Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Novels and Writing

I may have talked about this before--I'm not sure, mostly because I'm on travel and am scatterbrained. Anyway, it's snowing here in Chicago and I can't get to the bookstore, which is a real bummer because one of the big bonuses for me when I travel to Chicago is to get to bookstores. They are the highlight of my pathetic life.

So, anyway, I've finished two of the three novels I brought with me and one of them...I think I've read before. I bought it recently because it looked interesting (I always buy books based on the blurb on the back cover--I generally don't "follow" specific authors--I just read the back and hope for the best). Anyway, when I got about 7/8th through the book, I had this feeling that I knew how it was going to play out, and I had this vague sense of deja vu.

Which got me thinking about a previous thing I had read about literary fiction versus "commercial fiction" or, the stuff they force you to read in school, versus the paperbacks you pick up from the bookstore voluntarily. Although I do pick up a goodly number of paperbacks which were once commercial fiction (maybe 200 years ago) and are now considered literary fiction. I have no idea how they "decide" when something that was commercial is now old enough to be literary. I'm wondering, for example, if Agatha Christie or Georgette Heyer will be considered literary in another 100 years or so.

Anyway, the point is, someone said somewhere that literary fiction is stuff you remember while commercial fiction is stuff you don't. Except, I have no better recollection of literary junk I was forced to read, than I do of commercial junk I've read. In fact, I think I remember some of the commercial junk, better. In fact, I know it. Because the books I remember the most clearly are: The Ghost of Dibble Hollow, The Ghost Rock Mystery, and Swiss Family Robinson. All of which I read when I was 7 and remember very clearly. I think my mind was empty enough at that point to have room to remember these stories. Thereafter, as teachers filled up the vacant spots, I started remembering less and less of what I read.

Today, I'm lucky if I remember a vague "feeling" associated with a book, or a scene with two characters, whose names I've forgotten, doing something I've mostly forgotten, but I remember what I thought they looked like and a certain setting and/or picture stopped-in-time of what they might have been doing. I never remember names. I also never remember plots, which is how I end up buying books multiple times unless I take careful notes about what I've read and have not read. I tend to remember even less about literary fiction, although I do remember I despised Madame Bovary, thought she was the stupidest woman I'd ever heard of, and she totally deserved what happened to her--although I can't exactly remember what happened to her or what she did in that book to deserve her fate and my contempt.

What is the point of this, other than to prove I have no memory of anything? Well, even a reader with a terrible memory walks away with something from a book, even if they can't remember the characters, the plot, or the ending. Or even the author's name or the name of the book. The reader may even walk away with a couple of things: a feeling/mood, and perhaps a few snippets like still picture or perhaps a small "trailer" like clip.

Which leads me to a point some other author made--about the most important things you need to do as a writer. Create a feeling. That's critical. If you're really good, you create a series of feelings like laughter, tension, perhaps sadness (although I tend not to like books which "pull at the heartstrings" or have sad parts--I especially tend not to re-read them, but that's just me) and finally, leave you with a strong emotion.

And readers will only bond with the character(s) and get strong emotion if they understand the character's motivation, and that motivation makes sense in terms of the story. The heroine can't be too-stupid-to-live. The hero can't be a jerk--at least not all the time. They have to have flaws, weaknesses, and recognizeably human emotions. This is not easy. Some writers are so talented that by the end of the first paragraph--sometimes with the first sentence--the hero/heroine has hooked the reader, and the reader has bonded with them. Once this happens, unless the writer stumbles badly, the story will flow and something--perhaps just an elusive emotion--will stick with the reader.

How the writer accomplishes this is nearly impossible to describe. I have thought on it deeply, and it is difficult because there are many ways to accomplish this, and the methods are all, generally, combinations of writing techniques and not just one single, beautiful thing that a writer could master easily. Word choices, descriptions that are neither over-the-top-excessive nor completely lacking--stuff like that is crucial. Character actions and dialog that is precisely right for that character and only that character--that could never be appropriate to any other character also helps.

Lots of stuff like that. Which is completely unhelpful if you are struggling to actually climb to this pinnacle of perfection. But if you want to learn--read. Read the best authors and as many authors as you can. See what works for you as a reader and then break it down. Try to identify techniques that you--the writer--can master and use within your own, personal style of writing.

The hardest thing is to realize that what works for one author and one reader, will not necessarily work for another author, or some other reader. The best-selling authors have figured out what works for them and the majority of readers.

Personally, I prefer a book that leaves me with a strong feeling of happiness and satisfaction, where all the ends are wrapped up, and the characters have gotten their just deserts--which hopefully includes two of them bonding for life. Although I'm also happy if the wicked get what they deserve. That is part of the appeal of a mystery, where the crooks/murderer's get got or at least punished severely, unlike real life where there is often very little satisfaction or sense of justice. If a book leaves me very happy, I may remember the author's name long enough to actually look for another book by him or her.

Other readers may prefer books that tug their heartstrings and make them cry. They will search out authors who can do that.

So, you need to know what you are aiming at if you want to hit anything at all.

The second important thing is to create at least one really memorable scene, picture, snippet, action clip--whatever you want to call it. Something that will stick in a reader's mind. For me, this is most often the scene which encapsulates the core conflict. The scene where the major problem in the book is revealed and the hero and heroine, or hero and villain, square off. That scene must be strong and it must be clear. What is at stake? What will happen if the hero wins? What will happen if the villain wins? This is what will make the book something a reader will remember, or it could just turn the book into a vaguely nice experience that is completely forgotten after the last page if the core conflict is weak or muddy.

In fact, I would postulate that if you can create a strong, pivotal scene, the preceding and succeeding scenes can almost be mediocre (they really can't be bad) and you can still have a successful book. Although if the rest is just sort of mediocre, you really will need a good ending to tie everything up--you can't just totally depend upon that one, great pivotal scene if the story's ending leaves all the plot lines loose, flabby, and sagging over their belts. I re-read this prior to posting, I'm thinking it's all idiotic rubbish and completely unhelpful, but like I said, it's snowing outside and my brain turned to mush hours ago.

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