Monday, November 12, 2012

Conventional Wasdom


Books showing how to write stories are as old as the written language.  As a writer and teacher, you’ve used what is arguably the oldest.  As one who edits fiction, you rely on the tenets and concepts of this work.

This information might cause those who did not know you to assume your writing, teaching and editing bore the weight of the ages upon their shoulders.

But not so fast to judge.

True enough, times have changed.  Dramatic genera, formats, and readership expectations evolve.  Yet The New York Times bestseller list, the Pulitzer Prize nominees in the dramatic arts, and the Nobel laureates in those same aspects of dramatic writing bear out the strength of your thesis:  Aristotle had it right in his Poetics.  The root causes of story and their reasons for being are embedded in the dramatic genome “downloaded” into the psyche of the reader and the writer.

How then could your book on how to write stories have any sense of adding to the dialogue of the ages as carried on by such worthies as E.M. Forester, Janet Burroway, Stephen King, Barnaby Conrad, Anne Lamott, Elmore Leonard, and John Gardner?

Not to forget the memoir-leaning works on the writing craft you brought into being as editor from such as Donald MacCampbell, the literary agent known as “The king of the paperback novel;” Frank Gruber who, while story editor of a then famous Western TV series, wrote two mysteries a year for Dodd, Mead while writing books for you; and Bob Turner, who seemed to have an endless supply of TV and paperback novel ideas as well as the classic neo-porn satire he published with Maurice Girodius, while he was writing for you Some of My Best Friends Are Writers, But I Wouldn’t Want My Daughter to Marry One.  No, indeed—not to forget them.

You thought long and hard about this salient aspect of publishing wisdom:  Why is your book different?  If an author couldn’t answer that, the time for the emergency room was at hand.

Simply put, The Fiction Writers’ Handbook, is a compilation of over three hundred fifty words and terms from the trenches of passionate and often pissed-off questions from students, from authors, and often from that most pissed-off of all questioners, yourself as writer, banging his head in frustration against the wall of craft.

These three hundred fifty-off concepts and terms are tied together with the simple device of THE SMALL CAP, letters without the ambition to be full-fledged capitals, nor the sense of lese majeste to settle for being mere lower case roman letters.  When you turn to entry, say the one on EVENT, you will find additional uses of SMALL CAPS, each directing the reader to yet another entry or essay.  This simple device not only saves you the boredom of using the parenthetical admonition to See or See also, it serves to demonstrate how pieces do not exist as stand-alone, they form a fabric—the washable, durable, drip-dry fabric of the modern story.

Writing is a chaotic enterprise in which you are in a large sense cleaning up after incalculable damages done to order by Reality.  Seeing the possibility for some sense of structure, you feel less at sea as you attempt to bring your own craft into port after experiencing the raging crosscurrents of your own vision, constant interruptions of the wind of story from digressions that seemed relevant to you at the time, and those precarious, coded implications of convention such as point of view, verb tenses, opening velocity, and the sorts of cathartic resolution required by your particular culture.

Make no mistake about it, readers of the present are sensitive to the conventions of the past; they set their cultural clocks by these conventions.  They also have expectations of their own personal growth of vision, which they assume you will have in some measure.

You wrote The Fiction Writers’ Handbook as a tribute to the book on writing you wished you’d had when you were setting forth on your journey.  You could not have known this at the time you were seeking answers in the books of others, nor could you have known your own regard for the terms and concepts in your book.

In retrospect, you do not wish to have been spared the grit and frustrations involved in coming to the awareness of how these terms and concepts work for you.  There is more than ample satisfaction in the sense that they work at all, leavened, of course, with the suspicion that you have come only this far on a journey that has no conclusion.


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