Saturday, January 29, 2011


I've been fortunate enough to have read some great books lately. One I'm doling out to myself a little at a time is Richard Price's Lush Life. I came across a particularly good technique he uses that demonstrates one of a writer's most important goals:

If it does not absolutely need to be in the book, cut it out.

This is one of the ten commandments of screenwriting, of course, a discipline that finds Hemingway distressingly wordy. Novels are a bit off the pace, but getting leaner every day. Why? Because the reader today is also a viewer of movies and television. They're used to a faster pace, visual content, and shorter scenes.

Lush Life is a great example. Just the best voice in the world. Fantastic authenticity. And it flies. Here's the scene I'm thinking of: a detective is bringing a note from the mother of a murdered young man to the young man's father. He does not unfold the note to look at it. He gets to the father's hotel room and finds him gone. The next line tells us what the note says.

Bam. It might not seem like much, but Price has not told us that the detective opened the note and read it. A lazy writer would have. He closed the connection between two facts without two beats of unnecessary action, and the result is electric. He characterizes the detective, trusts the reader, and moves the story.

That's how good you've got to be.

Friday, January 28, 2011

More Homework I Could Do...

Other books and stories Our Future Generation are reading today, based on Yahoo Answers:

Sense and Sensibility
Ethan Frome
Dorian Gray
Dante's Inferno
Great Expectations
Wuthering Heights
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Cask of Amontillado
Canterbury Tales
De Profundis
The Prince
Scarlet Letter
Silas Marner

Yes, Silas Marner. My overall favorite question: "Who is Virgil and under what circumstances does Dante meet him?" Not opening the book FTW! There's a young person with a lot of cantos ahead of her.

For such defects we are lost, though spared the fire,
And suffering Hell in one affliction only:
That without hope we live on in desire.
-Dante, Inferno, C IV, 40-42

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Once More Unto the Breach...

Dear friends... I now understand Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The pre-Victorians, they walk among us, if only in high school, and they will not be thwarted.

First, let me plead from familiarity. My senior English paper in high school was a twenty-five pager on the role of women in Jane Austen, with a special emphasis on Pride and Prejudice. A tragedy, I'm sure, that it has been lost to the shifting sands of time. I was one of those girls who loved, loved, loved the book. I wanted to be a novelist, and I thought P&P was wonderful. Elizabeth stands her ground and wins her Fitzwilliam over those simpering, fawning, rich girls. Oh, hands clutched to bosom...

Before I go further, let me state the one thing I want from every English teacher in America. I want a sticker on the front of not only Jane Austen's books— right over the inevitable John Singer Sargent painting that's one hundred years too modern for the story it illustrates— I want this sticker on the front cover of every novel that is more than a century old:

Attention Students: If You Want to be a Novelist One Day, Ignore This Book.

Black letters on red should do. Capital letters at your own discretion.

Why do I not object to Shakespeare? One, because it is extraordinary language. Two, because I don't think there's any great risk of a teenager setting out to build a career writing like Shakespeare. Nobody imagines he is in the mainstream. Heck, for the most part nobody understands him. But Ms. Austen (and Mr. Dickens, Mr. Hardy, even Mr. Poe stylistically) are aboard a ship that has not only sailed but sunk, and nobody is telling their youngest admirers.

It took me years as a writer to undo the bad lessons from old writers. Beautiful description? No, meandering filler. Great dialogue? No, talking head scenes you can't kill with a pitchfork. Civilized pace? What, the rich folks are gone for the season? Let's pick this up next year. Get on with it!

Five or ten percent of your students genuinely love P&P. Here's what I know about them: they are the young women who come to class early, stay late, read everything you assign and read for pleasure besides. Good kids, hard working, going to college.

Here is why you mistakenly think most of your students love P&P: the entire text, every question you could ever ask about it, every synopsis, every essay you could ever dream of assigning, is on the internet. Same with Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies. Those are more popular because they're shorter and more contemporary and at least one of them has a pig's head on a stick. If Google can't do their homework, they can ask on Yahoo Answers.

I have loads of other issues with P&P. A great book for women's rights? In 1812, you bet, astonishingly so. But now? You are teaching young women who will have jobs or careers and have to struggle to make it in the world on equal terms with men. Is this the best book for fostering those goals? What does it say about girls who are sexually active before marriage? Poor little Lydia, doomed forever. And what about the boys in your class? What are they getting out of this tome? Maybe teach a little Walter Scott after P&P? Rob Roy for equal air time? With every book that passes in a senior high school English class, the odds grow that it will be the last book a young man will ever read. What about P&P will turn a young man into a lifelong reader? Bueller? Bueller?

If nothing else, warn your would-be writers. You know who they are. Here there be crinolined dragons. Oh, wait, P&P pre-dates crinoline...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Book Trailers.

Cheers, all, now that I know there's an all to cheer! Imagine my surprise that some folks are reading this to whom I am not related, and I seem to have irritated all of them by suggesting we look for fiction for our students that was written after the Battle of Waterloo.

I'm straying into a bad area again, aren't I? Let me move briskly on, and see if I can't offend somebody else. This comes from a bit of a set-to I had recently on Facebook (why do I go there?). This was with a friend and a friend-of-a-friend. The friend runs a writers conference and also makes book trailers. And I do not see the point to book trailers.

Book trailer believers! You know who you are, having finished a novel or just working on one, sending out query letters or waiting for your beta readers, and making video trailers for your book. Or hiring someone to do it for you. You spend a great deal of time (hopefully not a great deal of money) on this, and end up with a shiny, well-made three- or five- or ten-minute video about your book.

Here's my Big Question: How do you get that in front of readers?

I'm a big reader. I have stacks of books to be read on the coffee table in front of me, more upstairs, books I've read are starting to stack up even on the stairs and in the hallway. Not only have I never purchased a book based on seeing a book trailer, I've never had a book trailer come my way. They don't appear in my little corner of the internet.

That's the first question that neither of my Facebook interlocutors could answer: How do book trailers get seen by potential readers? Are you supposed to just stick them up on YouTube and post a link on Facebook and hope for the best?

Strike one.

When I was at UCLA, a lot of folks were making trailers for screenplays. This was in the wake of the massive wave of "make the movie yourself!" mostly-disaster, which produced a few good movies and far more bankruptcies and divorces. So people scaled back, made trailers for screenplays, and then discovered there was no way to get them seen. Not just seen by people who could get them made— seen by anybody. And that was for a writing product that promised an experience similar to the trailer: movies. Movie trailers are an existing technology. What does a book trailer promise? Sitting by yourself for four or five hours, reading. Very different.

Strike two.

My last concern is, to quote another old writer, love's labors lost. Truman Capote once said that finishing a novel is just like you took your child out in the yard and shot it. Which means when you're done, you're done. When you have polished that novel to a gloss, query it and move on. Read, start working on new ideas, start building your next book. Let the old story go, until such time as an agent or editor wants to work on it with you. Don't spend your precious time fiddling with FinalCut. Besides, what happens to your book trailer if your agent or editor wants you to write the vampire out of the picture?

Strike three.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Am I a Good Writer?

This is the most troubling question I see on the Books & Authors section of Yahoo Answers, right after "Where can I download this book for free?"


But there's something sad and dangerous about the people asking if they're good writers. Because these are mostly teenagers. They post a bit of their writing and beg other teenagers for opinions. I don't click through, don't read the writing, but last night a young writer posed a slightly different question, and I answered. She asked if she should be worried if she thought her writing wasn't very good. And I said she should be glad.

Writing is not an inborn trait, like eye color. It is a craft, and it has to be learned. Too many people, writers included, think it is a mechanical ability you pick up in elementary school, and from there some people will be good at it and some won't be. The same idea attaches to art and sports and math.

None of it is true. Yes, some people might be physically taller or more mature and some people will have a higher natural intelligence, but you can have all the natural gifts available and still not succeed where it might be expected. If you do nothing, if you do not try, and fail, and learn, and try again, you'll go nowhere.

I wrote a script about Michelangelo a few years ago. I think he is the greatest artist who ever lived. And I tell you this, nobody in history has spent more of their waking life studying anatomy and drawing than Michelangelo. Ever. From early childhood until his stroke three days before he died, he was working at the basics of his craft. The only other thing he did was write poetry, and he was darn good at that, too.

Nobody would expect an athlete to reach the Olympics without a lifetime of training and competing. Well, maybe those curling guys, but you get the point. Nobody is good at brain surgery in third grade. Nobody is a skilled attorney in junior high. Why do they worry about being a good writer or not in high school? Yes, some are better than others, but that says nothing about where those folks might end up on the writing spectrum. If anything, I worry that being told you're good at writing too young may make you fear failure too much to change and grow.

If you're fourteen or fifteen or nineteen or forty-three, don't worry if you're good. Worry if you're not getting better. Read. Write. Repeat.

Learning to write is learning a craft. What's up on the anvil is your own head. Swing hard.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Jane Austen Must Be Stopped.

Another post inspired by Yahoo Answers, where it has become painfully clear to me that Ms. Austen's estimable works are still being forced upon young people. The same thing happened to me.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the books at the time and likely would again. I enjoyed the 1940 MGM movie of Pride and Prejudice. Lawrence Olivier as Darcy? What could possibly be wrong with that?

Here's what's wrong. High school students forced to answer the following essay question: "Compare and contrast the relationships between Lizzie and Darcy and Jane and Bingley." In English class. Now, I'm sorry, but how is this getting anybody ready for anything? How is reading a novel that is nearly two hundred years old helping?

Teachers teach Jane Austen because she is easy to teach, familiar, and non-controversial. She makes Golding and Salinger look like wild-eyed radicals. But generation after generation of high schoolers are left with the impression that Austen's novels are what writing should be, and it's poisoning them. Long descriptions, endless parlor scenes, pace that drags across empty weeks and months. It's not beautiful language and astonishingly complex human relationships, as Shakespeare is. It's ploddingly dysfunctional and does not help young writers learn their craft or young anybody learn how to communicate.

Someone stick a fork in Ms. Austen. She's done.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Post to a Young Novelist.

I'm addicted to Yahoo Answers recently, mostly answering obscure medical questions and telling new writers not to pay to be published. Today a young writer asked for general advice, and this is what I said:

Read. Read extensively. Read great books, not just ones you know you're likely to enjoy. Don't be intimidated. Get in there and read the greats. Read the big award winners. Come up with your own opinions about who's good and who's not. Reading is the only way to develop the rarest tool in the writer's toolkit: voice.

Notebook. As in, carry one around with you all the time. Keep it next to your bed. Take it into the bathroom with you when you shower. You never know when ideas might occur to you. Just don't try to write and drive at the same time.

Ideas. Skim through your notebook once in a while and write down the big story ideas. Play around with combining them. Novels are big. Huge. They usually need a few ideas to support them. You'll be surprised what happens when you combine ideas that don't seem to fit together at first blush.

Theme. This is the hardest thing to understand in a novel, because it's what's going on in the writer's head. What point is he or she trying to make? Sometimes you don't know until the last page. This is what the writer feels is true about being human. Start pondering what you believe.

Outline. The one mechanical element you need. Because novels are big. Write down what you can. If you know what comes next your creativity can be free to work on dialogue and description, and you won't always be panicking about the next scene.

Structure. This is what holds up the story and gives it shape. In the western world, there are paradigms for structure. Christopher Vogler's _The Writer's Journey_ is an excellent resource for learning structure.

Good luck, and enjoy.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Even the Really Good...

...Sometimes make mistakes. Usually not great big giant hairy mistakes, but they're there. Here's a common one I just stumbled across:

The scene is tense. A father has come in to do a photo identification on a body. It might be his son. The police detective opens an envelope and lays two photos on the table in the interview room. *Tense pause here*

And then the other detective in the room looks at the pictures, and we hear what the dead man looks like, what the detective thinks about him and the father and the situation. It's great writing, and probably only goes on for a paragraph or two, but it doesn't belong there.

Give us the father's reaction. Is it his son or not? A bit of description would be fine, a pause for suspense would be appropriate, but this went on several beats too long. It's subtle, it's a pacing issue, but for a half a page the writer got a bit too caught up in his extremely good writing to get to the increasingly urgent point. It made the writing stand out at the expense of the story.

Was the body really the man's son? Not sayin'.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

How Good is This Book?

This book here:

This book is so good I am tempted to listen to the audiobook rather than watch the playoffs. The playoffs, I'm saying. That is how good this book is. And the audiobook gets extra credit because the narrator, Bobby Cannavale, has the absolute perfect voice for this book.

So kudos to Richard Price for writing an absolutely fantastic book and for having an amazing command of language. What voice. I am very happy to hear this is not your first book and there are several more out there waiting for me.

Back to the playoffs, I guess...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Inspiration and Espionage on the 769.

Did you ever dream of being able to look into other peoples' back yards at close range? Into their workplaces? Spy on them driving their cars, relaxing on beaches, walking down the street? Or how about just sitting comfortably and overhearing conversations and phone calls while enjoying a tasty beverage? Hour after hour of absorbing details of private lives. Writer heaven.