Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Great Fiction

This blog is devoted to thinking outside the box. Writing is a complex activity and sometimes we forget that one of the best ways to learn is to read something different. And that's why I mean when I use that horrible phrase: Think Outside The Box. Because some of us forget that the actual framework of the story is also a creative element and can be used in unique ways to deepen the message or illuminate some aspect that is relevant to the characterization. (See "Thug" below.)

I really like stories that may not fit in the normal story mold. For some strange reason, I have a particular love of fiction that is a little…well, different. In college, I picked up a copy of The New Yorker and discovered short stories. Often, weird short stories. And for me, the weirder, the better. . I discovered that Woody Allen, for example, didn't just make films. He wrote dozens of fantastic & funny short stories. I got a subscription to the New Yorker for a while, but eventually terminated it because out of 12 issues, I might only find 1 or two stories that were different enough to catch my interest. I'm just not into depressing stories about how miserable and hopeless life really is and unfortunately, the editors drifted in that direction.

So here is a short list of stories ranging in length from very short to very long. There is something different about each one and if I could tempt you to read them, I'll feel that I've done something worthwhile. I won't say they are the best "in their class" or anything like that, but they are works of fiction that I remember and that is saying something. I remember very, very little.

I tried to find my "Portable Dorothy Parker" book to include her short story about a woman asked to dance (when she really doesn't want to dance) but I couldn't find it and I'm darned if I can remember the name of it. Sigh. I'll have to talk about it another time…

Short Stories

"Thug: Signification and the Deconstruction of Self" by Tyler Dilts. You can find it in the collection: "Best American Mystery Stories 2003". I cannot recommend this story enough—it is absolutely brilliant. The story framework supports and illuminates the main character's —well, uh, character, in a unique way. Get it. Read it. Study it and think about it.

"Surface Tension" by James Blish. Things are not as they seem. I don't know why this story has stuck with me so many years, except that the feeling of yearning and striving and striking out to explore new horizons strikes such a chord within me…

"The Unrest Cure" by Saki (aka H.H. Munroe). Not a politically correct story, but damn if this isn't one of the best short stories I've ever read. It rates right up there (if not above) the one we're all forced to read in school by him: "The Open Window". Which I also love, along with "Esmé". If you want to learn how to magically make horrible characters strangely likeable, read any of his short stories. And for the sheer satisfaction of seeing a petty tyrant get her just desserts, "Sredni Vashtar". I guess P.C. people won't like these stories, but I can't seem to help myself.


I like so few poems but I wanted to include these—just because.

"The River-Merchant's Wife: a Letter" by Ezra Pound

Poem 986 by Emily Dickinson – which contains the memorable lines which capture so perfectly the emotion when you feel when you come upon a snake gliding through the grass:

But never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the bone—


I hesitated over this and couldn't decide between "The Death of a Duchess" by Elizabeth Eyre for its subtle characterizations that do not hit you all at once in the face but grow gradually, and "The Grail Tree" by Jonathan Gash, who really shows you how to create and stay in character when using first person. Or perhaps I'm just deluded and Gash really does sound, think and talk like Lovejoy.

Long Novels

"Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" by Susanna Clark. And check out the website: . This story is enthralling and weird and different. It's like reading some compelling history book, complete with footnotes (hilarious), except it never happened. And the descriptions and characters are done so brilliantly… I can't even imagine the amount of work and research that went into this book.

"Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand. More philosophy than fiction, but interesting because of it.

Like I said – I would hesitate to say any of these are the best & brightest works. They are ones I found memorable and some had writing techniques that were just so amazing I had to include them. This isn't my favorites list (although I guess Thug is my favorite story at the current time) and I actually don't keep such a list because it varies depending upon what I've read recently and my variable memory. I do like Georgette Heyer, particularly "The Masqueraders" and "Faro's Daughter", when I like no other historical romance novels—go figure. So my tastes vary wildly.

I won't promise you'll love these stories, but they really are worth your time.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

This and That

Cooler weather has finally arrived after a despicably long, hot summer. I love the fall—I always get such a tremendous burst of energy as the temperatures drop to more livable levels. It's weird, but the older I get, the less tolerant I am of heat.

Anyway, this is good. Yesterday, I submitted a partial manuscript to an editor which is always exciting. Particularly when it results in you lying awake all night thinking about all the things that might be wrong with your submission. It's just like buyer's remorse: you think this manuscript is absolutely perfect until you actually submit it. Then all of a sudden you see a million weaknesses and mistakes, things you should have fixed, things that were badly done, etc. I often wonder if all the big name authors have the same sudden rush of despair after they hand something over to their agent or editor. Some of the published authors I know seem so darn sure of themselves—my mouth hangs open in awe when I hear them say things like, "Oh, I never took classes or anything. I'm a natural writer. I just write and it sells."


The longer I work at writing, the more I know I don't know squat about it. In fact, I now know that I have surprisingly little knowledge of anything. Even my day job as a supposed computer expert leaves me feeling that I know less than one of those guys lying in the alley behind the building, drinking $1-a-bottle wine. The more I know, the more I know I don't know.

How, exactly, does one become an expert? You'd think doing something for 30 years (like working with computers) would make you something of an expert—but no. Not really. And I watch those folks on CSI and I'm thinking, Geeze, these people are what? Thirty? And they like know everything about every scientific field you'd care to mention—and even all the cutting edge stuff that just came out in Wired. (I love that magazine—it's so geek-cool.) And then there's Jason at work (in the real world) who is too young to get the rental car when we travel and heck if he doesn't know everything there is to know about just about any computer-related thing you'd care to mention. Although I've done assembly language programming and he hasn't. So there, Jason.

(No one does assembly anymore, though, unless they're some geek writing low-level hardware drivers. And I stopped writing assembly language when we moved away from 8080/8086 Intel CPUs, so I guess that knowledge ranks right up there with some of the more arcane subjects like phrenology.)


Anyway. I may no longer be the bright young thing in the office, but I can sure as heck keep my eyes open. Unless you decide to just shut your brain down completely, you can always learn. In fact, I learn something new every day. Even if what I learn is that I know less than I thought I knew when I got up that morning.

Today, I go back to working on polishing up the first three chapters of Whacked!. It's a contemporary murder mystery about this guy who gets…whacked. Sorry. I couldn't help myself. The plan is, however, to fix up the first three chapters and synopsis and squirt it off to my agent to see what she thinks about it. If she likes it, then I'll polish the rest of it and we'll see if she can sell that to the guys in New York. The first draft is done, but I'm not going to put any more effort into it unless she decides it has merit.

That's sort of the point I wanted to make with this blog. I'm trying to get smarter. My current plan has several legs to it and they are as follows:

  • Keep on writing (so I might actually get better at it). This means: don't spend all my time editing older manuscripts.
  • Write the first draft and then STOP. Polish up a synopsis and the first 3 chapters and send to my agent to see if she thinks it is worth continuing. Because the first draft only takes a few months. The bulk of my work lies in the revisions. Revise, revise, revise. Since my goal is to sell to a big NY publisher, there is no point in spending a year on revisions if no one is interested in the book.
    • Oh, I don't abandon my stories. What this really means is that these unwanted manuscripts get pushed to the back burner where I edit them as time allows. The process may take a couple of years instead of one year, but when it's done, I'll try the manuscript with smaller publishers who tend to me more open to whacko things (sorry again, I just can't help myself tonight). Which brings me to the next leg of the plan.
  • Submit manuscripts that I really love, and that I think are finally good, to small publishers. It keeps my "hat in the ring" and may eventually lead to a few readers. A thousand readers would be nice. Heck, one reader would be nice.
  • Try short stories and novellas. I am so intrigued by the idea of selling shorter works and have found several publishers who are selling short stories and novellas over the Internet. This is excellent for honing writing skills and again, it keeps your name out there and may garner a few more readers. The time investment is much, much lower than writing a full novel so it's really a win-win situation.
  • Use other authors. I've begun not just studying other authors, but using their techniques to overcome my own weaknesses. I always thought this was sort of cheating, but finally conceded that it is a legitimate technique to improve quickly. It's like a painter who copies another artist's masterpiece for practice. Emulating lets you work new muscles and learn much more quickly than just trying to slog through on your own. I've been looking at other writers who I like and have a similar book. And then I see, for example, how they start their book. And then I go to my page 1 and rewrite mine using some of the same techniques. Since my story is different and has other characters and situations, it does not come out at all the same. I'm not copying phrases, sentences or words, I'm emulating the techniques. I've even been making copies of certain pages that show good examples of things I want to learn to do.

It would be nice to say I'm such a great writer that I don't have to work on my skills in this way. I'd love to say I have my own successful style and storytelling talent, but failing that, I have patience. Hmmm. Well, maybe not patience, per se. I have very little patience. But I can tolerate rejection if I have a long term goal in mind. And I love to learn.

One day, I'm going to sell more than a couple of copies of a story. I may not be famous but by God before I die, I'm going to be able to walk to my bookcase and find at least one book there with my name on the spine.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Revitalization of the Short Story

There's a lot of bad news out there but there is a new trend emerging from our modern, online, no-time world. Short stories are making a comeback. We've all heard the predictions that the Internet, computers, gaming, and the multi-media extravaganza that is our life now means that no one reads anymore. However, much of the Internet is reading and with online and e-publishing growing, the short story and novella is emerging as the story of choice.

It makes sense.

You're sitting on the commuter train, in your carpool, or waiting for your next class to begin. You're tired of reading the millions of IMs containing the minutiae of all your friends' daily lives. You want to read a story. You already carry around a plethora of mobile devices, any one of which can download and contain any number of stories. But you're constrained for time and it's not that comfortable to read a 500 page tome on a tiny screen. But it's not too bad for twenty minutes, or about as long as it would take to read a short story.

Some of the bestselling stories being downloaded now are short. They range from short stories, through novellas, into the full-length book category. But by far the more popular ones are the short stories and novellas. They have been so successful, in fact, that publishers—both e-publishers and traditional NY publishers alike—are collecting up those stories in anthologies and publishing them as print books.

And this is fantastic. It is such a wonderful opportunity for new writers and old writers alike. I, personally, have been toying with several ideas for novellas. The only thing that scares me is the speed with which the story has to develop. You have to get those characters introduced to the reader and into their conflict within a page or two. Then you've got to bring that conflict to a rapid boil and resolve it, pronto. No time for a lot of setup, which can take me the first 1/3 to 2/3 of a full-length book. It's a daunting prospect.

But it's a great way to learn economy of style and how to get characters in and out of trouble swiftly. It's wonderful discipline. And it's quick. You can write a rough draft in a week instead of three or four months (or however long it takes you to write the first draft of a book). Of course then you're in the editing cycle and that can stretch out for a long time, but it should be quicker.

And for a new writer, you can build both your skills and your audience more quickly. You can build up a body of work. Your stories can be collected into anthologies and if you're really lucky, you can get into an anthology with a really famous author. Readers who pick up the book to read the "big name author" will read your story, too, and you'll build your audience even faster. It's a win-win.

So for once, rejoice in the opportunities offered by our "I want it now" age. It may be easier than ever to get into the fast lane and finally get someone to read all those stories you've been longing to share.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Everyone’s a Critic

Just finished reading two books over the long Labor day weekend. I actually took a vacation, too, which was why I didn't post a blog last week. J

When I initially wrote this, I intended it to be a well-considered, thoughtful review of a few writing techniques that I ran across in my reading. It turned out to be a rant and a very politically incorrect rant, as well. Sigh. Best laid plans and all.

So anyway, I finished 'The Sleeping Doll' by Jeffry Deaver and 'The Shape of Sand' by Majorie Eccles.

***** Out of 5 stars, I give 'The Sleeping Doll' 5.

**********'The Shape of Sand' by Eccles gets 10. I know I said there was a maximum of 5 stars, but Eccles reminds me of the reason I wanted to be a writer in the first place, and why I writhe in despair when I read an author like her. I'll never be that good.

My writing will ever be as exquisite as Eccles' but I keep trying. Eccles reminds me that descriptions done properly are not really descriptions at all: they are the character's emotions and perceptions of the world around her. You cannot remove the descriptions without losing most of the characterization and mood.

If you can remove a description and you only lose the color of the wallpaper, then the description is pointless.

Anyway, regarding the ratings…don't get me wrong. Deaver is a best selling author and totally fabulous. But 'The Sleeping Doll' (for me) just wasn't up to quite the same standards as some of his previous works, or the Eccles book. I really don't like book-bashing and 'The Sleeping Doll' is an excellent book. I seriously doubt anyone else would have any of the issues with it that I had. It's very enjoyable.

Maybe I just wasn't in the mood. Readers' reactions are so subjective. That's why you really can't always read someone else's review and take it as THE TRUTH. It is, generally speaking, only true for that person, at that time. A reader may even find their own reaction changes at a different point in time.

When I was very young, I found P.G. Wodehouse to be unbearably boring. Now, I love him. Perceptions change.

And I feel a little guilty about not liking the Deaver book so much, but I can't help my reaction. But I did learn a few things and identified what to me were mistakes. I hope to avoid these particular ones in my own writing. (I'd prefer to continue making other, more egregious mistakes ;-) as any reader of my book will no doubt confirm.)

The biggest issue for me was that by the end of the book, I really did not like the main character—the heroine. I didn't like her because she was too perfect. Too good to be true. It's the same reason I haven't like any of the Star Trek re-treads. The original Star Trek's characters got angry with each other, bickered, had terrible faults and angst. Even Spock fretted over and fought his human 'half'. They were more like real people with recognizable faults. And I love human frailty because it is our faults that lead to our greatest achievements.

Therefore, for me, the goody-goody characters in the more recent Star Trek re-treads were too nauseatingly polite and kind to each other to be sympathetic. They suffered from the dreaded disease: uber-goodness. Call it Politically Correct (PC) if you want. I call it emotional degeneration. It is a recurring nightmare of mine: that I'll go to sleep and wake up in a world where "we're all friends here, dear" and everyone spends their day smiling and doing good deeds for each other. It gives me the cold chills just thinking about it. It is so intrinsically revolting to think of humans falling into such a sheep-like, mindless state of perfection.

It is our anxiety, our fears, and our compulsive need to be better or have more than the next guy that makes us strive to achieve, makes us invent or discover the next miraculous thing. If Edison was perfect and had the perfect life, he'd have invented nothing. When you reach emotional and social nirvana, there is nothing more to strive for. You are, in essence, emotionally dead. Stasis is death.

I don't like characters who are emotionally dead. Who have nothing more to strive for other than some vague, morally righteous goal to do good.

Wow, that was a rant. Didn't mean to go there, but really, while the beginning of 'The Sleeping Doll' was perfectly fine, by the end, it felt like a lecture—with examples—on 'how we should all be PC'. The sad thing is, at the end, I prefer the character that is supposedly a horrible, vengeful person that the uber-perfect heroine wants to prosecute. (I'm not going to give anything away—read the book.) But Deaver is not alone in this. I've noticed a lot of writers seem to be using their fiction as a platform to show the rest of us low-brows what is PC and what is abhorrent in an enlightened human being.

So…I'm a knuckle-dragging caveman (cavewoman?) who prefers regressive, non-PC characters. Go suck an egg.

That sums up my first reaction. I just didn't like the heroine by the end of the book. I doubt I'll read anything else featuring her. She set my teeth on edge.

But there were a couple of other things that got to me, too. There were two instances where the author told you "such and such" happened. And then a chapter or two later, the author sort of laughs and says, 'Gotcha' and then tells you that "such and such" really didn't happen, something else did. I can't tell you how irritating this is. It's a slap in the face to the reader. First off, it's like the author saying: I'm smarter than you are and knocking you on the back of the head to prove it. Second, it violates that rule that Alfred Hitchcock put so well when he said, "knowledge is tension". If you see two men sitting at a table with a briefcase on the floor next to them, and the briefcase suddenly explodes, it's shocking, but there is no tension. If you see two men sitting at a table with a briefcase on the floor next to them, and you're told the briefcase contains a bomb set to go off in two minutes, you are on the edge of your seat with tension for those two minutes. And if you are introduced to the men and know all about their families, dreams and aspirations, you're screaming at the men to get out of there. There is tension.

By Deaver making you think that a situation was resolved one way and then punching you in the eye with a surprise a few chapters later—there is no suspense—there is nothing except irritation at his deliberate "hiding of the truth". I accepted the first time he did it. The second time, I wanted to throw the book in the ocean. And it's not like he just misdirected the reader the way a mystery writer will. He deliberately misstates the truth and then flips it around later. I suppose it's meant to be a surprise. It fails.

The sad thing is that I've read other books by him and he did not do this—at least I never noticed it before. But then, I've never read his more popular suspense novels like this one or his Lincoln Rhyme books, so maybe this is just his style for these types of stories. I've noticed that I tend not to like suspense, with a few exceptions, because of similar issues.

I'm actually glad to have read this book. I've had problems in the past really understanding what Hitchcock meant about tension. And a lot of my manuscripts lacked tension because I kept information "back" from the reader in order to spring something on them later. I never really understood how this affects the pacing and tension, but I sure do now. If you don't let the reader know what is going on, you may be able to surprise them later, but you also lose about 90% of the tension in favor of a surprise that lasts all of one sentence or two. Not a good trade-off. And you don't want to make your reader feel stupid. Or worse, make your reader feel like you think they are stupid and that you, the author, are so much smarter because you can throw them a curve ball from way out of left field.

Finally, the last thing that drove me absolutely up the wall was his constant use of the word "kinesic". He tells us what it is in the beginning and tells us that the heroine is very good at using this technique during interviews to spot lies, evasions, etc. It's basically body language combined with other language skills. So he gives us a definition and explains the heroine's job. Then a few pages later, he uses the word again, and gives us another definition. Then a few pages later, he uses the word again and in case we didn't understand the previous definitions, he tells us how his heroine is using it and how good she is at using it. And then, just in case we missed that, he tells us again a few pages later how the heroine is using kinesic techniques and how she knows what is going on because she's using them. He keeps on using that word over and over again, right up until the end of the book.

Now, I can understand the first few examples. But after the first 1/3 of the book, I think we've got the freakin' message. We know the heroine uses that technique. We don't need to be reminded of it on almost every page. Let the heroine just do what she does and spot the lies. It is unnecessary to keep defining it for us and reminding us that you, Mr. Author, know a fancy new term. Who cares? Would the heroine really be thinking: hmmm, I'm really good at kinesic techniques which I can use to spot liars and I can see, using my great kinesic skills, that Mr. X is defensive because his arms are crossed over his chest. And my kinesic training tells me he may even be lying when he uses evasive phrasing such as, "I was unaware at the time…". Or is it more likely that she would just think, he's being evasive when he says "I was unaware at the time"—I need to dig deeper…

And I see, now, why I've been drifting toward crime novels instead of suspense. Because in crime novels, pretty much everyone is a rotten, miserable, scheming individual (although one or two may have a few redeeming qualities like a macabre sense of humor). There's nothing like a scoundrel to make for interesting reading.

Hopefully, this blog won't aggravate too many people. If it does, well, it's completely unintentional. But hey, we're all entitled to our opinions and sometimes we need to blow off a little steam. I just hope I don't have that Perfect World nightmare tonight. ARGH!