Mixed Review

Monday, February 29, 2016

I just finished reading Story Trumps Structure by Steven James, and I give the book a reluctant 3 out of 5. Or, if I can do halves, I’ll make it 2.5.

The rating recognizes that there is some helpful information in this book. Chapter 2 is a good primer for writing openings, and the chapter on causality addresses problems that I come across frequently when critiquing other writers. There were even several places in the book where I stopped to make notes for revisions to my current work in progress.

But Story Trumps Structure also has some serious flaws. The first is the book’s mostly unwritten (but clearly implied) assumption that all writers are alike.

James disdains outlines and favors what he calls “organic writing.” He does give a brief nod to outliners at the beginning of Chapter 8, where he admits that there are some things outliners do well. But the nod turns into a shake of the head during the questions and answers at the end of the chapter.

Q.  “Are you saying organic writing is best for everyone? Doesn’t it depend on the person?”

A.  I wouldn’t feel right suggesting that anyone approach writing a story in a way that I believe is counterintuitive to the creative process. So yes to the first question, no to the second.

I believe he has those answers backwards.

James tends to preach in this book, and his strongest sermon comes in Chapter 20, where he tells writers that they need to stop writing to a theme or they will lose their readers. Unfortunately, James doesn’t practice what he preaches. The chapter would be almost funny if it weren’t so boring.

Worse yet, James fails to follow through on the promise in the subtitle: “How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules.” The entire book is a set of rules, each repeated over and over and over and . . . You get the point.

Still, some writers may find that Story Trumps Structure is worth their time and money.

I’ll leave you to decide whether you are one of them.

The Case of the Foolish Protagonist

Monday, February 22, 2016

Why do so many female cozy mystery writers insist on demeaning their own sex by creating a protagonist who does rash things that put her in danger? That’s the fastest way to make me abandon the story. Yes, some females are foolish, and so are some males. But don’t glorify that foolishness by making it the preeminent characteristic of a protagonist I’m supposed to admire.

As a teenager, I was an avid mystery fan. I read detective stories like Ellery Queen and Nero Wolfe and police procedurals like the 87th Precinct books by Ed McBain. And at a time when money was tight in my family, I even had a subscription to the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. But my all-time favorite mystery writer was—and is—Agatha Christie.

I like puzzles, not chases. Whodunits, not thrillers. P.D. James, not John Grisham. And for me, the best mysteries include the characters’ psychology as part of the puzzle.

That’s one of the reasons I like Agatha Christie so much. The solution arises inevitably out of the murderer’s inner character, and sometimes out of the victim’s character as well. Even if I know who did it from the beginning (as I do now that I have read each book several times), I always enjoy that exploration.

But none of the books I enjoy have a protagonist who does stupid things.

Ellery Queen and Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot all fall into their mysteries naturally. Because they are professional detectives/private eyes, people bring cases to them. And because they are professionals, they rarely take unnecessary risks. The Miss Marple books start differently. Her involvement in so many murders is an epic coincidence. But once you get beyond that, the rest of the story follows naturally from the situation and the characters.

More importantly for my point, like the detectives mentioned above, Miss Marple doesn’t take unnecessary risks. She listens and silently analyzes the case, comparing the characters involved in the murder to other people she has known, but then she tells her conclusions to the police and lets them take it the rest of the way. She seems such a sweet—although cynical—old lady, that the murderer never realizes she is a danger to him.

Cozies with foolish protagonists may be popular in the short run, but they will never last the way Agatha Christie’s works have.

And I’m glad about that.

Words of Wisdom from Nathaniel Hawthorne

Monday, February 15, 2016

It’s been decades since I read The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne, so I decided it was time to read it again. The first thing in the book to pique my interest was not the story, however. It was Hawthorne’s preface, where he gives several insights into his writing philosophy.

When I first started attending writers’ critique groups, I was struck by the number of people who rejected suggestions for enlivening their fiction simply because “it didn’t happen that way.” I wanted to scream, “It’s fiction! It doesn’t have to have happened that way!”

Hawthorne must have felt as I do. In the following passage, he defines “romance” and “novel” differently than we do today, and his 1851 language needs careful reading. Still, the point is clear: it’s okay to depart from the truth if it makes the story more interesting.

When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former—while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing or creation. If he think fit, also, he may so manage his atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights and deepen and enrich the shadows of the picture. He will be wise, no doubt, to make a very moderate use of the privileges here stated, and, especially, to mingle the Marvelous rather as a slight, delicate, and evanescent flavor, than as any portion of the actual substance of the dish offered to the public. He can hardly be said, however, to commit a literary crime even if he disregard this caution.

In my opinion, another mistake that many authors make is to shout their moral at readers. I ignore the shouts and pay the most attention to the whispers. It’s okay to be explicitly Christian or anti-war or environmentalist, but you don’t need to tell me that in every other sentence. Again, Hawthorne must have felt the same way.

When romances do really teach anything, or produce any effective operation, it is usually through a far more subtle process than the ostensible one. The author [Hawthorne] has considered it hardly worth his while, therefore, relentlessly to impale the story with its moral as with an iron rod,—or, rather, as by sticking a pin through a butterfly,—thus at once depriving it of life, and causing it to stiffen in an ungainly and unnatural attitude. A high truth, indeed, fairly, finely, and skilfully wrought out, brightening at every step, and crowning the final development of a work of fiction, may add an artistic glory, but is never any truer, and seldom any more evident, at the last page than at the first.

We can always learn from the writers who came before us, and Hawthorne is no exception.


The photograph of Nathaniel Hawthorne was taken by Matthew Brady in the early 1860s. It is in the public domain because of its age.

Writing is Communication

Monday, February 8, 2016

I am blog master for a nonprofit writers’ organization, and it is my responsibility to take any unfilled slots. So when a new semester rolls around, I appreciate receiving posts from our college interns.

But I wish they knew how to write.

The funny—or rather sad—thing is that these are English majors. It may be that they write heart-rending poetry and decent short stories, but they don’t know how to convey factual information or advice so that readers understand it.

There have been exceptions, of course, and I’m expecting great things from one of this year’s interns. But the other two are unknowns, and I’m not hopeful.

Writing is communication. In blog posts, or any other attempt to convey factual information or advice, clarity is key. So here is my advice.

  • Make your sentences and paragraphs flow. I don’t agree with people who say they shouldn’t ever convey more than one thought, but the thoughts must be related and each one must be kept together. Oh, wait. What did I just say? In the second sentence, what does “they” refer to? Technically, it refers to the people, but I meant it to refer to sentences and paragraphs. And what does the reference to other people add? Not much. These two sentences are much clearer: Make your sentences and paragraphs flow. They can convey more than one thought as long as the thoughts are related and each one is kept together.
  • Don’t try to show off your knowledge. It makes me think you are pretentious rather than smart.

o   I like to be challenged, but I don’t like to search outside the page for the meaning of a word. If you use a word I might not know, place it in a context that defines it for me. On those rare occasions where an actual definition is necessary, make the definition fit like a puzzle piece that disappears into the picture. If either the word or the definition causes the reader to pause, find another word.

o   The same is true for references to books and phrases and movie characters. If I don’t understand the reference, I am not likely to go looking it. In fact, I may not bother with the rest of the piece. If you want to add a second layer of meaning by using a particular reference, fine, but knowledge of that reference had better not be necessary for the sentence to work at the surface level. Assume, for example, that you have a young character who reads whenever she is bored. If the primary purpose is to show her state of mind, any book will do. But reading Alice in Wonderland, which tells the story of a girl escaping boredom, adds another dimension.  

  • When in doubt, keep it simple. A paragraph that covers half a page is rarely effective. Variety is good, however. A string of short sentences is choppy, and a string of long ones is boring, so mix them up unless you are after a particular effect. A chain of short sentences can show panic, and a series of long ones may be just what you need to convey a character’s blandness. But when in doubt, keep it simple.

Without clarity, your words are as effective as the blanks in a game of hangman. Some people may be able to figure out the missing letters based on the context or previous knowledge, but others won’t. You don’t want to hang your reader up.

So write as if someone’s life depends on it.

Quality is Too Much Work

Monday, February 1, 2016

When did we stop taking pride in our work and decide that easy was better than good?

Take self-publishing, for example. For some people, it gives them an outlet for quality work that doesn’t capture a traditional publisher—perhaps because the author is unknown, the audience is narrow, or the work is experimental. I’ve self-published, and I’m glad the option exists.

But 95% of self-published books are garbage because it is too easy to publish substandard work. I’m a better writer than J.K. Rowling or Jane Austin or Stephen King or [insert your own choice here], so I don’t need an impartial opinion or even a critique group. I know how to type and I’ve spoken English all my life, so I don’t need an editor. I can search the Internet for photos and use a book cover program, so I don’t need a designer. [Unfortunately, I’m guilty of this one.] And with CreateSpace, I can input everything myself and get books for free. Or at least that seems to be the thinking of those individuals who are determined to publish at the expense of quality.

It isn’t just self-publishing, either. Today’s youth—and some who are not so young—seem to think that the best logos and web sites and brochures are the ones designed with templates that take the creativity out of the process. Even worse, they think that complexity is a substitute for contemplation and analysis. I’m getting a headache from all the garish event announcements I’ve been reading lately.

Take a look at the trademarks at the head of this post. Yes, they have gained recognition over time. But I also think they work because they are simple. Even the Microsoft logo is “just” four curved blocks of color. But each of those logos probably took months of intense research and design before it was adopted. Complex may grab people’s attention initially, but simple keeps their attention over time.

Quality is rarely easy. So when did we stop taking pride in our work and decide that easy was better than good?