two or Six

laundry list--a detailed list of characters, traits, attributions appended to a story; qualities, personalities, descriptions deployed at great length in a narrative; burdensome details of an individual, scene, or setting.

Laundry lists had their widest use during the times of Realism, where the things a character used or wore or noticed, the every day usage habits of the character, spoke volumes toward their authenticity. The temptation to double-down on adjectives or strenuously purposefully use duets of adverbs is great, particularly when the characters, places, and objects in a story have outstanding traits or features. The temptation to describe a character's movements in small, precise steps, also flares up, particularly if, in a particular scene, the character is performing under the influence of a particularly controlling emotion. The solution is to use as much of the laundry list as possible in the early drafts; this will insure a vivid picture of the individuals and events in which they are engaged. The second part of the solution is to remember the frequent reaction of readers to the amount of information about whales in Moby-Dick, to remember that story is an expression of movement and of characters reacting to one another.

Remember also that story is evocation rather than description.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Simple Solutions to Big Problems

newly wed housewife, the--a fitting trope for the insecure writer; an attitude in which the writer is overly concerned at the paucity of motivational and physical detail for dramatic action.

Think of the newly wed preparing her first meal for company, then try to superimpose the image on the vision of a writer wondering if the intent and details of a story are clear enough in definition. Likely result: a control-freak attitude toward description. The exact moment an activity or intent begins. A Vogue Magazine description of what the characters are wearing. A laundry list of adjectives and adverbs. Perhaps even an instance or two or six of authorial intrusion.

None of these tactics are fatal; F. Scott Fitzgerald employs them with great regularity (Tender Is the Night and The Great Gatsby), the difference being he gives them a dramatic context that has meaning beyond mere description. These tactics give a better sense of the world into which Fitzgerald has invited us to eavesdrop. Look also at the way his dialogue and narrative work, moving you at a comfortable pace from action to action, weighing each scene down with the tang of such emotions as apprehension, suspicion, jealousy, despair, need.

There is no problem with over-describing each action between characters, each setting, each nuance of each exchange of dialogue. This approach helps articulate the inevitability and authenticity of a story. The problem comes with allowing the prompts and attributions to remain when there is sufficient activity and attitude to reflect the drama that is under way.

Hint: cast your narrative and scenes toward the goal of an emotional presence, using verbs chosen for their personality, hinting at implied meanings, picking adverbs with great deliberation, avoiding the temptation to double up on adjectives, eschewing simile and metaphor that distract from the work at hand rather than illustrate it.