Archive for April, 2012

Writing: Good vs. Bad

I’ve been reading Tea Obreht’s book, The Tiger’s Wife, this past week, and it’s brought up a point about writing I’ve been thinking about ever since I got into this business.  First of all, though, a little about the book.

I’d heard a lot about the book over the past year, so when I was at the bookstore about a week and a half ago and I saw it on a display table, I decided to get my own copy.  At first I put it in my “books-to-be-read pile” on the table by the window, but after I finished the book I was reading, I couldn’t resist tackling it because I’d heard it was so good.  It had made a lot of personal favorites lists, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  So far I haven’t been disappointed.

The book is about a young doctor, Natalia, in an unnamed Balkan country during wartime, probably the breakup of the old Yugoslavia of the 90’s.  She’s looking for details about her grandfather’s recent death, but the war has made finding out what happened difficult.  The tiger’s wife is a story he’d told her when he was still living, along with another story about the “deathless man.”  (I’ll leave it to you to read the book and find out what that means.)  If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it, and I’ll undoubtedly put it on my list of recommended books on this blogsite.  But enough said about the book.

The book is well-written, certainly, and it falls into the rather nebulous category of “I couldn’t put it down.”  That’s usually not strictly true, of course, but it indicates a book so well-written that a reader finds himself or herself captured in the story, and reads and reads for so long that it only seems like he/she “couldn’t put it down.”  I’ve been reading it for about a week now, and I’m fascinated by the story and the fluid way Ms. Obreht tells it.  It’s like the story flows from the page into your brain without impediment.  And that’s what I want to talk about.

I’ve always wanted to write that well.  I’ve refined my style over the years to try to write as though–as it’s usually put by the masters of writing education–the writing is “invisible” to the reader.  Other people say, if it sounds like writing, re-write it.  In other words, the information in the prose of your style shouldn’t be hindered in any way in getting out to the reader.  The author should be totally out of sight and out of mind.  I suspect Ms. Obreht’s style and work would fit that description very well.

But that’s not really true, is it?  An author can never be out of sight or out of mind.  The author is always right there in the words.  The choice of words, the way the author strings those words together, those are all a part of the author’s style, and can never be “invisible.”  A reader may like the way a particular author strings words together to form sentences, and the way he puts sentences together into paragraphs, and the info of those sentences may flow easily into the reader’s mind, but the author is never invisible.  He’s always there, always glaring back at you from the printed page, or from the screen of your e-reader.  That’s what makes a good or bad author.  That’s what distinguishes John Updike from, say, Janet Evanovich.  It is that stringing of words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs and so on that makes a book so good that you end up saying, “I couldn’t put it down.”  If a writer is invisible, he’s not saying anything.

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A Writers Conference

I just got back from attending a writers conference at the University of New Mexico, and here are a few thoughts about it.  Just a one-day affair with a box lunch, I heard from a couple of editors and a few agents and authors.  The most significant part of the conference from my point of view was the pitch I got to make to an editor.   Though as an editor, normally charged with acquiring books for publication, at this conference, at least in my case, he didn’t ask about acquiring my novel (he isn’t in the business of getting science fiction) but he did give me good feedback partly on the novel, but mainly on my query letter.  I had given him my business card with a short excerpt from my query letter (actually one of my letters) on the back and he noted it seemed to be too detailed.  Perhaps I’m going into too much detail and should revise it.  I’ll do that when I start querying again.

I heard a good talk from a veteran screenwriter who gave those who want to write screenplays (not me, but a screenplay is a sort of shortened novel, and the techniques for writing a screenplay can be used in writing a novel) several tips to make a screenplay worthy of the attention of a producer.  A screenplay is divided into scenes of 10 to 12 minutes each, and each scene has to follow seven basic elements to be effective.  The same can be said of scenes in a novel.  Following the same idea and the same elements can help you write your novel.  Get a good book on writing screenplays and use some of the techniques in there in your novel.

Another talk I heard was from a mystery writer, though his workshop was directed more toward writing a novel in general.  What applies to a mystery can be applied to almost any novel.  Time well spent.

In short, a day of my life spent perfecting my craft.  That is, my chosen craft of novel writing which, at this point, I’m not sure I’ve perfected to the point where I can sell a novel.  You never stop learning.

Question for discussion:  Is it Writers Conference (a conference for more than one writer), or should it be Writer’s Conference (a conference for and about writers)?  Personally, I prefer the latter.

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A Picture and a Few Words

There’s an unusual aspect of the English language (and perhaps other languages as well) that I’ve noticed the past several months.  I’ve identified a concept we need a good word for because we don’t have one.  The problem I’m talking about is the terminology for taking pictures digitally.

Back when pictures were first taken, images were recorded on a piece of glass with a photosensitive layer of silver nitrate.  Later, a flexible plastic called cellulose nitrate came into use, and this is what Edison used when he invented his motion picture camera.  Since the cellulose nitrate was a thin material and the photosensitive material was extruded onto it in a thin film, the material came to be called “film.”  Later, cellulose acetate replaced cellulose nitrate because the nitrate form was extremely flammable, and the acetate form was called “Safety Film.”  Cellulose acetate film exists even today in all sorts of forms and formats, color and black-and-white, but it’s being replaced by digitally capturing images by digital cameras.

And that’s where the problem lies.  Back when film was in its prime, making a movie or a documentary or taking a motion picture of a news event was called “filming” it.  Later we had videotape and doing the same with a videotape camera was called “taping” it.  For example, first they “filmed” TV shows, then they began “taping” them.  But what of capturing digital images, either still or moving?  What do we call it?  I’ve seen news reports where the author of the report used the word “film” or “filming,” probably because he/she didn’t have a word that means “capturing images in digital format.”  I even commented on one of these and chided the author (as I recall, it was a report from a reputable news service) for using the term “film” when the images that person was talking about were obviously digital and there wasn’t any film associated with the report at all.

So, what do we call it?  When we had film, we called it “filming.”  When we had tape, we called it “taping.”  What word do we use now?  “Digitizing?”  “Digitally capturing moving images?”  “Digitalling?”  “Digitalis?”  (Well, anyway…)  Leave us not be too ridiculous.  We need a word that identifies the action of making a digital image; that is to say, we need a good digital verb.  I haven’t come up with a good term as yet.  Suggestions anyone?

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Risk Taking

I’ve come to the conclusion that becoming a writer is a risky business.  The important word here is “business,” not so much the word “risky,” though that’s a part of it.  After all, writing is a business, as much as accounting or medicine or law or installing air conditioning.  And while all those vocations have certain inherent risks, there are risks to being a writer too.

If you’re an accountant or a lawyer or a doctor, you can count on a market for your talents being there when you start work.  With writing, that’s not guaranteed.  If you write books about zombies, or hungry girls competing for food, you may feel there’s a ready market for your books, but the fickle winds of publishing can change faster than you can say “iPod.”  What’s hot today may not be tomorrow.  That’s why they (that ubiquitous “they”) tell you to write your own kind of book, and don’t try to imitate others.  Do your own thing.  Play by your own rules.  If you don’t, then by the time you publish your novel about werewolves in London, the fad will be over and you’ll have to pay back most of your hard-earned advance.

But that’s just the point, isn’t it?  If you take a big chance and write the book you want to write, there’s no guarantee that anybody will read it, even if it fits within a well-known genre, like science fiction or mystery or even a cookbook.  You may have a great idea for a novel, maybe even a great idea for a book that will define a new genre, and you seriously hope it will be read around the world, but you (and I) are at the mercy of the winds of fashion, and that great book or genre could languish on the shores of abandon, and you’ll have to pay back most of your hard-earned advance.

It takes guts to be a writer.  And a willingness to take risks.  Your future may rise or fall on the basis of conventions you have no control over and probably don’t understand, and couldn’t control even if you did.  Do you really want to get out there and join that struggle?  If you’re like me, of course you do.

All of that applies to publishing in general, whether by traditional methods, or by self-publishing.  But self-publishing has its own dangers.  If you self-publish, you assume the role of not only author, but publisher, cover artist, copy editor, accountant, and so forth.  Do you know how to do all that?  Can you learn?  Of course.  Do you want to do it?

Probably.

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It Just Keeps Getting Bigger…

I’m always surprised at the things that go on in our galaxy, the Milky Way Galaxy.  In the past year or so, in the reading I do sporadically about the stars and planets and the cosmos, I ‘ve run across several articles about what has turned out to be the most common type of star in the Milky Way Galaxy.  This is the red dwarf star.

I’m not talking about red giant stars here, that’s a different matter altogether.  A red giant is a star in the last stages of its life, and it expands to be bigger than the orbit of Mars before it explodes in a huge supernova and spreads its innards all over the rest of the galaxy.  Like Betelgeuse is about to do.  No, I’m talking about a much smaller star, the red dwarf.  A red dwarf is smaller than our sun–much smaller in many cases–and unlike its larger cousin, isn’t in any hurry to explode.  Red dwarf stars are the most common type of stars in the galaxy, and may make up as much as 80 percent of all the stars in the galaxy.  (The latest estimates put the number of stars in the galaxy at 400 to 500 billion.)  But they’re so small and burn so weakly that you can’t see them by naked eye from Earth.  Some are so small, they’re not much larger than Jupiter.  When you look at the night sky, what you are seeing are the larger stars that burn white (or in some cases, red), like our sun.  We’ve known about red dwarfs for such a short time, they never showed up in most of the sci-fi movies or stories.  I don’t recall hearing anybody mention red dwarfs or see any whizzing by outside the windows of the briefing room on the Enterprise while Captain Picard was discussing the latest problem with his crew.

What’s even more interesting about red dwarfs is that we’re beginning to find planets around them.  Many, if not most red dwarfs may have planets, and they’re turning out to be small rocky planets that may be capable of harboring life.  A few caveats here, though.

Red dwarfs are so weak that the “habitable zone” where conditions are good for life developing on a planet’s surface is much, much closer to the star than the corresponding zone in our solar system.  Some planets orbiting red dwarfs circle around them in a matter of days, in fact.  Closer in, even in hours.  And red dwarfs have an annoying tendency to flare up every now and then, showering any planets in their system with X-rays and UV rays.  Not good for living organisms trying to get a foothold on a planet’s surface.  But the possibility exists that somewhere out there, among the billions of red dwarf stars is a small, relatively warm, moist planet with a bacterial, or perhaps slime mold-like organism on it, perhaps shielded under a rock or at the bottom of a lake, that is saying to itself, “I’ve come this far, I can go all the way.”  In short, the galaxy keeps getting stranger and stranger.  What will we find next?

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