Tuesday, July 26, 2011

How to Write Your Best Story: a rambling review

A few months ago, Philip Martin, a fellow writer and editor (although he's more established and "serious" than I am in the editing realm, and he has fingers in all sorts of literary pies), asked me to read through the manuscript for How to Write Your Best Story: Advice for Writers on Spinning an Enchanting Tale (128 pages, $14.95, Crickhollow Books). 

I've been writing since I was nine or ten years old -- not very well, but often and copiously -- and I've lost count of the writing conferences, seminars, and classes, and groups I've attended, but the greatest learning has come from the simple act of writing (and revising -- a lot), and the best advice has come from sitting down and talking to other and better writers. Reading How to Write Your Best Story is rather like one of those conversations: down-to-earth, intelligent, understandable, and useful. 

Aside: Did I mention that my first conversation with Philip Martin was several years ago at a writers conference? Yep. I attended his session (I forget the topic), then asked him to autograph my well-read copy of his recent book, The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, a Brothers Hildebrandt painting of Smaug on the cover, which just makes a good book that much cooler. I'm not usually the groupie / fanboy type, and I certainly don't go around asking other folks for their autographs, but this time, it just seemed like the thing to do.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

"Never judge a book by its cover" is old advice that isn't always true. After all, most of us have seen plenty of cheesy science fiction covers with awkward robots or scantily-clad alien women, or trashy romance novels decorated in shirtless men with impossible hair or women in torn bodices. We look at those covers, and we pretty much know what we're gonna get. (I'll take the science fiction -- hold the cheese -- over the lurid romance any day.) The whimsical cover art for How to Write Your Best Story is the reader's first clue that the contents are written by someone who knows and appreciates a good story, and probably read his share of them. (The artwork is by the late Marvin Hill.) What I like best about this book of advice is that it's less about rules and more about principles of good storytelling:
Good storytelling exists in a world outside of formal structural elements of literature. It has intangible aspects, like a beautiful melody or an appealing fragrance. It exists in imaginary worlds you know well, like the 100 Acre Woods, or Narnia, or Lake Woebegone, or in mostly real worlds, such as a humorous journey on the Appalachian Trail with Bill Bryson -- or in any number of great books based as much on storytelling as anything else. (p9)
(F)or a good number of years, I've pondered the question: is there a way to teach good storytelling, in the fashion of Kipling, Steinbeck, C.S. Lewis, O. Henry, Tolkien, or other beloved writers classic and modern -- successful authors who we'd all agree knew a good story from a hole in the ground?
What do readers look for in a good tale? What specific techniques do I find myself most often recommending to emerging writers to boost the quality of their stories? (p10)
That's what Martin endeavors to do in the rest of the book, and he does it with a whimsy to match the cover art, by telling a story interwoven with instructive chapters. After the Introduction, for instance, is the beginning of "The Princess & the Apple", followed by Part One: General Things about Good Stories, followed by the further tale of "The Princess & the Apple", which is interspersed among these chapters: The Case for Intriguing Eccentricity, The Case for Delightful Details, and The Case for Satisfying Surprises.

Included are many quotes from the works of famous authors and poets, including this quote from Joyce Carol Oates:
"Storytelling is shaped by two contrary, yet complementary, impulses -- one toward brevity, compactness, artful omission; the other toward expansion, amplification, enrichment." (p25)
That's a push-pull war in which I constantly engage: what to leave out, what to add, what must be spelled out, what can be implied, what's trivial, what matters.

A few more examples of advice from the book:
throw out the thesaurus (pp26-30),
juxtapose or fuse two ideas to offer a unique intersection (pp50-51),
listen (pp55-56),
use more senses (pp68-70),
ask what your characters want most (p93),
don't dodge the difficult ending (pp104-105),
and much more.

How to Write Your Best Story is chock-full of good, perennial advice, but it's also fun to read. This book will remain in my permanent library, and that's just about the best recommendation I can give.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bubba and Bubba's Wife have brought the family for a visit, and the three nieces are quite vocal. They could be the voices behind an album entitled "The Three Sopranos: The Jazz Project", in which Niece #1 provides percussion with her angst-ridden stomping up and down the hallway; Niece #2 offers the toddler equivalent of improvisational riffs in the form of random, sometimes-unintelligible commentary; and infant Niece #3 has the pipes for belting out amazing (and endless) solos.

I'm operating on Day 3 of about four hours of sleep per night, but part of the fault lies with my own irresponsibility: staying up too late to spend time with B and BW after the kids are asleep. We adults are a bit groggy and snappish -- and there's still a week and a half left.

Saturday, nobody better wake me up before noon!

Still, a week and a half is not enough time. We recently learned that Bubba is headed to Afghanistan for a year, news that sets everyone on edge, inspires additional prayers, changes the way we look at the future. Despite the dangers, though, there is opportunity for learning, experience, even adventure. How many times do we miss opportunity because it looks scary? Maybe risk is just what we need.

So we prepare ourselves to let him leave. We pray for his safety and for our peace; for those with whom he will serve, and for those too young to understand why Daddy doesn't come home every night. Bubba and I have been those kids whose father was gone for long stretches of time, but we can't transfer our knowledge to little minds. After all, the best-learned lessons are often the ones we experience for ourselves, and there are journeys we make alone. Even if someone walks beside us, our own feet must carry us.

May they carry us forward to strength, to peace, to joyful reunions.

Monday, July 4, 2011

America the Beautiful

It's late on the Fourth of July, and I've been trying to come up with something fitting, patriotic and poetic, to mark the day, but nothing comes to mind but a song.

Despite my current skeptical and less-than-enthusiastic view of the state of this nation, I'm still a citizen, and I still love my country. That's politically incorrect these days, when flying the flag, saying the pledge, wearing a flag pin, being an unabashed capitalist, believing the Constitution is still relevant, saying "under God" are activities looked down upon by many in leadership. But the first writing contest I won as a kid had the theme "What's Right with America" -- how can I give up now?

So, without further commentary, below are the lyrics to America the Beautiful, with some lines highlighted in red, simply because they hit me in the chest every time I hear or read them:

America the Beautiful
Words by Katharine Lee Bates,
Melody by Samuel Ward

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for halcyon skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the enameled plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till souls wax fair as earth and air
And music-hearted sea!

O beautiful for pilgrims feet,
Whose stem impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till paths be wrought through
wilds of thought
By pilgrim foot and knee!

O beautiful for glory-tale
Of liberating strife
When once and twice,
for man's avail
Men lavished precious life!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till nobler men keep once again
Thy whiter jubilee!

lyrics provided by ScoutSongs.com virtual songbook

Friday, July 1, 2011

Ah, there's nothin' like the non-smell of fresh-cut sun-burnt grass in the morning. June has been one of the hottest on record in my area of Arkansas, and July's shaping up to be even hotter. Guess that means less mowing. I won't complain.

After incorporating feedback from some pre-readers, I've just finished a rewrite of Episode 15 of Thieves' Honor, the science fiction serial for Ray Gun Revival (check out their short stories -- good stuff!), and have been tinkering with the modern supernatural thriller (not as thrilling as I would like -- not yet!).

Back in May, I shared the notes on a funny bit of dialogue I was hoping to incorporate into this episode of TH; however, that scene will have to wait, due to a turn in the story. Still, I hope readers get a chuckle or two. I laughed out loud while writing the episode, but maybe that's because the material was funnier in my head than it is on paper. After all, I wake myself laughing, even when I can't recall what's so funny about the dream.

This episode has juvenile body-function humor (very mild stuff here):
"We got maybe five minutes."
Alerio could have been talking about the weather: "Then we either crack the code or run like the wind."
"If Corrigan was here, it'd be a foul wind."
"All the more reason to run." 

And it has a reference to Kung Fu, a television series my brother, cousins, and I watched "back in the day". I leave that allusion for the readers to find.

As for the supernatural thriller that's not so thrilling, I realized that it needs a sharper focus. There's a lot of cool stuff that I've described, or that the characters possess, use, or fear, but there hasn't been one of those awesome, epic action scenes that showcase the characters' skills. So far, the tension has been contained, quiet, the kind that powers a psychological thriller. What I need is something big and scary, something that shows the power of both good and evil, and then I need to pull back from the fireworks, maintaining the tension by never letting the reader forget that just because it's quiet now doesn't mean there won't be something happening any second.

Kinda like the psychology behind a "haunted house" attraction in October: the brain knows the creatures and spooks are just regular people in disguise, but the fear comes from the dark, from the unexpected, from the possibility of danger.

Speaking of scary, the clock is warning me of the time -- I have to get ready for work in five hours -- but I'm just too tired to muster a girly scream of fright. Maybe that means I'll sleep like the dead.