Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Two Kinds of Writing Advice

As a writer, I've been on the receiving end of plenty of writing tips, strategies, how-tos, and how-not-tos. Looking back at this wealth of opinion on how to craft good stories, compelling characters, believeable worlds, etc., I see some patterns. In particular, two overarching approaches to writing stand out: the blueprint approach and the intuitive one.

Let me preface this post by saying that writing advice was important to my growth as a writer. When I was learning the craft (and when aren’t we?), I plowed through a lot of how-to manuals (I still pick at them). I got my Writer’s Market and read all those articles (well, almost all of them). I checked out volumes from the library and worked through them. I wouldn’t go back now and undo that—even for the advice I’ve rejected. When I started reading advice, I’d already written a lot of stories, and these manuals taught me about revisions, preseverence, inspiration, what works and what won’t, and more. The more advice you can get when you’re starting out, the better.

But after you read a lot of writing advice, you realize that some kinds of advice work better for you than others. I suspect other beginners have experienced this. I’ve identified two general approaches, and I’ll first discuss the one I encountered first. Since I was working especially on “how to write fantasy,” and especially novels, I’ll focus on that kind of advice.

1. The blueprint approach. The first approach to “how to write a fantasy novel” is to tackle the pieces, or elements, of the novel. These would include the world in which your story takes place (including the type of magic in that world, and its role in that world), the characters and their personalities (plus what kinds of creatures will exist in your world), the dilemma those characters must face, the way that dilemma unfolds (the plot), and such smaller pieces as “scenes” that occur in the larger story arc.

Proponents of the blueprint approach often advise us to build exciting, interesting, and believable worlds, populate them with exciting and interesting characters (not too perfect), and throw them into a situation that is also exciting and interesting. They might tell us how to construct a kick-ass plot line, how to make dialogue zing, and how to give depth to characters. If you follow their advice, you can (perhaps) build something readable or at least something halfway there.

2. The intuitive approach. The second approach begins from the other side, so to speak. If the first approach builds the story like a house, the second feels its way into it by a door or window (or perhaps a crack in the foundation). In the second approach, there is a house but no blueprint, because the writer does not know where she or he is going. Probably the most widely read description of this approach is Stephen King’s On Writing. King disavows plots altogether, claiming he is not (nor does he ever desire to be) a plotting person. He starts with an idea (an intuition), a new combination of two things, and he describes the unfolding of the story as a discovery, not a construction project.

But other writers say similar things. Ursula LeGuin informs us that she did not know what existed on the islands of Earthsea until she “went there” with her characters. She too seemingly intuits, discovers through writing. Jane Yolen tells us that she writes like a reader, not knowing what will happen next (and interested to find out).

This intuitive approach to writing is less commonly encountered in how-to guides, and for an obvious reason: it’s hard to give concrete advice about following your intuition. (Though Stephen King did a pretty good job.) What’s more, writers who take this approach tend not to gravitate toward “how-to” thinking in the first place. They aren’t blueprint sorts of people.

Which brings me to the impetus behind this post, and its final point. If, like the second group, you’re an intuitive, idea-oriented person, you’ll probably find the blueprint approach mechanical, devoid of excitement, turning the writer into a typewriter. If you’re the blueprint sort, you’ll probably find the intuitive approach overwhelming, lacking focus or direction, confronting the writer with an intimidating blank page.

The point is, then, to discover which kind of writer you are. I wish I had known sooner; I would have spent less time trying to pinpoint the exact beginning and end of a scene in my novel, and more time thinking inside the scene. Maybe this post will help you avoid a similar pitfall.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Aladdin: Laziness Pays Off?

(You can actually buy this lamp here.)

The problem with Aladdin is that he’s lazy. It kills his father—literally. Then his poor mother has to work herself raw, while he hangs out with friends. And what punishment does the lad get for his indolence?

A magician tries to use him for his own ends. He decides that, however unlikely, the boy will do exactly as he asks and retrieve a miraculous lamp that (the story never says why) the magician can’t get for himself. So he dupes the family and then takes the lad to a cavern where Aladdin does exactly as he’s asked and gets the lamp. Only something goes wrong and the magician leaves him to die in the deep cavern. With the lamp.

How does Aladdin escape? Through hard work? Nope. He accidentally rubs a ring the magician had given him, gets the assistance of an unforeseen genii and gets out, with tons of jewels and a dingy lamp. A couple of days later his mother—not him—cleans the lamp, thereby discovering the more powerful Genii of the Lamp. (Thanks, Mom. I’ll take it from here.)

I won’t go through every twist of this fascinating adventure. Suffice it to say that Aladdin gets everything he wants through the magical work of the Genii: a palace, a princess, a fine if sentimental father-in-law. (Thanks, Genii. I’ll take it from here.) Poor mom gets hardly mentioned again. I suppose she eats at the royal table …

I’m sure you know the story: the magician finds out about the lad’s exceptional good luck and contrives to get the lamp back. Aladdin comes close to death before he can reacquire the lamp, this time through a small output of effort. Mostly he mopes around until, by accident, he rubs that ring he’s been wearing all this time and the lesser genii appears, transporting him to the desert place to which his castle—and princess—have been relocated. Notice he doesn’t even have to journey much here. It’s not a long epic journey through wilderness on little food.

Nor does he have to fight the magician. The only thing he does, in fact, is go to the next town, get some poison, and give it to the princess. She does the hard part: flirts with the magician, mingles the poison with wine, gives him the deadly drink. (Thanks, dear, I’ll take it from here.)

Now Aladdin can emerge literally from the closet where he’s been hiding, steal back the lamp and regain his fortunes.

There’s another episode, but it doesn’t touch on my theme. At the end of the day, that’s about all the effort Aladdin ever exerts: a little courage (sometimes a lot), some military command (not made much of in the story), and some clever stratagems. Oh, and he’s generous with that free money the genii provides. Everybody else does all the heavy lifting.

In modern fiction, we’re taught to expect that main characters will change in some way by the end of the story. Fairy tales don’t always comply with that expectation. Aladdin, the lazy youth, grows into a good-hearted man, we’re told. But I don’t think he much changes. All his wealth and happiness he owes to luck, not industry. He’s not the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps sort of hero. He wouldn’t have much inspired my immigrant ancestors to raise their station through hard work. He’s lazy, lucky, good-hearted, and a little bit clever. Mostly lucky.

Which raises the question, whether my “hard-working immigrant” ethic is realistic or even true. Maybe what you really need is good looks and some luck. Or maybe the story’s telling me: listen, without a genii on your side, you’ll never get there. I don’t like to believe that. But I’m not na├»ve either: there really are limits to how far hard work will take you. And there really are times when you have to say: It wasn't because I worked harder than anybody else.

So maybe the story’s telling me: find your genii. He’s hiding on your person somewhere—a neglected ring on your finger, a dingy lamp in your pocket. You’ve got him right there, the thing that will lift your fortunes. Feel around for him already, and stop working so hard.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury Tribute - In his own words

I never met him, except where we all met him: In his books and stories. Here are some things he said about his own life.

“In my later years I have looked in the mirror each day and found a happy person staring back. Occasionally I wonder why I can be so happy. The answer is that every day of my life I've worked only for myself and for the joy that comes from writing and creating. The image in my mirror is not optimistic, but the result of optimal behavior.”

“I like to think of myself on a train going across America at midnight, conversing with my favorite authors”

“All my life I’ve been running through the fields and picking up bright objects. I turn one over and say, Yeah, there’s a story. And that’s what kids like. Today, my stories are in a thousand anthologies. And I’m in good company. The other writers are quite often dead people who wrote in metaphors: Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne. All these people wrote for children. They may have pretended not to, but they did.”

“Every so often, late at night, I come downstairs, open one of my books, read a paragraph and say, My God. I sit there and cry because I feel that I’m not responsible for any of this. It’s from God. And I’m so grateful, so, so grateful. The best description of my career as a writer is “at play in the fields of the Lord.” It’s been wonderful fun and I’ll be damned where any of it came from. I’ve been fortunate. Very fortunate.”

“Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.”  

Good work, Mr. Bradbury.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

John and Coonrod: A Tale of Two Pyles

Photo courtesy of http://www.geocities.ws/millyella/tombstones.html

So in digging through my ancestors (and sometimes successfully avoiding my difficult novel), I’ve come across two somewhat famous persons of the name “Pyle” / “Pile.” Both were born in Orange County, North Carolina (about 200 miles east of where I now live). One is related to me, and the other is not.

The first, the elder, is named (believe it or not) John Pyle. He was a grandson of Nicholas Pyle, who emigrated from England to America in 1683 for the Quaker colony (Pennsylvania). Born in 1723 and educated in England as a doctor, John Pyle grew up to become a famous colonel on the British side of the Revolutionary War (Google: “Pyle’s Massacre”). But when he had a falling out with General Cornwallis, he switched sides (betrayed his country?), and became a spy for General Washington—instrumental in the Colonists’ victory. After the war, Colonel Pyle settled in Orange County, North Carolina, where he died at the age of 81. (Learn more about him here)

The second, the younger, is named Conrad Pile (or Piles, as it sometimes is listed), more likely of German than British descent. He was born in 1766, evidently, and may have fought among the Colonists—as a mercenary. After the war, he and Mary Rich tied the knot: she was about 15 and he was about 17. Conrad grew up to become a kind of pioneer, crossing the Appalachians and building a log home, and later a toll road, in Fentress, Tennessee. He acquired the nickname “Coonrod”—and a lot of wealth. He died and was buried in Tennessee at age 84. (Learn more about him here)

Care to guess which is my ancestor? You got it: Coonrod. Though I was born and raised in the North, my great-ancestor traded slaves and dealt shrewdly with Native Americans and early American settlers, amassing lots of wealth. He made a life for himself in the new world, not always (I’m sure) with the best of intentions or outcomes. Then his wealth was lost during the Civil War. Two of his great-grandsons fought on the Union side; another of his grandsons was “a Confederate sympathizer.” But before that war, my branch of the family had already moved out West. According to one researcher, two of Coonrod’s sons, Jacob and Daniel, “were close and moved together to Indiana in 1818, then to Illinois in 1827, where they prospered.”

This bit of trivia just confirms again my deep-rooted interest in stories about “the rest of us”: people who don’t make the epic decisions that shape world politics, but whose lives and decisions are meaningful and dramatic enough without that.


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