Incite a Riot!

For many years, I’ve been a seat-of-my-pants kind of fiction writer. Heck, I’ve even bragged about it, at times. You know the type of thing: “Oh, I prefer to be organic and let the muse speak to me. I couldn’t possibly be tied down to something as rigid and prosaic as an outline.”

Then I asked myself  “How’s that workin’ out for you?”
And the answer?
Let’s just say there might have been some tearing of hair, gnashing of teeth, and maybe even a little fetal position crying. Not well, in other words.

But, as my beloved Nina would say, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me. And that means smartening up and having a plan. At least a little one. In my research into this new endeavor (before I got too far along on the current project), I found a most excellent tic-tac-toe plotting method, which C.J. Omolulu beautifully explains in her blog. With zeal, excitement, and determination, I sat down to make said grid, only to get stuck immediately. Because Box # 1 – the “inciting incident” – made me realize I didn’t have a clue what that was. At first, it seemed perfectly straightforward. I promise you – it’s not. I trawled the Internet for several hours, only to discover hundreds of other people equally as clueless as I. While movie/play examples abound, none of them were really applicable, and in some cases, the definitions/examples/etc. were flat-out wrong.

Then I discovered Les Edgerton’s blog post on inciting incidents. Hallelujah! I have seen the light! The man is a genius, for not only defining the inciting incident very clearly (The inciting incident is something that happens to the protagonist that creates and/or reveals the story problem to her), but also for so thoughfully analyzing others’ writing, and using an example that made beautiful, wonderful, writerly sense. Check it out. I bet you’ll be surprised. Or is it just me? Please share!

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The Mystery of Great Writing

I had a heated discussion with Sassy Man last night about this sentiment of Hemingway’s. Hyper-logical creature that he is, Sassy Man thinks great writing is like a computer – you can break it all down into its parts to see how it really works.

I emphatically disagree. With any of the creative arts – whether it be painting, dancing, or writing – I think those works that soar above while at the same time reaching something deep within are un-dissectable. It’s a case of the whole being so much more than the sum of its parts, what they call “dancing between the steps” on SYTYCD. You can take a passage from a book, or even the whole work itself, and analyze everything about it down to word choice and sentence construction, and still not come up with why it moves you so. I’m torn on whether or not you should even try, although the best stuff does seem to be impervious to our chipping away at it. And isn’t that what Hemingway was saying to begin with?

Given the ridiculous number of writing books I have (future blog topic!), it might seem I’m being hypocritical here. I’m not. In always striving to improve technique, you are merely adding tools to your kit, so that when you do have that magic moment – that in-the-zone, this-is-it, I’ve-reached-new-heights breakthrough – you’re not waylaid by a missing screwdriver, as it were. But that magic moment is about so much more than the nuts and bolts and screwdrivers. After all, you can give the same exact toolbox and wood and pattern to ten different carpenters, but only one might make a chair worthy of Chippendale.

"I like adverbs," she said adamantly.

I really do. Like adverbs, I mean. While I understand how overusing them can make for sloppy writing, I just don’t get the iron-clad rule against them. What really pisses me off is how I automatically purge them from my writing at this point. I want to go back to the time before I heard this rule and absorbed it – to a time when I used adverbs freely and unselfconsciously, if not wantonly.

To me, the ban against adverbs is more representative of literary fashion than literary sense. One of my favorite games is to imagine what people would make of some of the “classics” if they were submitted today. (Remember Chuck Ross’s Steps experiment, wherein he disguised and sent off Jerzy Kosinski’s National Book Award-winning story, only to have it rejected by every publisher and agent he sent it to? Even better is his more recent Casablanca experiment, in which a number of agents said some variation of “too much dialogue”. Really?) Aside from the fact that language changes, so do writing styles, which makes a certain sort of sense if literature is to continue reflecting society. (And sometimes that’s a good thing. Nowadays, anyone trying to write eye dialect as thick as Mark Twain’s would be run out of the literary establishment on a rail, and so it should be for crimes against readability alone.)

But why the current animosity towards adverbs? I, for one, like them, and always have. Which is why the flap over J.K.’s adverb-laden writing struck me as a bit silly. Sure, the plentiful adverbial dialogue tags did distract me sometimes, but I think that’s partly because the writing-no-no police have done their job so well and taught me to look for and despise them. At the same time, though, I felt a certain fondness for the adverb-happy writing in Harry Potter; it hearkened back to many of my childhood favorites, like A Little Princess or Anne of Green Gables, before any anti-adverb sentiment demanded everyone write like Elmore Leonard. In these beloved stories, people “peer timidly” (that couldn’t be anybody but Becky, now, could it?), “drive placidly” (who else but dear, sweet Matthew?), or “say briskly” (gotta be Marilla), not only providing a sort of shorthand for the characters, but also enriching the reading child’s vocabulary at the same time. As a wee one, I read these stories over and over for the thrill of the tale, but all the while, wasn’t I was absorbing the rich vagaries of the English language, not to mention the many, many ways there are to express yourself? So why shouldn’t a writer tell me someone is saying “I hate you” fondly? Or “I love you” coldly? Why can’t a character dance madly, sing softly, or drive erratically if that’s indeed what they’re doing? At least that’s what yours truly says, and please note: she’s saying it vehemently.

Hollow Men and Mosquitoes

The book. The book, the book, the book. It’s all I think about these days. I almost can’t wait for the commute to and from work, just to have the uninterrupted time and headspace. (Which is a little scary, considering I’m supposed to be driving. I won’t admit how many times I’ve blown right past my freeway exit because of wool gathering.) So, I spend every day at work, buying books written by other people, wishing I could be home, writing my own. And all the while, the creative pots are bubbling away on the backburner: Plot ideas are at a nice, low simmer, character dialogue is as fresh and al dente as it gets, and brilliant themes erupt in small clouds of delicious steam.

Then a funny thing happens. I manage to carve out some writing time, I get my trusty notebook and V5 pen, and I finally sit down to write … and suddenly I’m in creative purgatory. The brilliant ideas? They turn into mush on the page. The bon mots I thought so clever on that morning commute? Overcooked words, as limp and boring as ruined spaghetti with the blandest of sauces. This happens all too frequently – at the beginning of just about every writing session – and every time I experience it, I think of the lines from T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men“:

…Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…

It’s as though I intimately know the “soul” of the work – I feel it deeply – but something always comes between the internal knowing and the external expression of it. The end result never matches what I have in my head, never comes even close to how fantastical and wonderful it is in my imagination. The self-defeating temptation here, of course, is to give in to that sense of expressive failure and say, “Well, if I can’t convey it perfectly, I won’t convey it at all” and so write nothing. Difficult as it is to drum up and apply, the only real antidote to this is discipline. Well, that and faith. Write it and worry about the rest of it later. Go through the motions and the motives will follow. And for inspiration to do just that, I turn away from Mr. Eliot and seek out the kindlier advice of Annie Dillard as expressed in The Writing Life:

Another luxury for an idle imagination is the writer’s feeling about the work. There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.

Thank you, Ms. Dillard. Repel, ignore, or kill the mosquitoes, but don’t indulge them. Duly noted.

Art: The Hollow Men by Howard Penning

Log Lines Suck

Can I just admit how much I hate writing log lines? Query letter? No problem. Synopsis? Piece of cake. But log lines? Ugh. They’re my bete noire – even with a solid storyline, I have trouble writing them.

Why? Some of it is undoubtedly just me being pissy: all that marketing-yourself stuff makes me grumpy. And some of it is my dislike of appropriating tips and tricks from the screenwriting/film genre (from which log lines came), especially those that don’t transfer well to written literature. Am I alone in thinking that boiling down your magnum opus to a hook like “It’s Titanic meets Harry Potter!” not only denigrates your own work, making it seem derivative, but also smacks of the absurd? The combinations so often sound silly, and you’re basically calling to mind other people’s artworks in lieu of describing your own.

Ah, but I’m tangenting, trying to dodge truthfully answering the why-do-I-suck-at-writing-log-lines question. Aside from it just being plain old hard to capture the essence of a work in one sentence, I don’t like that log lines can break your heart. Really, they can.

Imagine, if you will, finally completing your first novel. You know, the one that you picked up and put down for over ten years, working on it in dribs and drabs as life’s vicissitudes allowed. The one you poured a lot of heart and fear and hope into. The one that somehow proved you could actually do it, you could actually accomplish writing a book. You glow for a while, riding high on I-finally-did-it endorphins, before putting on your marketing hat and getting down to the business of submitting. All goes well until you try to draft a log line and discover you can’t. And the reason you can’t is because the story refuses to be boiled down. And the reason it refuses to be boiled down is because there are problems. Lots and lots of problems. Big problems. So big as to make you realize that you’ve written something not only unsalable, but also not very good.

Sigh.

Meet the Fitzgeralds

Rereading “Hamlet (Facebook News Feed Edition)” from Sarah Scmelling’s hilarious Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don’t Float: Classic Lit Signs on to Facebook, I got to wondering what the literary lions comprising the Lost Generation would make of the techno age we live in. Hemingway, for example. While known as the master of brevity, I somehow don’t see him as a tweeter. On the other hand, tireless self-promoter that he was, it doesn’t seem a stretch to imagine Hemingway-the-Blogger.

And F. Scott? Well. Easy to see him as a master of all forms of social networking, albeit perhaps a frequent user of Google’s Gmail Goggles. Zelda, of course, would compete with him for friend counts on Facebook, and force him to do the reality show Meet the Fitzgeralds (undoubtedly aired on Bravo), in which media-whoring, extra-marital affairs, and excess of all kinds feature heavily. (Oh wait, that’s the Real Houswives series.)

Edna St. Vincent Millay would do for progressive poetry what The Huffington Post has done for progressive politics, employing her considerable talents on her notorious website My Candle Burns to procure not only poetry readings, but booty calls with members of both sexes.

And last but not least, famed Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins, whose website would be so quickly overwhelmed with online submissions by hopeful authors that he would be forced to go the way of Miss Snark, and shut it down. Snail mail queries only, if you please.

Collaboration

As the kind of person who’s always loathed any sort of “group” project, it strikes me as pretty funny that I would even consider collaborating on a novel. I’ve always thought of myself as a solo flyer when it came to writing, yet here I sit, bouncing ideas off my partner in crime – and now my partner in writing.

I know Sassy Man thought I was being paranoid, but mixing business with romance makes me edgy. So, after considerable research on collaboration (and the people crazy enough to try it with fiction), we laid down some very clear – one might even say contractual – boundaries. (BTW, thank you Booklife for your great series on this very topic.) Now I’m breathing a big sigh of creative relief, which makes me realize just how much the ambiguity of who’s-gonna-do-what was bothering me.

Interesting, though, how the discussions SM and I had on idea ownership, oral versus written storytelling, authorship, bylines, writing ability, work styles, etc., led to some deep thinking on my part about how I view myself as a writer, and what I’m willing to do (collaborate on ideas/story/plot) and not willing to do (take dictation/write someone else’s story for him/her).

Art: Record cover by Jim Flora.