26 April 2013

Characters and Viewpoint, A Review

I'm putting all my Cards on the table with this post.  Characters & Viewpoint is the only other craft book I've read by Orson Scott Card.  This is a much more general book on craft than last week's How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, but it covers some of the same material - all in greater depth however.  If you  write or plan to write SF&Fantasy, then I recommend reading both.  If you don't, then check last week's post for the section that is really helpful, then dive in to this book.

Card obviously talks about Characters and how to establish the correct viewpoint for your story - pretty straightforward title.  He does it all with his characteristic wit and generosity, in fact closing his book with a heart-felt wish to see us all stand alongside him on the bookshelves.

The real emphasis is on how to build riveting characters that don't get lost in the noise of misused/too-many names (we all remember reading Russian novels, right?) or upstaged by our minor characters.  As you'll remember from Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing, one of the keys to having truly memorable characters is to properly orchestrate all of your characters (and if a novel isn't an orchestra, then what is it?). Card gets into the real nuts and bolts of orchestration, not the least of which is sexual tension, which is easy to establish, but hard to maintain and handle well.  Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game might not exactly drip with sexual tension - in fact there's none - but Card clearly knows how to handle sexual tension and gives examples of other authors and shows that have done admirably in that department.

I wouldn't declare this book mandatory reading for an undergraduate writing degree, but I would say that it's very helpful for those of us that spend more time on Milieu and Event than we do on Character  (Card brings up the MICE quotient from How to Write SF&F*).  Even if you're a master at drawing characters, this book will help you figure out what to do with them now that you have them.

And if none of that appeals to you, how about new ways to develop ideas and smoothly transform your characters over the story arc? Remember that we don't want jumping conflict or characterization or Lajos Egri will haunt us.

If all else fails, at least this book will give you another justification for people watching, and what writer doesn't love that?

*MICE is shorthand for Milieu, Idea, Character, Event.  Each author has his or her own preference on which of these elements to focus: Tolkien was Milieu, or he wouldn't have created 11 languages; C.S. Lewis was Idea driven or his novels wouldn't be allegory; Dan Brown is Event focused or his novels might read slower - relentless pacing covers a multitude of sins; Young-Ha Kim (I Have the Right to Destroy Myself) is Character driven or his novel wouldn't be the gem that it is. If you haven't read I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, I recommend it; not many authors can capture the tone of two rudderless characters and still make the story arresting.

19 April 2013

How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card, A review

Before I dive into this review, let's take a moment to collect ourselves.  The American nation has been horrified at the events of this week (The Boston Marathon Massacre - a title that hearkens back to our revolutionary days - and then the MIT shooting last night and continued manhunt today).  There will be a lot of people looking for answers, faith-shaken to the core.  As writers we all seek to make sense of the world around us by writing stories.  If the jumbled cast of characters in our own minds can sort things out and reach some sort of satisfying conclusion, then maybe humanity has a chance after all.  Arguably this has always been the function of the story teller.  But how can we order our stories with such atrocities swirling about us?  This is where poetry comes in.  Novels make people think, but the immediacy of poems delivers emotion.  Share poems with each other, write a poem or two, then get back to what you do best: writing stories.

Glancing at the title, you, being observant as well as clever, noticed that this is a genre-specific craft book.  While that might be a turn-off to some, there is one section that I recommend to ANY writer: around page 120, there is a section on how to train someone to read your stories.  Card's maxim from his days as a playwright is "The audience never lies."  So you need to find someone that is willing to just read your story and tell you where characters get too similar or things get boring.  There's a bit more to it than that, but this is a really useful resource.  As a non-SF&F writer, this is not a must-have book, so check it out from your library (Inter-library loan is a valuable resource).  Non-SF&F writers, class dismissed.

The rest of us: get ready for some valuable advice not just on how to write better but on how to cope with the realities of living as a writer.

Some writers have labeled Science Fiction and Fantasy (a twin genre with serious boundaries between the two, as I'll cover later) as the "Ghetto" of the writing industry.  Once you're lumped there, you're stuck for good.  The face of the current publishing industry in changing and magical elements (often called magical realism) are fairly normal now, so I wager that it's possible to break out of the "Ghetto," but even if you can't do it under your own name - well, that' s what pen names are for.

Card opens his book on the differences between Fantasy and SF, namely feudal-style buildings versus plastic and rivets.  Obviously there's a bit more to that, but that's the kernel of the idea.

The next 3 Chapters are based around what can be the most confusing part of writing SF&F: world-building, story construction, and writing well (with a special emphasis on exposition).
We all love world-building, otherwise we wouldn't be writing - or at least we wouldn't be writing SF&F.  We'd write literary fiction or thrillers.  Because of this love, the process of world-building is a bit dangerous for us.  Tolkien invented something like eleven languages for his world, but then he was a linguaphile.  Each of us has our own niche that really draws us in during this phase.  Unfortunately, Card doesn't have an answer for when enough is enough - so you still have to answer that yourself, BUT! he does have a really useful rubric for keeping in mind how each decision impacts everything else in your world.
Story construction:  If you're mostly a world builder, then choosing the viewpoint character will likely be the hardest part.  The best question Card asks here is "Who hurts the most?"  That person is the one you want for your protagonist, but not necessarily the viewpoint character (remember The Great Gatsby?).  Readers read to worry.  So that ought to be the guiding principle for viewpoint characters.  Who will see the really important events in your world?  Who will show the reader what to care about?
EXPOSITION - unlike capital letters - can be deadly dull.  To really see how exposition is handled well, I recommend reading thrillers.  In order to be an effective thriller writer, one has to give the reader just enough information to know what's going on and guess what might happen - but never a drop more than that and never less.  Less is cheating, more is stultifying.  In this chapter Card also has some hard hitting advice on how to read with an eye to revising and tightening your own story.

The last chapter talks about the realities of the writing life: the late royalties checks, the rejected manuscripts (yes, even after previous publication), the fluctuation of publisher advances.  And mor great advice on the business of writing.

In short, as an SF&F writer, this is a must-have book.  Sit at the feet of a master and learn. Then get back to your own projects.

12 April 2013

How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, A Review

"Tell them to write as honestly as they can. Tell them to ponder their characters to make sure that the emotions their characters feel and the decisions their characters make - their choices, their courses of action - are consistent with the characters they have envisioned.  And tell them to check and recheck each sentence to be sure they have communicated what they intended to communicate.  And to ask themselves, What does this sentence say? Are its nuances the nuances I want? Tell them that's what they have to do if they aspire to write a damn good novel."  - Lester Gorn

There are a few things How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, Advanced Techniques is not: it is not a magic wand, it is not a waste of time, it is not light reading, and it is not a book for the beginning writer.  This book assumes that you have a reasonable grasp on how to formulate a plot, write characters, and handle a premise (without which your plot is just another absurdist comedy regardless of your pacing or gripping action sequences.  Premise is what your book aims to prove in around 80,000 words).  If you haven't spent at least a few thousand hours on writing, then this book likely will not be as useful to you as another book on the bare bones of writing.

As promised in the title, Frey delivers hard hitting advice on how to write with increased complexity and realism.  He starts off with a chapter on the Fictive dream - which it is your job as the author to induce - and how it's not in fact a dream at all, but a trance.  The following chapters are like nested for-loops (for the coders) or the dreams within a dream from Inception (for everyone else).  If you're one of the three people that hasn't seen Inception, basically it's a multi-layered frame tale like that old shaggy dog about the scout leader telling a story about the scout leader telling a story about the scout leader ad nauseum.  EXCEPT!  Your stories better only induce nausea from terror and wicked descriptions, not boredom, or your writing dreams are DOA.

Frey will guide you through how to really craft the telling details that will make your minor characters pop without taking over the scene, how to redream the fictive dream yourself while editing, further tips on orchestration (which Lajos Egri discusses in his masterpiece), and most importantly of all: Multiple Premises. While the story has one premise (let's use Macbeth, because I like Scotch), say "Ruthless Ambition leads to destruction," the protagonist(s) might have quite another: "Power belongs to those who can seize opportunity" (Lady Macbeth), or "Betrayal earns death" (Banquo).  However, what Frey means here is that a single story can contain TWO main story premises, but for this to work you need two equally strong protagonists (hence why orchestration is covered before this chapter).  This means that you'll have 2 climaxes (they should be near each other), 2 moments of truth (the protagonist must choose either to sacrifice his/her lover and live or risk death themselves), etc.  For example, you could have "Selfish Love leads to Desolation" (Male Lead) and "Tyranny sows the seeds for Freedom" (Female Lead).  In fact, those could be the arguable premises for Ibsen's The Doll House.

Bottom line, get some writing under your belt (if you read this blog, likely you already DO have a non-trivial amount of writing under your belt), buy this book, and enjoy the confidence of the James N. Frey's 100% guarantee: work hard, learn well, re-dream the dream, eat the delicious pie of publication.
Just keep in mind that Jack London worked hard, and for him that meant 18 hours a day 7 days a week locked in his office writing, but then again, when he started he could barely string a sentence together.
Also, Mr. London is dead.  Whereas you are still alive and therefore your potential is limitless.  Now get back to work.

05 April 2013

The Art of Fiction, A Review

I promised to review How to Write a Damn Good Novel II, Advanced Techniques, by James N. Frey, but I feel that today's review is more important for those sniffing out good craft books.

Along with How to Write a Damn Good Novel and The Art of Dramatic Writing, I think John Gardner's The Art of Fiction should be required reading for any introductory Fiction Writing course.  It comes laden with superb exercises (conveniently condensed in the back of the book), exercises specifically honed to work on only a handful of aspects at once.  This solid book will likely introduce you (I mean you specifically not you as in "one") to new vocabulary, because Gardner doesn't fear sounding erudite.  He's writing for a group that wants to be the upper crust and will not settle for "mere fiction" but strive for art.

That being said, many creative writing teachers will tell you that all genre writing is "mere fiction," a thought echoed by Gardner, who lumps pornographers and cheap thriller writers together in the same sentence.  However, in today's modern market for writing, mere fiction will not get you onto the shelves.  People want their fantasy to comment on their real world problems, their thrillers to show that the world is scarier than a riding a rollercoaster in Hell while blindfolded and seated next to some black widow demon with wings - but that this world can STILL be conquered by hope and perseverance (and maybe a little luck).  People want characters that actually are impacted by the events around them.  If you pick up any Stephen King or Dean Koontz book, you'll be able to figure that out.

Here's the bottom line: The Art of Fiction will give you concrete examples and advice on how to write more than mere fiction, and all in the wonderful tone of one of the greatest writing instructors of the Twentieth Century.  His book also pinpoints common errors and failures in order to direct students through the maze of writing.  In addition, Gardner will arm you with the tools you need to analyze Kafka-esque novels, and the firm grounding to see that the novelist's job is not dead, not discarded, not outmoded.

Pick up a copy, start reading, and throw out all thoughts you once had of settling for "mere fiction." Life's too short, as John Gardner knew.  Once you have digested some of his words, set yourself at the typewriter (I can't be the only one who likes the machine gun fire of mechanical creation) and get to work writing - some of his exercises are fabulous pre-writing warmups.

04 April 2013

A Mythological Kick to the Balls

If that title got your attention then you are likely a male or you're wondering the best way to hurt one.  In the latter case, I invite you to continue reading, but your mileage may vary.

I just got back from an evening with Sherman Alexie held in the intimate Beasley Coliseum with about a thousand of Alexie's closest friends that Professors assigned to him.  Honestly though, it was a riotously good time, and I'll always be grateful that my sister sent me.  In addition to winning both the PEN Faulkner and Hemingway awards (and National Book awards & c. & c.), Mr. Alexie is a gregarious public speaker and righteously irreverent.

The night began with an introduction dripping with jealousy, as is only befitting for such an accomplished author, then Sherman Alexie took the stage.  "Margot [the MC] has aged well.  Me?  Not so much, but that's okay, because I have money," and with those words all the bets I had placed on what this evening would be like were collected by the house - but I still won.  Alexie told stories about what it was like growing up rural and Indian poor, making fun of government issued food (including but not limited to "Canned Whole Chicken" - as the label so generously said, despite the fact that it was in fact IN a can and so redundant).  He did say that he missed the USDA cheese, however.  "My mother still sends me hunks of that cheese."
The kicker about his poor stories came about his dentist - you see, Indian Healthcare only authorizes once annual major oral surgery and Mr. Alexie had forty-two teeth.  I'll wait and let you count how many you have.  Spoiler alert: most people have 32.  So, Alexie had to have ten teeth pulled all in one day.  He did it in shifts, but that's not even the punchline.  The punchline was that this dentist believed that Indians only felt 50% of the pain that white people do.  Guess how much Novocaine he used?  Yup, 50%.  (Now we're getting to the title).  "I'm still waiting for him.  I'm a lot bigger now.  He'll say, 'Hi, remember me?  I was your dentist when you were a kid,' and I'll answer him with a kick to the crotch.  I'm not talking some small kick - I mean a BIG kick, a mythological kick.  Someday a grandmother will take her daughter up to the watchtower, climb the ladder to the tower, open the hatch, climb on the roof and point one  long finger. 'You see those two stars?'"  Alexie paused.  "I'll wait for you all to get it."  By this point most of the audience is howling with laughter like a pack of mad hyenas, then Alexie stage-whispers into the microphone, "Is he talking about balls?"
Much of the night carried on in a similar fashion, with Alexie demonstrating his mastery of brevity and the genius of leaving just enough unsaid.  As Oscar Wilde said, "Brevity is the Soul of Wit."  Alexie has plenty of soul.
Speaking of the soul, let's talk religion, because he certainly did.  "All creation myths are bullshit."  He went on to say how he went to a Catholic conference (being Catholic himself), and he listened to this woman give a beautiful discussion on reading the bible literally, specifically focused on the Garden of Eden.  An old Indian matriarch leaned over to Alexie and asked what he thought.  "Well, I think the Garden of Eden is beautiful; I'm not convinced but it sure sounds nice."
To which she replied, "It's bullshit.  You know how humans really came into the earth?  Lightning struck a log and the people walked out."
At this point in the story, Mr. Alexie gave the audience a knowing look.  "That's much more plausible."  Another rapture of laughter.  Then he talked about how we all came from Africa, walked across the Sinai peninsula, got a little lighter (brown skin like Osama bin Laden - let's pause here and consider that Jesus looked a lot more like bin Laden or Hussein than he did Brad Pitt) then moved across Russia and over the Bering Straight Land Bridge, "Indian's will say, 'That didn't exist!' Shut the fuck up, yes it did." So that's how people moved across the world with a lot of "Fuck you, I'm out of here"s in between.
The most enjoyable part of the whole evening was how it built on itself.  Alexie demonstrated his same mastery of storytelling by bringing back and adding depth and nuance to his previous statements.  He signed off with an incredibly moving statement.  "We survive you [white people] by storytelling.  We survive you by storytelling, and you love us for it."

Thanks for reading.  Now enough procrastinating, get back to your own stories.