Monday, February 28, 2011

Learning Writing Conventions Through Unconventional Means

Once again, I apologize for such a late post. Recent events have made it very hard to write as of late, but I think I have found enough peace of mind to at least endure the pain and continue. This post may seem a bit disjointed and shorter than usual, but bear with me here.

A conversation with WannabeWriter at our writing group meet-up two weeks ago got me thinking about certain things that have prepared me for writing and telling stories.

I suppose I've been making up stories since my parents forced my brother to share his dinosaur toys with me when we were small children. He would smash them into each other. I'd divide them into families and create stories with them (though come to think of it, the triceratops mommy and stegosaurus daddy would not have been able to produce a t-rex and a brontosaurus as children unless mommy triceratops was keeping something from Mr. Stegosaurus!)


Of course after a thousand games of make-believe, my friends started to get tired of playing through either age or popularity. However to my luck, right before my pre-teen years I discovered online roleplaying games. My involvement started small with a Star Wars chat-based game and then evolved into generic fantasy on not only chat rooms, but in forums. Forum posting and chat rooms were probably the main vehicles for teaching me how to write. Many times when you needed to collaborate with another roleplayer, you had to be able to create the scene as well as interact with the character. You also had to learn how to respect the boundaries of your and the other person's characters and plotlines, or the other person would not take you seriously and won't play with you anymore.

You want me to do what with whom and that herring?

Also, if you were lucky like me, you would find a group of people who would give you advice and encouragement in writing your posts. I kept writing my own works, mind you. Though looking back at what I wrote back in high school and also at the style I am writing with now, the only ways I could submit the previous works for publication  is to either change the stories completely, or rewrite most of what I have and pass them off as a YA novels.

Anyway, I digress

Later on when I started college, my classmate and friend Laura got me into tabletop roleplaying games. Now there were rules on what you could and couldn't do, what you could and couldn't be. It didn't stifle creativity, though. Rather it gave it parameters to work within. Hell, my first tabletop character was a renaissance festival juggler who had been hit in the head one too many times with clubs, and according to my character sheet, the only two things I was good for was juggling and comically insulting people. Within the first 15 minutes I had done more damage out of anyone in the party. Looking back now, I find it rather entertaining that 3 years later I met her real life equivalent while I was working at the Georgia Renaissance Festival.

Tiny, but fierce!

Through gaming, we learned that failure was not always an end all, but rather it was just another path to something more interesting. We also learned that even the most basic or flawed of characters had the ability to become epic in their own right. Eventually I started live action roleplaying with Forest of Doors as a full time monster/ non-player character where I was required to switch characters up every half an hour or so--not only did my costumes get a full run of the gauntlet, but I needed to adopt different belief systems, cultures, and motivations-- and thus learned how to provide a greater of variety of characters beyond what I pulled from my own personality and intuition.

Laugh about them all you want, but they probably know a hell more about characterization than you do!

They say that it takes 10,000 hours (or 10 years) to master a craft. I think though in terms of writing fiction, this statement is bollocks. Most people may probably think that only writing, writing classes, and reading books on writing constitutes experience towards story-telling mastery. However there are so many other ways to learn character and plot development that you probably never even heard about. You can probably write for 10 straight years and still not be able to master telling a story unless you have other experiences to support it. Sure, you can make a paragraph flowery and powerful, but can you write and understand a convincing relationship between two characters?

Ever do any acting? You're getting experience in character development. Write and poetry or song lyrics? You're getting experience in language and perhaps plot development depending on the nature of the work. Watch television and the news? You have an abundance of possibilities before you in learning about writing and storytelling as a whole!

Though conversely, you can also learn a lot about what NOT to do when writing.

So faithful readers, as an exercise I want you to start paying attention to the activities you are involved in and what can you learn from them. I did it mostly with roleplaying, but I also played music, acted, watched documentaries, and simply surrounded myself with a wealth of experiences. Do you work with doctors or engineers? Start paying attention to how they interact (or don't) with each other, does their environment influence their actions or attitudes? Do you like jogging? Start paying attention to the people and areas you pass, create stories in your head about them based off of what you see and hear. Have a favorite stand-up comedian? Pay attention to his words and expressions and try to figure what it is that makes him funny and successful, use it for one of your characters!

When you start becoming one with the universe and how it can work, the more likely the universe you create will become just as real as the one you live in. So get out there and experience the endless possibilities, yourself! In the meantime, happy writing!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Aliens vs Academia: A Look Into the Literary/Genre Debate, Part 3

Welcome back faithful readers! I apologize for taking such a long time to get this post up. I felt a little like last week's post seemed a little rushed. In all honesty, however, I think I may have taken on too broad of a subject to squeeze all the issues within a blog post for each side. I suppose that's the point of having an ongoing blog, though--so I can continuously comment on these subjects in more detail as the mood or relevance strikes me. Anyhoo,onto the next post!

So last week I commented on what genre writers need to learn from literary writers. It's now your turn to listen up, writers of the literary camp. Yes, you...the writer scanning the shelves for the latest Booker Prize winner while furiously cuddling your copy of Franzen's The Corrections!

Alright, finish your low-fat soy latte and then listen up!

I have a bone to pick with you, so before you start complaining about how unappreciated your works are by the public, I'd like you to consider the following advice from your genre cousins:

1. Remember that the characters are individual creatures, and the story is a story.

I know. You may want to address complex issues in prose. You may have read Nabokov, Hawthorne, and Voltaire and wanted to use your story to poetically and metaphorically capture the mind and inspire them to your cause. You may also frown on popular fiction and how superficial and cut and dry it is. Now let me tell you now that you need to get off your high horse and listen. What often happens when you write a novel on an issue without any experience in writing stories is that your story will not sound like a story, it will sound like a lecture. Also your characters will often act as nothing more than metaphors or mouthpieces for the issue--resulting in wooden characters with no life of their own.

Hell, you may as well just give them t-shirts.
Sure, it is possible to address complex issues while avoiding these problems, but first you must learn the basics of plotting and character development. I have two suggestions on learning how to do this: A. read popular or genre fiction and pay attention to what themes are being presented and how the author addresses them. And B. Read one of the classics and pay attention to how the author builds suspense, works the plot, and develops the characters rather than what his themes or metaphors are.

2. For a story to be a story, something must happen.

This is one of the biggest complaints I have about the literary crowd. The assumption many misinformed literary writers have is the story does not need a plot as long as its well written--the "slice of life" so to speak.  The reasoning behind this is that a good writer does not need to resort to explosions and other tropes to write well and keep a reader's interest. This idea is a load of bollocks. When you tell someone about your average, run of the mill day, how long does it take for their eyes to glaze over? When you talk about putting together a spreadsheet for work, do you describe it in poetic and metaphoric detail? Try doing it. How long did it take for their eyes to glaze over?

Bored now!
Now try mentioning something like your co-worker left a note on your desk saying "lunch, 12 sharp, don't be late" on it, did not show up for an hour, and when you returned, your building was reduced to a smoldering pile of ash. Are the eyes glazing over now? Probably not, and the same works for fiction. For a novel to be a story, it needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. This does not need to be in a linear timeline, but it still needs to be a moving journey whether the journey be in a character's mindset, or in a fight to save the world. A plot-less story reads like a giant beginning, and often leaves the reader unsatisfied as if they were shown a giant menu of food, were allowed to smell them, were told what was in every single one, and then handed them the check without tasting, eating, or even watching them being made.

Mmm...tasty food pictures!
 You may have created an interesting, complex character, but would you really want to read 400 pages about him being bored with his life and doing nothing about it? What you must ask yourself is: what is it about this particular day of his sets it apart from all the rest of them? Why should the reader commit to reading 400 pages when he could read the first and last page and not tell if anything in the story has changed?

3. Language should not be a stumbling block.

I know, you may want to craft beautiful language and metaphor to bring out the themes of the book. You may want the reader to carefully read the text and force them to think. However the average reader is going to read that particular sentence three times and get frustrated that it's keeping him from continuing the story, and more than likely put down the book in favor of someone who actually makes sense. Remember that writing is a form of communication and language is a carrier rather than the content. If the reader cannot understand the basic meaning of a certain sentence, it's not the reader's fault, it's yours for not communicating effectively.

Nope! Still don't get it!

The biggest tip I have for this problem is for you to be subtle and relevant in your writing. Make sure the sentences make sense when reading them! If it takes five times of reading to understand that your character scraped their knee on the pavement, it's time to simplify! The best hidden meaning is the kind that sneaks up on you rather than the kind that sets up a roadblock and expects you to figure it out before you can continue.

4. The reader is your friend.

This is the literary writer's biggest sin. I have seen complaints all over the board about how people need to raise themselves to a higher standard of reading so literary novels will sell better and not die out. This is stupid. What many writers often forget is that fiction is a part of the entertainment industry. Just like an actor wouldn't expect people to buy tickets to see their films for the "good of the industry", you shouldn't expect people to buy and read your books because it's "good for literature". Another complaint is that readers should be reading "what's good for them".

Nothing like a good, heaping dose of literary castor oil!

Let me ask you this: Would you rather have someone start reading your book because they have to, or because they want to? A successful story establishes a solid relationship between the teller and the reader. You can't expect readers to obligate themselves into enjoying something that's good for them, but not enjoyable. However, you can still give them the entertainment they want without sacrificing the nature of your story and pandering down your skill. Whether you need to make your characters more identifiable, or you need to add more suspense--you need to make the read worth reading to your readers (try saying that 3x fast!). When the reader opens your book, they are trusting you to make the experience worth their while. If you can't offer them something that will draw them in and keep them interested, then you are betraying their trust. An ending doesn't always need to be happy, but it still needs to be fulfilling. A character doesn't have to be a goody-goody as long as he can incite interest or sympathy in the person reading about him. You don't have to write like everybody else out there, but you need to give the reader a reason to care otherwise you are wasting your and their time as your beautifully written book rots on the shelves of English professors or used bookstores.

Don't let this happen to your novel!

5. The literary genre is also a genre.

That's right. I hate to be harsh, but the literary genre still follows its own conventions. I blame this a bit on the literarti trying to impress each other so much, that they often imitate the critically-acclaimed authors to death. That aside, don't fall into the trap of thinking that the literary way of writing is the only good way of writing. A good, effectively told and well written story is what it is whether or not it has a dragon, a murder, or a mid-life crisis in it. Write in a genre if you enjoy writing in that genre, not to satisfy the critics in the New York Times!

 So yeah, I think I've spent far too much time on writing this post. However I hope that what may be gleaned from all this is that everyone stands room for improvement, and that it is the writer who is responsible for the success of his or her work. Students of writing should be open to improvement, and instructors of writing should be open to what their writers desire to accomplish with their works. Hopefully with time, the literary and genre debate will no longer be a debate, but rather just a part of the discussion on the craft we love so much.

Until then, here are some great resources on the debate:
Kay Dacus's blog post "Literary vs. Pop Fic"
An archived discussion on the conventions of literary fiction
An excellent post on "The Literary Fiction/Thriller Divide" with the opinions of several published authors.
Donna Sirrani's post on "Literary Fiction and Writing Workshops"
Leah Raeder's post: "To Write Good Books, or To Write What You Love"

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Aliens vs Academia: A Look Into the Literary/Genre Debate, Part 2

Alright faithful readers! You've gotten this far in listening to my rantings on this little genre war. Good! I'm glad you're still reading. If you're a first time reader (or if you need to be refreshed on the post), click here for part one.

In this post I would like to mostly address the writers and the rare instructors of the genre camp (which I've yet to, but would like to meet sometime).

Think back to the last class you took with a literary minded professor, if you had one. What were often the most common complaints? Underdeveloped characters? Lack of voice, style, and imagery? Too many unfamiliar details and terms at once? Unrealistic actions? Is your brain cluttered with jargon by now? Because mine certainly was, but I also had the distinct disadvantage of having a writing professor who looked and spoke like Professor Trelawney from the Harry Potter series.

Do what I say or your book will die an untimely death!

Now I know what you're thinking. They don't know or appreciate the genre you are writing in, and you're right. They probably don't. However there is some merit to these complaints, the key is remembering that their words should be SUGGESTIONS. The key is to translate their idea of how to fix something into something that will actually work for your story without sacrificing the flavor of it.

Common complaints and how to translate them:

You need to develop your voice: I don't feel the way your narrator is speaking really matches up to your story. Pay attention to your story and word it in a way that enhances the feel of it. It is set in a high society Victorian world? Read some stories of the era and try to write in a similar manner. Is the main character rather terse in how he speaks to people? Write in a similar way. Of course this comment can also mean that you are being lazy with language and need to read some authors who play with it more. This is the perfect opportunity to expand your vocabulary--just don't overdo it on the thesaurus surfing.

Thesaurus abuse--it's a serious crime.

What's an orc?: What's an orc? I really don't know what this thing you're expecting me to know about is because I haven't read the billion fantasy novels you've probably read; either describe it at some point close to it or just use a real, freakin' English word!

Ha...very funny...

I don't see this character: Alright, I know what this character looks like. He/she sounds exactly all of your other ones, though. Is this an individual or a hand puppet, or even worse, a mini me or talking head? What are their opinions? Do they have any particular way of expressing themselves? Show! Not tell me!

Show, not tell!: Exactly as it sounds. Now you may think that you need to release certain details in exposition for the reader to understand the setting, but there are other ways of revealing them. Telling too much often messes with pacing and runs the risk of talking at the reader, rather than talking to them. This also can mean that you need to work on developing your imagery. Take this time to play around with symbolism and metaphor. Sometimes the best works are the ones you can read again and notice how the writer is foreshadowing a future event or the character's feelings through the language you write.

Why can't you write something real?: Harsh advice, and often the criticism that will drive any genre-writing student to automatically not take their instructor seriously. I hate to say it, but the instructor is often right, but that doesn't mean you need to abandon your genre of choice. The biggest sin, I believe, of genre writers is the tendency to avoid cliches by cramming as many details and exceptions to the norm into their world, that it gets to the point where even the Mary Sue litmus test needs an overhaul to make room for all of the plot twists/tropes and cliche exceptions of cliches.  If you have a good story, tell it and stop worrying about whether your dragons are different in that they are actually chickens with scales and breathe acid instead of fire--oh and they are also avid Shakespeare fans. I'm not saying that you should get rid of them, but how important are they really in your story? Does the main character always have to be the chosen one because their grandfather's sword called out to them in a dream and told them to slay the evil werewolf-king who happens to have a magic mirror who keeps him forever young? I guess what I'm saying is simplify and find other ways other than description to make something done before more interesting in your own works. If you treat your characters (however fantastical they are) like real people in a real setting, it'll keep the eyes from rolling.

This is moving too fast for me: This is all plot and no reaction. A story does not necessarily have to be full of action scenes. In fact, I recommend against it. Now if you've done your homework, you would have readMary Lynn Mercer's article on balancing plot with character. If not, take the time to read it now. Read it? Good. One of the main differences that often sets a genre story from a literary one is the conception that genre is more plot-driven, while literary is more character driven. I don't believe this needs to be the case, but it is, most unfortunately, what seems to be currently. Now I am not saying that one is better than the other, but as the article says, there needs a good proportion of each. When you have all action and no reaction or no character development, the pretty explosions will keep you reading, but it's hard to believe what's happening or care about who's doing it because the character can be any joe shmoe with muscle-bound arms, or whatever pithy description you gave him. The story sounds like every one like it out there and your plot will probably be predictable. As a result, once the book is done, the chance your readers will want to pick it up again is very low.

In this book, generic action hero will save the world from a giant mongoose.

Genre writers have usually read enough of their own genres to have seen all sorts of fantastic plots. The trouble is a fantastic plot with poor execution creates a schlocky story. Campy and schlocky, of course, can also be fun--if that's what it intended to do (and even then, it takes some skill to make it satire in that respect). Also a fantastic plot is not entirely what drives readers to keep reading and buying your books. What genre writers can learn most from the literary camp is that it's not just what happens that makes a well-written great story, it's also how it's told.

So next time you're in a class with a literary professor who just can't understand the merit of your epic science-fiction novel, don't dismiss them completely as elitist. Listen to him or her. You don't have to write exactly how he or her wants it, but keep in mind that writing require craft as well as imagination. Learn what you can and don't lose sight of what you love to write so you can prove the pretentious literati wrong about genre. After all, how can it be art when your heart's not in it?

Thanks for reading my ramblings on this subject and keep an eye out soon for the next part of this series where I'll be addressing the literary fiction writers. In the meantime, happy writing!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Aliens vs Academia: A Look Into the Literary/Genre Debate, Part 1

I hated my fiction writing classes in college. No really, I did.

I remember starting my introduction to fiction writing class in my sophomore year with the startings of a fantasy novel in tow from high school, looking forward to learning how to make it into a best seller. What I did not realize, or even know of at the time, was that most fiction professors subscribe to the conventions of the literary fiction genre.

What is the literary fiction genre, you ask? Ever have to read anything by Woolf, Joyce, Updike, or Proust? You know, the books you were told to read and try to find meaning out of with no context because it was "good for you", had "beautiful language and imagery", or even (god-willing!) was "inventive and exploring of some"? That is what is referred to as "literary fiction". They would often be constructed of beautiful sentences, complex images, intense themes, and realistic* characters. The catch, however, is that they often also have very little to no plot, the characters other than the main are prone to be underdeveloped and used as devices or symbols rather than having minds of their own, and the language is sometimes so cryptic that only a certain reader can understand what is actually being said.

Types of fiction outside of this are often referred to by the literary community as "genre" or "popular" fiction. Speculative fiction such as fantasy and science fiction fall into this category. Genre can also be rife with a host of problems of their own. There often tends to be too much plot for the sake of being unique from others in the genre, or sloppy world building (like "drop[ping] a half-ton of unfamiliar details on the reader like a piano onto a cartoon coyote"(Editorial Anonymous)), or characters that are nothing more than talking heads to move the plot.

As you can probably tell, these genres tend to be the polar opposites of literary fiction. The trouble is that they both hold their merit, but most often what happens is that the literary-minded instructor is unfamiliar with the conventions of and what works for popular fiction and either tries to strip the student's work of everything that put it in its respective genre to begin with, or discourages/bans it completely. As a common result, the student does exactly what they are told and learns to write entirely in a style that they have no love for, and loses their love of writing. Or more likely, the writer defies their instructor the entire way through and learns nothing, except to not listen to criticism. Sad to say, for awhile, I was of the latter category.

No one understands me!
It is really a shame that this does happen because it really divides the differing camps into not seeing the true merit of both sides of the spectrum. The literary-minded dismiss all genre fiction as poorly-written crap for the uneducated masses, that also makes more money in royalties than theirs do.

I can read books, hurr!

The genre-writers get resentful of hearing high-brow whining and being told that their work isn't worth much more than the paper that it is printed on, and thus roll their eyes and dismiss the literary camp as a bunch of plot-less naval gazers that don't like anything unless it resembles their own works.

Don't look into it too long or you'll start hearing voices!

This divide is unacceptable, and so many potentially excellent writers have lost an opportunity to enhance their skills because of such poor, elitist presentation. So over the next two posts, I will explain what instructors and students of both camps need to do to get the heck over this polarity, and begin to create exciting, interesting stories that are ALSO well written and executed.

So faithful readers (all THREE of whom have made themselves known at this point), I will leave you with this homework until then. Read this article by Mary Lynn Mercer. It's a pretty good introduction into one of the aspects I'll be talking about in the following posts (don't worry, it's pretty short!).