Thursday, January 29, 2009

Writing craft: How Not to Write a Novel

In preparation for my writing retreat to edit and revise my manuscript Undertow, I'm reading How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

Mittelmark and Newman know that writers can learn more from bad examples than good ones, and describe 200 classic mistakes in fiction. They use hilariously exaggerated examples to demonstrate such blunders as "I Complete Me: Wherein the novel is a work of auto-hagiography" and special sections on sex scenes ("The Purple Blue Prose: In which the sex is cloaked in lyricism"), jokes, and postmodernism.

Every writer should get this book; along with the good advice, it's very funny. An excerpt to get you interested: 

"It is as if the author had said, 'Oh, I just realized my plot doesn't work, so I'm going to add something from outside of my plot, okay?' This particular blunder is known as deus ex machina, which is French for 'Are you f---ing kidding me?'"

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Review: Freaks

My review of Tod Browning's movie Freaks is up at Take a view if you're so inclined.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Birthday wishes, creativity, and more

I forgot to mention this on Tuesday what with the Inauguration and all, but 1/20/09 was the birthday of one of my favorite creative people, David Lynch. Happy birthday to him! And here's a very creepy short film (slightly NSFW) by Lynch!

Lynch is not just a film-maker and artist, but an author as well. His book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity is an insightful, humorous, and surprisingly practical guide to fostering creativity. While focusing mainly on transcendental meditation and how it's aided his creative process, the book also gives insight into the making of many of his movies, his inspiration for art, and ways in which everyday people can make better use of their creativity. For example, Lynch dismisses the cliche of the starving artist, correctly noting that it is difficult if not impossible to be creative when you're worrying about keeping a roof over your head or where your next meal is coming from.

I'm not sure I'm on the TM bandwagon, but for a person whose art can be so dark and disturbing, Lynch comes across as a serene person.  Learn more about the book and about the David Lynch Foundation For Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace here.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Writing craft: Tips from Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Serenity, and Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, has these tips for writers. (They're geared to screenwriters but much of the advice is applicable to novelists as well.)

I especially like the "Finish it" tip. I spent years on my very first novel and few things have made me feel better than actually finishing the damn thing. Of course, it's a first novel and as such has a bad case of being a first novel, but I finished it, and learned a lot in the process. It's all about going from "I'm writing  a book" to "I wrote a book." Many people say the former, not nearly as many say the latter.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Now that's what I call writing: C. S. Lewis

Posts tagged with "Now that's what I call writing" will feature quotes from others' works that I've found particularly interesting or inspiring, or that make me throw up my hands and wonder why I bother writing at all.

The excerpt below is the opening of C. S. Lewis' novel Till We Have Faces, a retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche.

I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew.

Being, for all these reasons, free from fear, I will dare to write in this book what no one who has happiness would dare to write. I will accuse the gods, especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain. That is, I will tell all he has done to me from the very beginning, as if I were making my complaint of him before a judge. But there is no judge between gods and men, and the god of the mountain will not answer me. Terrors and plagues are not an answer.

The book isn't one of Lewis' better-known works, but it is definitely worth seeking out. By all means, do so.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Be seeing you, Number Six

Patrick McGoohan of the delightfully surreal TV show The Prisoner, has passed away. Obituary here.  

I remember watching The Prisoner when I was very young. I'm sure I didn't grasp 99% of what I was seeing (though I was terrified of Rover) but the show nevertheless made a big impression on me. (In my novels Ashes and Reckoning, I made The Prisoner's catchphrase "Be seeing  you" the farewell words used by two of my characters.)

Here's the opening sequence for The Prisoner. You're a free man now, Number 6.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Writing craft: Show, don't tell

Anyone who's taken a creative writing course is familiar with the "show, don't tell" admonition. It's a phrase that's easy to repeat back but sometimes hard to grasp in actual implementation.

First off, like any rule in fiction writing, "show, don't tell" can be broken - provided the breaking is done well. When it's not done well, what should be a lively, involving story can become a dry recitation.

To see how "show, don't tell" is done, look no further than Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove.* You'll probably be too involved with the characters and the story on the first read-through, but on a subsequent re-read it becomes apparent that many of McMurtry's characters suffer at one point or another from depression.

McMurtry can't point this out to the reader directly because of the narrative format of the book and because no one at the time the book is set recognized clinical depression for what it was. So rather than telling the reader that "Character X felt depressed that day" he'll show us that character's psychological state through the character's actions and thoughts.

It's a subtle yet effective tool. Put the reader in the mindset of a character who's drinking to dull his emotional pain, or who is so overwhelmed by the turn  his life has taken that he can't bring himself to eat or to get out of bed in the morning, and you'll have conveyed the character's state of mind successfully and increased the reader's empathy with the character as well.

*Everyone should read this book anyway for its involving characters and affecting yet non-flashy prose style (be forewarned that McMurtry just loves to smite characters in awful ways).

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Look familiar?

The perils of typing too fast and furious.

Especially relevant now that I've busted the 30,000 word mark in the current WIP.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Writing craft: Inspiration in unlikely places

"Where we're from, the birds sing a pretty song and there's always music in the air."

That quote's from the TV show Twin Peaks; the music (revealed in a later episode) is Julee Cruise's "Into the Night". The song, like the others on Cruise's Floating Into the Night CD, is written by David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti.

The other day I was listening to the album on my iPod. I hadn't heard it in years and had forgotten how good it was. But the song "Into the Night", particularly its opening words, not sung but spoken by Cruise - "Now it's dark" - clicked with me and with the scene I'm writing for one of my characters. The music has a feeling of eeriness and isolation that's sad and beautiful at the same time. What I liked most was the ambiguity of the phrase "now it's dark" (it's also spoken several times by Dennis Hopper's character in Lynch's film Blue Velvet). It's almost Zen in its simplicity and can mean so many things. 

That's what writing's all about - not just finding inspiration in unlikely places, but recognizing inspiration when it strikes. Don't question it, just run with it. 

Monday, January 5, 2009

Books into Celluloid: A Christmas Carol

My "Books into Celluloid" column is up at BookBalloon, this time taking on A Christmas Carol

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Happy 2009

Hope everyone had a safe and pleasant New Year's.

I've never been keen on New Year's Eve - I'm not much of a partier and less of a drinker. This last New Year's I was in bed by 10:30 and the most excitement of the evening was me doing a coffee spit-take while watching Mystery Science Theater 3000 take on Parts: The Clonus Horror. Wheee. 

Personally I'd like to abolish New Year's altogether and reinstate the 12 days of Christmas - nothing but feasting and presents from Christmas Day until Epiphany. It's not like any of us get anything done during that time anyway. 

But as it stands, New Year's really is just a signal to us that the holiday time is over. So let me assess what the New Year holiday means to me.

Return to day job: Ugh.

Return to eating sensibly: Bleagh.

Get back on the exercycle: Meh. (I'm actually OK with this, seeing as how I was getting results shortly before Thanksgiving, but said results are gone now thanks to the holidays AKA the month of slothfulness and gluttony.)

Get back to regular writing schedule: YES YES YES!! Now this I like. And I'm very proud that I'm 27,000 words into the project I wasn't even due to start until after the holidays. My muse cracks a whip, she does.