Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Something From the Lighter Side.

An amuse-bouche for you— The Thirty Harshest Author-on-Author Insults in History:


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Bermuda Triangle of Drama.

I've poisoned myself with too much drama. Too much reading. Too many books. It's a good thing I'm going to a writing conference soon and will be reading material that has not yet been anointed by the glow of publication. In short, I am not expected by anyone to like it without reservation.

The same cannot be said of published work. I read a lot, and all these books present stories I am asked to accept and value. And sometimes it just gets too hard. Because pure drama exists in a dangerously small area bounded on three sides by irreconcilable issues. Which are:

1. If the story presented is too serious or idiosyncratic, it loses believability and with it the reader's credulity and investment in the story. It tends to slide into either comedy, however dark, or melodrama, however florid.

2. If the story is kept contained in the interest of realism, it risks becoming dull or pointless. You don't want to offer a supposedly damaged family to a reader who has known worse at home. Or still has worse at home.

3. The attempted end-run around the above is the memoir. That is an unfair assessment to the best of them, but there is a generic category of memoir that uses "but it really happened" to cover the sins above.

So there we have our triangle, and within it is the mystery of good drama. It is a vanishingly small target to hit. There are styles and careers to be made by sailing right over the line in any direction, but landing a story inside the triangle is hugely difficult. I keep searching for the successes.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Good, the Bad, and the Unfinished.

I failed to finish reading another couple of books. Or rather, they failed to hold me until the end. Normally that means I could tell you about both of them, but one was a first novel and I'll let the new writer off the hook. Suffice it to say that it was speculative fiction that got quite a bit too speculative toward the end. Hint: don't throw in random supernatural elements late in the story. It makes the reader feel— rightly— that the ending is going to be arbitrary. I shall never know.

The other book was an odder one to not finish, because I've adored two previous books by this well-known and talented writer. In the end this very different book got shut off for the same reason. The book was Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson. There's a lesson for any "Great American Novel" writer in this book: if you're writing an intimate family drama and nobody's charging after some major goal from early on, you have to set something in their path for later. Basically, if nobody's climbing Everest, they'd better be headed for an iceberg.

In the previous two novels I've read by Marilynne Robinson, Gilead and Home, there was an old man waiting to die. That fact added a tension and a deadline (pardon the pun) to the story. In fact, we never had to get all the way to the death. Death just loomed there in the future, inevitable, as it does for us all. It created a frame that made the story work. Housekeeping didn't work for me because eighty percent of the way through the book I realized I had no sense of where it might go. It was arbitrary.

A novel can begin with the author striking out in every direction, exploring every possible avenue in the story. But at a point that has to change, and the author has to start fighting their way out of the maze they have built. We stay with the story partly to see how the story can possibly emerge from that trick bag. If almost anything can happen, there can be no tension and no reason to continue. Even a small family drama needs a sense that an organic ending will emerge.

I just checked, by the way, and it turns out that Housekeeping is one of Robinson's early works. I probably should have guessed, and will be an eager buyer for her next book. She truly is a must-read writer.

In happier news, China Miéville's Embassytown was every bit as great or better than I thought when halfway through, and I was sorry to see it end, and Téa Obreht's The Tiger's Wife fills me with bitter jealousy and richly deserves the Orange Prize she just won. Which I admit even though she was born while I was in high school.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Your Goal.

When you write a book, your goal is to write a first sentence that will force a reader to read the first chapter, and then to write a first chapter that will force a reader to buy the book. If you are very good you will then deliver a book that will have the reader folding down page corners to mark particularly good sentences and passages and remember your name. And go back to the book store with their credit card, of course.

Want to see this in action? Go buy Catherine Ryan Hyde's Electric God immediately. It's that good.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I Have Solved the Mystery!

I've mentioned on a couple of occasions that if you want to win a Nobel Prize in literature it is essential (1) that you not be a white male American, and (2) that you not use quotation marks. The first is due to a statement by one of the judges that Americans are too focused on themselves (they've obviously never read or met any writers at all). The second, I thought, was mere stylish pretention. Not so! I have figured out why writers do this, and for a good writer how it enhances their reputation.

Imagine reading a slooooooow book. Slow as in, you're on page 200 and nothing has happened. The writer is being very stylish, but there are no events that might be charitably called a plot. If the main character wants something, he or she is making no effort to achieve that goal. And you start to skim...

We all do it. Glancing at the description and reading the dialogue. This turns the novel into a screenplay and lets us skip ahead to the page where something actually happens. Because certainly some character will say "Oh, my God!" or equivalent and then we can drop back into the story and figure out what's going on now that something is.

Now think of reading a novel with no quotation marks and no offset dialogue. How do you skim? You can't. You have to actually read all the words. The author has told you that every word is important. And you have to read every word. Further, they are subtly telling you that they are important, because every word is processed through them. They are not in the business of simply reporting what characters say. The writer becomes the conduit through which everything flows. The story is not the point. The writer is the point.

In a slow-moving book this technique just enhances the annoyance because the reader is trapped. In a good book, well, good luck with the Nobel committee.