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Think Like a Librarian: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a war novel about the Iraq War.  The characters are caught on a Fox News camera doing something bloody, desperate, and heroic, and, as a special treat-slash-promotional opportunity, are brought back to the U.S. for a brief period to go on a “Victory Tour.”

There is nothing like a war novel for irony.  There really isn’t.  If a reader’s tastes run in that direction, sending them toward sardonic novels like Catch-22Slaughterhouse-FiveJohnny Got His Gun, The Manchurian Candidate, and other such war novels will do them no disservice.  These novels are also great for character voice, and Billy Lynn is no exception.  The clear, funny, and painfully human voice of the main character is a masterpiece.

Few elements of American culture are left unskewered, from family to football to Beyoncé.  Dragged out for particular punishment are hypocrites in religion and politics.  It’s a strange world when Hollywood is more sane than the man on the street, but that becomes the believable world of this book.

I recommend the book mainly for older teens and adults with a taste in irony, possibly also for those who need to be able to cope with a situation out of their control and have a black sense of humor.  If a reader is a fan of something like Shaun of the Dead, this will probably be a most enjoyable book.

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How to Study Fiction, Part 4: Productivity and Speed, Part 2

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Techniques to help handle productivity/speed issues:

  • Discovering and resolving fear issues around writing (I’m not good enough, I’m taking time for myself when I have too many other responsibilities, etc.).
  • Discovering what triggers writing techique-based distractions and using focused study to progressively resolve them.
  • Discovering when a story is “finished.”
  • Controlling your physical environment.

It’s important to probe into any emotional issues surrounding writing.  Finding a practical balance is never easy, but if you don’t start making a space for your creativity, you’ll suffer.  You’ve made it this far; by definition, you’re someone who needs to express themselves creatively, even if you don’t get off your ass and do it.

Other sources of “writer’s block” come from technical problems–the principles of writing at an intermediate and higher level.  The rest of the series will help start breaking those technical problems so you can start studying whatever problem is the priority of the moment.  Tackling one writing problem at a time will help make the process seem less overwhelming.  I hope.  Once I figured out that there were a lot of things to master, then tackling a couple of key elements helped me write a lot faster.

Finding out when a story is “finished” is an act of faith at every level of writing.  People often rely on beta readers, editors, and other “gatekeepers” to tell them whether a story is done or is good enough.  However, most “gatekeepers” aren’t professional, master-level writers, and are mostly just telling you whether they, personally, liked the story or not.  Learning writing techniques at an intermediate level will tell you whether your story is finished or not.

Your physical environment when you write has to allow you to write for your ideal amount of time without anticipatible distractions.  My idea amount of time is ten minutes, a short break, repeat for about three hours; yours might be “until this novel is done, I mean, no sleep or anything.”

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How to Study Fiction, Part 3: Productivity and Speed, Part 1

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Productivity and speed are key issues for intermediate writers.  If you can’t get your butt in the chair and the fingers typing, you’re not going to get much accomplished–and it very quickly becomes obvious that you’ll need to practice a lot if you want to get any good.

Practicing faster and more regularly will automatically make you a better writer.  You don’t necessarily have to write ever day.  Whatever works for your brain to output more words is the right way to do it.  But, conversely, if your beginner writer routines aren’t regularly increasing in words,

that is the wrong way to do it.

And your excuses can suck it.

Productivity/speed issues at this level:

  • Having the discipline to sit down and write without being distracted.
  • Staying focused during writing.
  • Finishing what you start.
  • Getting what you finish out into the market.
  • Building writing speed.

The main block to productivity is fear.  We fear that we’re not good enough and we don’t deserve to take the time to learn how to write.  We fear that we’re wasting our time.  We fear that we’re taking something away from the ones we love.

The first thing to do, if you’re not getting the writing done that you have the time to do, is address any possible sources of fear.

Other blocks to productivity include just not knowing how to use a particular writing technique (or usually several)!  For example, if you don’t know how to structure a scene, you won’t know whether you’ve written a good one or not, and your subconscious may resist moving forward, either to finish what you’ve started or to move your work into the market.

A third level of issues generally relate to one’s physical environment.  Are you being interrupted?  Are you able to keep the world outside your door?  Do you need music to stay focused?  Are you comfortable?

 

Just sitting down and admitting that sitting down to write is hard is…kind of a relief, actually.  When you first start addressing your difficulties, they seem overwhelming; as you pick them apart, though, it usually comes down to a very few things that are bringing you down, but that your brain doesn’t like to think about–so it seems like it’s a million things going wrong when really the million things are just your brain kicking up excuses.

 

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How to Study Fiction, Part 2: What to Study?

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

UPDATE:  I’m rearranging some of the pieces in the list below, both to move things around and to add more things! Please excuse the contruction!

I’m going to assume that you’re an intermediate writer (as discussed in the first post of the series).  We’re going to start with…what to study.

In some cases, you may have no idea what I’m talking about.  In others, you may have heard completely contradictory advice to what I’m going to set out.  In still others, you may do things completely differently.

That’s all okay.  In the beginning levels of writing, writers tend to see the world in terms of rules that they follow–and assume that if they follow the rules, they should be able to sell their work.

But the idea that writing has rules or even guidelines that need to be followed is a false one.  Writing has readers who need to be entertained.

And that’s it.

But that’s kind of a master-level approach to writing, and the implications are too many and too varied and require too much experience to simplify the process down to that level for most writers.

So we slice up writing into pieces, quite artificially and randomly, in order to make it easier to talk about.

Here are my slices for the purpose of this series:

  1. Productivity and speed
  2. Reading
  3. Putting a character on the page
  4. Putting a setting on the page
  5. Conflict and beats
  6. Beginnings and endings
  7. Story structure
  8. Plot
  9. Pacing
  10. Depth
  11. Editing and feedback
  12. Ruts and comfort zones
  13. Identifying strengths and weaknesses
  14. What is story

In each of these slices, I’m going to try to break down:

  • What the issues are at the intermediate level.
  • Some techniques for studying those issues.
  • Other resources related to those issues.

If you have more techniques and resources you want added, contact me–I’ll add them to the posts if I think it’s appropriate.

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FYI: Zenna Henderson and Quiet Horror

(Please note:  This post was originally guest-posted on Shannon Lawrence’s The Warrior Muse blog for Women in Horror Month.  I’m reposting it here so I don’t LOSE IT!!!)

The sci-fi writer Zenna Henderson died in 1983, which was years before I was given the short story collection The Anything Box by my cousins, and devoured it with such a passion that the front cover fell off. I eventually read the stories she was more famous for, her People stories, but I never really gelled with them the way I did with the stories in The Anything Box. 

Here’s the general idea behind most of the stories:

Once upon a time, there was a teacher. (Or a housewife, although in one particularly memorable case it’s a husband.) Something strange intrudes into her perfectly ordered life. She doesn’t know what to do about it. So she tries to pretend it away. This doesn’t work. Jeez Louise, this is weird, she thinks. I mean, if this is true, it changes everything. She tries to make it go away again…and again…but in the end, it’s useless. It’s not going to work. In the end, she either admits that the world wasn’t what she thought it was, or she gets killed.

Violently.

But usually offscreen. The stories were written in the ’50s and ’60s. Slasher films and splatterpunk hadn’t happened yet. But there were definitely gory, shocking horror stories back then. Psycho was written in 1959. Lord of the Flies was even earlier, in 1954. The pulps were still popular, and they practically dripped with blood.

So what was going on?

Zenna Henderson was writing what we would now call quiet horror—a horror where all the important things are happening inside the mind and spirit, not outside with a serial killer and an ax. It may or may not be relevant that one of the places she taught—she was a teacher—was in Japanese-American internment camps during World War II. And if that’s not a setting of quiet horror, I’m not sure what would be.

Quiet horror never really becomes terrifying; it never really gets loud or outwardly, obviously violent, although if it does, the character assumes it was all a dream or something so they can more or less stay calm about it. Quiet horror just sits there at a low-key level, humming to itself in a corner, as it were. And often it’s just plain weird. Reality is broken and things have gone off the freaking rails, not that you’d really know it, since everyone’s acting like it’s business as usual. John Harwood’s books, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “The Monkey’s Paw,” Charles L. Grant’s stories, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Peter Straub’s novels, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” Robert Aickman’s supremely odd novelettes, Rosemary’s Baby

On the surface, quiet horror just putters along. It’s not until you take a step back that you get struck by what’s going on.

The essence of quiet horror seems to be the statement, “Wait…what?”

In “Hush!” a woman’s vacuum cleaner comes to life and murders her. In “The Last Step,” a teacher interrupts a group of children playing in the mud as their community prepares to evacuate from an alien invasion, not understanding that the children’s play directly controls everyone’s future, and she’s doomed them all. In “The Anything Box,” a teacher literally takes away a child’s imagination and shoves it in her bottom drawer. And in “The Grunder,” a husband who is becoming physically abusive to his wife is driven to catch a possibly magical fish that might take away his urge to hurt her ever again, rather than have to change.

Each situation, when you step back from it, is monstrous, horrible, intolerable. But on the surface, the characters tolerate their worlds with almost perfect equanimity. Definitely nothing gets as tense—let alone as bloody—as a single throwaway murder in something like the Saw series, even when the vacuum cleaner reaches for the housewife’s throat.

I think this is because Ms. Henderson, like most quiet horror writers, laid the responsibility for feeling horror on the reader. She was willing to provide the story, but if you wanted to get wound up about it, that was up to you. Take it or leave it.

I chose to take it. The quiet horror stories of Zenna Henderson’s The Anything Box are still some of my favorites.

How to Study Fiction, Part 1: Welcome to Intermediate Writing!

New series!  I’ve been studying fiction with a scalpel and a jeweler’s lens for a few years now, and I’ve found it immensely helpful.  I’m going to cheat a little and use most of a post that I typed up for the pacing series, which you can find here.

The issues are the same 🙂

When writers first start out, what they’re mainly aware of, writing-wise, is conflict.  This is when you sit down and start writing a scene and go, “This is two people fighting about something, how exciting!”  Let’s call that Level 0.

Beginning writers have started to be inundated with English classes; they often have a set of rules and guidelines that they have to follow (in order to pass the class).  They have learned that the vague mush of conflict can be split into categories:  character, setting, plot, grammar/punctuation/clarity, repetitiveness, style, mood, atmosphere.

Intermediate writers are starting to break off from the early categories and rules.  (If I’ve ever told you that every writer has to break at least one rule in order to become a good writer, you’re moving into this category.  It’s a gradual process.)  They have a decent grasp on the basics.  They are starting to think about things like tension, depth/opinion/voice, pacing, and condensing repetitive things instead of removing them.

Advanced writers are starting to mess with their readers, and they’re starting to put the pieces back together, so that character = voice = style = plot = mood = everything else.  Genre, and screwing with genre, is a big deal here.

And master writers don’t give a damn about anything but screwing with the reader.

The issues that I’ve been running across lately are people moving from beginning writer to intermediate writer–and having no idea that there’s anything between “beginning” and “master.”

Why am I not getting published?  Why am I not getting published in the top magazines in my genre?  Why is XYZ shitty writer getting published and paid millions of dollars and not me?

That’s the kind of complaint/attitude I’m seeing.  Partly, it comes from 90% of all writing advice being focused on beginners–because that’s where 90% of all writers are at, and where 90% of all writers seem to drop out.  (I have no exact stats on that!)

The writers saying these things are decent at the basics for the most part, and may shine at one or two of them.  But they don’t really have a clue that there’s more to learn.

Let alone how to learn it.  More on that coming up.

Looking for more writing advice?  I’m adding a writer’s resources section to the Wonderland Press newsletter.  Click here to sign up.

Think Like a Librarian: True Grit, by Charles Portis

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

True Grit is a Western adventure story first published in 1968.  Readers who are looking for a tale of the good guys versus the bad guys should look elsewhere–this is a story about the quality of stubbornness, and its benefits and drawbacks.

I would highly recommend the story for reluctant teen readers and reluctant adult readers.  The writing is plain and direct.  The characters aren’t symbols or themes so much as they are flaws with legs.  Not much is romanticized or idealized:  it is what it is, and what happens, happens.  You don’t have to question the text much; not much is implied at a subtextual level.

On a more sophisticated level, the book works as a satire of other, more idealistic books in the Western genre and in fiction in general.  “Don’t try to tell the reader what to think,” this books seems to say.  “Don’t tell them that the past was anything other than dirty, deadly, and full of snakes.”  This level of the storytelling isn’t intrusive, and if a read misses it completely, they’ll still enjoy the book–but this aspect of the book would also make it a refreshing choice for someone who reads literary fiction as well.  And the two main characters are both examples of the best characters in fiction.

Not quite a sly wink at the reader, and not quite the most straightforward novel of all time, it’s the kind of book that can be enjoyed by readers across a broad spectrum.  I would not recommend the book for readers who don’t like gritty details that they’ll remember long after putting the book down.  There is some violence, but more importantly, there are a few scenes that might give a few readers some nightmares (especially regarding snakes).

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Pacing, Part 16: Wrapping up!

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

There’s still a lot more to cover on pacing, but now you’ve been introduced to the idea that pacing can work on pretty much every level (even high levels, as in the beginnings examples), so I’ll wrap things up here.

Pacing is about connecting form to content.  Any element of form or content can have a corresponding element on the other side of the equation.

When you find a short story idea that’s turning into a novel, it’s because your subconscious is trying to match the content of your idea (too complex to be a short story) with its proper form.  And vice versa.

When you struggle to make your characters do what you want them to do, it may be that the pacing of the characters is such that they want to act sooner, or later, or completely differently, than you want them to.

When you find yourself locked in the grip of writer’s block, it may be that you’re trying to fight a struggle between an outline that you’ve written, and the combination of form and content that you’ve set out on the page.

When you write a scene whose paragraphs and low-level pacing don’t resemble the content that you think you’re writing, don’t be surprised if a plot twist appears out of nowhere:  sometimes writing a discrepancy between form and content is the subconscious’s way of telling you that all is not what it seems.

I won’t get into it much here, but:

You don’t need to plan this all out, when it comes to pacing.

In fact, avoid planning as much as possible.  Give your subconscious as little as possible, and get out of the way.

Your subconscious is a drama queen, and it will handle the logistics of pacing for you, if you trust it.  Just step back, admire the work, and resist the urge to rewrite.  Fix the commas and let your subconscious get on with it 🙂

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Pacing, Part 15: Prologues (with Agatha Christie)

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Do you need a prologue?  Are you allowed to have one?

Beginning writers are often advised to avoid prologues.  In fact, they’re often advised to avoid a lot of things that annoy editors and agents when handled badly.

But if you’re studying pacing…you’re probably no longer a beginner.  You can throw that advice out.  More on that later.

So can you get away with a prologue or not?

Two issues here:

  • Prologues slow down pacing, a lot more than it might seem at first glance.
  • Prologues require their own internal structure.

A story with a prologue implies that there is going to be a lot more plot than a story without a prologue.  This will be no straightforward story in which the protagonist encounters a problem, comes up with the perfect plan to solve the problem, makes one big push to resolve the problem, and voila! Problem solved.

If there is a prologue, this implies that there are at least two plots–the plot the main character thinks they’re addressing, and something else (a murder, a crime, a twist).

The Cask of Amontillado can’t have a prologue.  The structure of the story is just too simple to support it.

Pride and Prejudice doesn’t need a prologue.  The story starts with the rich dude moving into the neighborhood.  No further past details need to be explained in order for the reader to be entertained.  And no other plot is needed, either.

PROLOGUE

IT was 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 7, 1915. The Lusitania had been struck by two torpedoes in succession and was sinking rapidly, while the boats were being launched with all possible speed. The women and children were being lined up awaiting their turn. Some still clung desperately to husbands and fathers; others clutched their children closely to their breasts. One girl stood alone, slightly apart from the rest. She was quite young, not more than eighteen. She did not seem afraid, and her grave, steadfast eyes looked straight ahead.

“I beg your pardon.”

A man’s voice beside her made her start and turn. She had noticed the speaker more than once amongst the first-class passengers. There had been a hint of mystery about him which had appealed to her imagination. He spoke to no one. If anyone spoke to him he was quick to rebuff the overture. Also he had a nervous way of looking over his shoulder with a swift, suspicious glance.

She noticed now that he was greatly agitated. There were beads of perspiration on his brow. He was evidently in a state of overmastering fear. And yet he did not strike her as the kind of man who would be afraid to meet death!

“Yes?” Her grave eyes met his inquiringly.

He stood looking at her with a kind of desperate irresolution.

“It must be!” he muttered to himself. “Yes—it is the only way.” Then aloud he said abruptly: “You are an American?”

“Yes.”

“A patriotic one?”

The girl flushed.

“I guess you’ve no right to ask such a thing! Of course I am!”

“Don’t be offended. You wouldn’t be if you knew how much there was at stake. But I’ve got to trust some one—and it must be a woman.”

“Why?”

“Because of ‘women and children first.’” He looked round and lowered his voice. “I’m carrying papers—vitally important papers. They may make all the difference to the Allies in the war. You understand? These papers have got to be saved! They’ve more chance with you than with me. Will you take them?”

The girl held out her hand.

“Wait—I must warn you. There may be a risk—if I’ve been followed. I don’t think I have, but one never knows. If so, there will be danger. Have you the nerve to go through with it?”

The girl smiled.

“I’ll go through with it all right. And I’m real proud to be chosen! What am I to do with them afterwards?”

“Watch the newspapers! I’ll advertise in the personal column of the Times, beginning ‘Shipmate.’ At the end of three days if there’s nothing—well, you’ll know I’m down and out. Then take the packet to the American Embassy, and deliver it into the Ambassador’s own hands. Is that clear?”

“Quite clear.”

“Then be ready—I’m going to say good-bye.” He took her hand in his. “Good-bye. Good luck to you,” he said in a louder tone.

Her hand closed on the oilskin packet that had lain in his palm.

The Lusitania settled with a more decided list to starboard. In answer to a quick command, the girl went forward to take her place in the boat.

This is the prologue to Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary.  Chapter 1 starts with two completely different characters, in a different time frame, with a completely different tone.

“Aha,” we say, “eventually the events in the prologue will become relevant.”  There is an open browser tab of the mind, as it were, that is continuously watching for the main plot to catch up to the prologue.

The prologue has a beginning, a demonstration that emphasizes the beginning (as in “The Cask of Amontillado”), a climax, and an ending/wrapup that points its way out of the prologue and toward the main body of the book.  It makes us care enough to keep reading…but not enough to throw the book against the wall, in knowing that one of the characters, at least, is about to die.

If your prologue exists mere to tell the reader that the bad guys are going to do something nasty, well, you’ve wasted the reader’s time.  That’s what bad guys do.  You have to imply something unexpected will happen, and it must happen.  It’s kind of like a prophecy in a high fantasy novel.  It has to happen, it can’t be something that you already expected to happen, and it has to happen in a way you didn’t expect (but still in line with expectations).

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Pacing, Part 14: Beginnings (with Oscar Wilde)

I’m working on a series on pacing.  You can see other posts in the series here.

Beginnings don’t have to start with summary; they can start with demonstration.  The demonstration should involve the setting more than it does anything else.  You might pull off extremely minor actions or dialogue, but try just using setting first.  It’s easier.

The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.

From the corner of the divan of Persian saddle-bags on which he was lying, smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes, Lord Henry Wotton could just catch the gleam of the honey-sweet and honey-coloured blossoms of a laburnum, whose tremulous branches seemed hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs; and now and then the fantastic shadows of birds in flight flitted across the long tussore-silk curtains that were stretched in front of the huge window, producing a kind of momentary Japanese effect, and making him think of those pallid, jade-faced painters of Tokyo who, through the medium of an art that is necessarily immobile, seek to convey the sense of swiftness and motion. The sullen murmur of the bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass, or circling with monotonous insistence round the dusty gilt horns of the straggling woodbine, seemed to make the stillness more oppressive. The dim roar of London was like the bourdon note of a distant organ.

This is the opening of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.  It’s rich with detail, but doesn’t have as much of an attitude as Pride & Prejudice.  This isn’t a book about gently laughing at one’s neighbors and one’s self, but a book about image versus reality, and the contusions that living a false image can force upon oneself.

Note the longer sentences, longer paragraphs, more complex sentence structure, and the veneer of polysyllabic words.

This is going to be an involved kind of story with a lot of atmosphere, ripe with self-destruction.  Just look at the words:

  • smoking, as was his custom, innumerable cigarettes
  • hardly able to bear the burden of a beauty so flamelike as theirs
  • sullen murmur of bees shouldering their way through the long unmown grass
  • circling with monotonous insistence
  • the stillness more oppressive

One of the tricks of pacing is that you can, by matching up form and content, foreshadow the events to come.  If you lay down the same pattern in the beginning that you do in the end, the reader will get a hint of the structure to come–even if you use elements with a different content.  The ostensible content of this beginning is about a garden, but the pacing shows a pattern of decay and oppression.

The content and form at the end are openly about decay and oppression, and the reader feels like it “must” be that way, because they have been observing the same pattern throughout the work.

Not every work uses foreshadowing, but a lot of masterpieces do.  Go back to the Pride and Prejudice example.  In the end, the main character gets married to a wealthy single man.  The pattern of the ending is set up in the beginning, in an even more obvious fashion than it is here.

Looking for more writing advice?  I’m adding a writer’s resources section to the Wonderland Press newsletter.  Click here to sign up.

 

 

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