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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Suet Pudding Anyone?

While settling in to our new house in Arizona, I thought it a good opportunity to start reading some more books on writing during my self-imposed breaks. (I am quite an expert in the art of allowing oneself plenty of breaks from manual labor.) I feel a little bit daunted by all that I have to learn, but also inspired by the encouragement of the authors.

"What is important is not the lucky break, the stopping of the train--that's only part of it. Life is full of trains that stop. What counts is what we are doing with our lives when there is no opportunity and not a train in sight." ~ Phyllis A. Whitney, Guide to Fiction Writing

Ms. Whitney is sharing the above based upon her own experience of hard work and lucky breaks; she emphasizes that we continue to write, to learn, to grow as writers so that when that train stops . . . we can climb aboard.

Every book I've read during the past couple weeks has provided great suggestions on technique, methods from the perspectives of both mistakes and excellent examples.

In How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James Frey offers a chapter on the topic of 'premise' which I thoroughly enjoyed. He mentions Aristotle's "unity of action" and how the ancient writer declares that stories should have "all the organic unity of a living creature." Mr. Frey summarizes that:

"The premise of a story is simply a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict in the story."

Reading about the various views of premise, plot, or theme has helped me clarify my first draft of the manuscript on which I'm currently working. I have a lot of rewriting to do, yet I'm excited about it because I can envision a better story.

Also, my first draft contains significant amounts of informational dumping. How to avoid that? I liked Chris Roerden's explanations and examples throughout Don't Sabotage Your Submission and I will be able to remember her "slice, dice and splice" approach. Catchy!

In Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, his advice is helpful throughout, but I am particularly drawn to his comments regarding another author--David Morrell and Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing (which is now on my wish list). Mr. Bell writes that:

"Morrell's method is geared toward getting deeper into your story idea, finding out why you really want to write it. It's a trip into the subconscious and the place where real writing power resides."

Many of my scenes are total disasters, but at least now I have ideas about how to fix them. Jack Bickham gives clear, straight-forward advice in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes when he lists a process for deciding, in each scene, the goal, the scene question, opposition to the goal, writing moment-by-moment with summary, and then how to end by answering the scene question badly so that the story continues. And, in The Writer's Digest Guide to Good Writing, Arthur Gordon (1941) offers a simple, specific tip on pace: "Plan each scene of your story as if the scene were a complete story in itself."

Speaking of which, I am finding The Writer's Digest Guide to Good Writing to be a thoroughly delightful read, filled with light-hearted anecdotes and sage advice. Perhaps because it begins with pieces from the 1920's. Like this descriptive paragraph on the "had horrors" from Laurence D'Orsay:

"If a story has strong and well-sustained entertainment value, an editor will overlook many technical flaws. But one thing he will not overlook, as a general rule, is a bad attack of the had horrors--a stodgy lump of bald and undisguised retrospect on the second, third and fourth pages. For that is destructive of entertainment value at the critical moment when, having caught the reader's attention by a good opening, the writer should strive to hold it by going straight ahead along dramatic lines. It is as if the chef offered you a slab of cold and greasy suet pudding after you had polished of the hors d'oeuvres, instead of serving some appetizing and nourishing soup."

BLECH! That image will stick with me, how about you? And, also in that book, Louis Dodge comments we must "say something" because it is not enough to write well yet say nothing:

"A story which says nothing (but does it well) is like a person who is faultlessly clad and good to look at, but who calls and says a few conversational things in a careful manner and goes away leaving an effect of strain. After the advent of such a person, how restful and good it is to welcome the friend who drops in informally and brings a real message of warmth, of positive meaning, of an original point of view. Better a beggar with a real tale of woe than a great diplomat who wears a mask."

Those are the kinds of phrases that will remain with me, helping me along as I turn to rewriting and revising my first draft.

Lastly, I return to another comment by Ms. Whitney because I felt she could have been referring to me specifically, and a problem I find myself falling into when I write:

"The developing of an active purpose for your main character is not easy. Unless I am careful, I frequently find that all sorts of problems--both my heroine's and those of other characters--are latent but not apparent. Or else some other character is working at his problem, while the heroine watches passively, as if she had no problem of her own--in which case she drifts along, just letting things happen to her. When this is the situation, there is no purpose, no 'attempt to resolve' on the part of the main character, and reader interest is likely to lag."

OUCH! At the same time, I felt good knowing that even a prolific writer whose stories I enjoyed so much may have experienced what I do when writing.

All in all, I have to say that I am encouraged to continue my writing journey...


  1. This all makes really interesting reading: it is so easy to imagine that those who do something well, manage to do it without effort or difficulty, and to know that they struggle, just like the rest of us, gives that prod in the back and the push to keep trying. :-)

  2. I use Chris Roerden's book in my writing classes -- my students almost all say it's the most useful book they've seen. I love it too -- but I disagree with Chris about prologues -- I like them.

  3. Wow, very interesting post. I enjoyed reading all the comments and ideas about writing. I agree with Vicki about Chris Roerden's book. It was so straightforward and clear, with a healthy dose of humor. If you enjoy learning about writing, it's too bad you can't transport yourself to the other side of the US and take Vicki's class this fall. I've taken several writing classes over the years, but never one that turned out to be as meaningful and important to me as hers. Extremely helpful, fun, inspiring, and practical!

  4. Kerry, yes, it definitely helps me to know that. :-)

    Vicki, I like prologues, too; I've never found them to be problematic to my reading enjoyment.

    Brenda, thanks you. I will certainly be referring often to Chris' book; I found it extremely helpful, though not particularly 'inspiring'...but that's where the other books come in so handy. :-)

    And I would have dearly loved to have attended the recent workshop Vicki taught -- didn't that sound heavenly?!


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