31 May 2013

On Becoming A Novelist, A Review

I apologize for the late post, regular scheduling will resume tomorrow.

For the genre novelist, On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner is a hard resource to swallow.  Gardner doesn't mince words over storytelling, and as with his The Art of Fiction, he compares pornographers and thriller writers, but the fact is in modern publishing, Gardner has incredibly useful advice whether one is just beginning one's career or mid-career (as most novelists are throughout their lives.  Writers don't retire - except heels first).

The most important lessons in On Becoming a Novelist are 1) that even the best advice can be detrimental to one's own voice and style, and 2) that writing one great story is better and more worthy than writing one hundred bad ones.

The  possible hang up with this second bit of advice is that in writing, as Harlan Coben says, "quantity inevitably produces quality."  So, when you query - make damn sure it's your best and most worthy story, but don't let the fear of failing in a story keep you from writing.

Besides these bits of advice are reminders of the lessons we learned in Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing. Review is always useful.  Also, Gardner shares insights into his own process and schedule which may stretch your own habits or at least make you aware of other available tools.  And what is a craft without tools?

Overall, I'd rate this title highly as a resource for any author, and while it might not make a terrific teaching text, it would be an excellent companion to any Creative Writing course.

As always, thanks for reading.

"What I learned from [Lennis Dunlap], in short, is that a writer must take infinite pains -- if he writes only one great story in his life, that is better than writing a hundred bad ones -- and that finally the pains the writer takes must be his own." (Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, 19)

24 May 2013

Writers [on Writing], vol. 2, A review

Well folks, strictly speaking this isn't a book directly on craft, but then again, strictly speaking I forgot to pack the book I planned on reviewing before flying 1500 miles, so... Regardless, this is a fabulous book filled with encouragement and practical advice from big hitters like Stephen Fry (he discusses writing Revenge), Margaret Atwood, and Arthur Miller as well as others.

These essays are so good, that I've taken to reading one every morning (alternating between Vol II, and Vol. I) before  I begin the work of writing.  Probably the best part about these essays is their generous spirit and the candid look into how other writers choose what to write about or how they seek to improve their craft.  A few essays are about what happens after one gets published (the inane question of what tools to write with rather than how to garner ideas - because in the end every writer will have to choose their own tools, and the "right tool" won't magically create the right idea).  Since this is a collection of essays garnered from the New York Times series under the same name, I wager most of you in larger cities can check them out from the local library (and maybe check into a quiet room at the same time, which is always a treat - check out a dictionary you haven't used before, too, and then you've got a party).

This isn't a book I'd add to a curriculum of Creative Writing, but since it has such a disparate collection of authorial voices and tones, I would recommend it to any writer regardless of genre bounds as an excellent additional resource, because even when one is in a creative writing class, it's important to remember that one is not alone - that others have gone before, and like Sir Isaac Newton, one can stand atop the shoulders of giants.

As always, thanks for reading.

10 May 2013

Ernest Hemingway on Writing, A Review

Well, dear reader, it's that time of the week again: Craft Book Review Time, of course.  This week I've got a special treat for you, but how about I let Woody Allen introduce him:
All right, now we're ready to talk about one of the most lauded American Writers of the 20th Century: Ernest Hemingway.  Editor Larry W. Phillips notes in his preface that Hemingway thought it bad luck to discuss his process, but by the end of his career, Hemingway had done an awful lot of just that.  Across the decades of Hemingway's career, Phillips has distilled these wonderful quotes and snippets from Hemingway's letters, interviews, books, and short stories which illuminates the enigmatic and boisterous writer's style.

Of these findings, besides the wealth of useful information and lovely encouragement (honestly, who of us isn't at least a bit pleased and encouraged to discover that literary geniuses struggled to meet word counts?), my favorite tidbits are Hemingway's letters to "Scott" Fitzgerald.  The lesson I learned from these letters to Scott is if you see someone wasting their talents seeking approval from one particular person, it's okay to write abuse to them (seeing as Hemingway had few friends, perhaps this is the wrong lesson to take).  Seriously though, it's good to see that literary greats were people, too, and they got just as fed up when someone wasn't achieving their potential as we lowly readers do.

I highly recommend giving Ernest Hemingway on Writing a read.  It might not change your views on how to write (although mine did adjust a bit, when Hemingway said he only kept about 1 in 91 pages), but it will certainly bring this literary great down to a level where you can try to compete with him, and if you're not trying to be a champion at craft, then what is it all for?

08 May 2013

Pentatonix at the Knitting Factory

7. May 2013 Spokane, WA - The hit A Capella band Pentatonix played a gig at the Knitting Factory with their customary generosity of spirit.  For the three people who have not heard of Pentatonix, I've posted my personal favorite below, which features Kevin “K.O.” Olusola's signature "celloboxing" alongside the wonderfully talented internet sensation Lindsey Sterling.  
For those reader who have never been to the Knitting Factory, it's a wild experience.  Part bar, part intimate performance space, this dark paneled venue feels at once classic with its gallery seating and modern with an SMS-based open forum (which proved a scathing critique of our American education system).

Once Pentatonix (PTX) took the stage, the SMS-forum stopped.  Pentatonix opened with their warm bass beats and thrumming energy.  Avi Kaplan laid down a bass line that could be felt.  In addition to the classic pieces that won PTX Season 3 of The Sing Off, they sang new covers, including a live version of the above song, that was incredible even without Lindsey Sterling (anathema! I know, I know).  They also served up a slice of their formation with Lady Gaga's "Telephone," which, according to front man Scott Hoying, was the "Wow, this might be the start of something special" moment for the group.  On 4 June 2011, the trio (Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado, and Mitch Grassi) welcomed Avi Kaplan (formerly with Fermota Nowhere) and Kevin Olusola (Original Celloboxer) to their team, thus becoming the Pentatonix.

And if their music isn't enough to leave you wondering what the heck you've done with your life lately, their biographies certainly will.  Kevin graduated pre-med from Yale University, speaks fluent Chinese, and is by all accounts hilarious (oh, he also soloed at Carnegie Hall on both Cello and Saxophone).  Avi is a master of Mongolian Overtone Singing, a technique which allows him to sing two notes at once - a skill that gave this five person group a serious edge over the competition.  The three core members (Scott, Mitch, and Kirstie) all grew up in Arlington, TX (don't say Texas never did anything for you) and can carve up tri-part harmonies with ease.

They closed out the sparkling night with a serenade to one lucky audience member, Melina, who responded with "Hell, yeah" to being sung to.  A mock heroic rendition of "Let's Get It On" ensued.  Avi then unveiled his new original piece "Peaceful World."  A piece that took the warm tones of Pentatonix and drenched them in heavy rain to create a mist of hope.

Their encore performance of Florence + The Machine's "Dog Days are Over" was a striking competitor even for the talented Ms. Florence Welch.  Then PTX topped that with another encore, this time of Fun's "We are Young" which got the whole audience singing.

In sum, PTX is a band you need to see to really believe, and the Knitting Factory's full bar was simply a lovely addition.

03 May 2013

Imaginative Writing, The Elements of Craft, A Review

I'm going to come straight out and say that I am not in love with Imaginative Writing, The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway.  There are multiple reasons for this, but the major one is simply that it carries a bunch of stock advice that can be found in other sources (often presented better) - HOWEVER, this book does have it all in one volume, and it tackles one particularly pernicious myth with admirable aplomb: namely, "Show, don't tell."  Which as veteran writers, we all know that bit of advice is, frankly, bullshit.

Janet Burroway gives excellent examples of published prose (by well regarded writers) in Chapter 2: Voice, which have some very tell-heavy elements.  The reason for the "show, don't tell" axiom is boredom.  If a writer completely eschews scene (showing) for summary (telling) then the reader is likely to get bored, because summary resolves tension too quickly.  For instance, if I were to summarize Misery by Stephen King, it would go something like this:

A famous writer gets in a car crash and is rescued by an obsessed fan.  After an attempt to escape, she breaks both of his ankles using a sledgehammer.  After a second attempt, she removes his left arm (so that he can still write).  In the end he escapes, but only barely.

So the breaking of body parts, likely caused you to shudder a bit, but there's not really tension there.  Which is why showing is important, but if an author doesn't summarize some things, then the book would never end (cf. anything by Melville).  John D. MacDonald (writer of the Travis McGee mystery series) is a mastery at summarizing things that don't really matter except to add ambiance, usually small talk.  Summary can still reveal character, but teachers don't want to read a bunch of really boring prose, so this mythical axiom has been past down through the ages.  Next time someone tells you, "show, don't tell," just substitute in, "This section bored me."  It's a more useful rubric.

The real strength of Imaginative Writing is that it covers all three major veins of creative writing (Creative Non-fiction, Fiction, and Poetry), and it has metric tons worth of writing exercises, and as Harlan Coben said in his WD interview, "This is a profession where quantity eventually creates quality."

This text was used as the main primer for 2 of my 3 major fiction writing courses during undergrad.  As a beginning primer, it's acceptable, but I still argue in favor of The Art of Dramatic Writing and others, but of course I've always aimed to be a novelist, and noveling is a hell of a thing to teach in one semester.  I imagine that's what graduate courses are for - I'll let you know when I take one.

So bottom line: If you want extensive exercises to stretch your craft: check this book out.  If you're satisfied with the exercises found in Gardner's The Art of Fiction, then move on.

Cheers, and as always, thank you for reading.

If you have any craft book recommendations, please leave them in the comments.