Posts Tagged novels

Keep The Action Going

Lately I’ve been watching reruns of the TV crime drama “Major Crimes.”  I like the action as the detectives of the Major Crimes unit solve the case.  The show is well written and the cases deliciously complicated, which keeps me guessing as to the identity of the perpetrator.  But the one major drawback of the show is the subplot involving the character of Rusty, a teenage boy who spent several years alone on the streets of Los Angeles, and his attempts to find his mother.  He’s been adopted by the Captain of the Major Crimes unit, though I still keep wondering why a teen-age boy is allowed to wander around the Major Crimes area while the team is trying to solve the case.  But more to the point, the subplot interrupts the flow of the main story, which is to solve the damn crime.  The subplot annoying and disruptive.  We’re taken out of the main story and forced to watch something that has little to do, in most cases, with solving the crime.  I, as a viewer of the show, have gotten absorbed in the main story line of each episode, and I don’t want to watch something that has little or nothing to do with the story.  I want to see whodunit.  The complicated plots make me want to know.  Yet, repeatedly, we have to put up with a rather vague, nebulous subplot for several minutes, several times during each one-hour show.  Yesterday evening I grew so frustrated that I turned the show off rather than sit through this unnecessary diversion.

Moral of the story, don’t interrupt the action.  Keep it going to the end.

A good example of a TV series which kept the action going throughout each hour-long drama is the “Law and Order” series.  Most of the episodes I’ve seen didn’t waste time on subplots.  Sure, the characters have private lives, and occasionally these were brought into the main story, but the individual episodes invariably stuck to the main story, i.e., solve the damn crime.

Another example of a show that kept the action going and didn’t waste time on personal problems was the old “Mission Impossible” series.  Here, the characters (the “good guys”) simply carried out their orders (usually having to do with espionage or some related process) and got the job done.  No unnecessary subplots involving human interest that took away from the main story.

I find myself wondering if this isn’t one of the reasons we find commercials so annoying: they take us away from the story while someone yells at us to buy a certain product or service we usually don’t want and don’t need.  Sort of a plottus interruptus.  This may also be why Alfred Hitchcock always denigrated commercials on his TV series.  He knew they interrupted the flow of the story.  Not good if you have a detective looking for a murderer.

Now, subplots can work, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not against subplots, but they have to be handled well.  The important thing to remember is that a subplot must be integral to the story.  It must come at a reasonable time in the narrative, and must advance the plot.  Not simply interrupt and throw in a different story.  A possible good example of this is the movie, “Rocky.”  (The first of the series.)  The main story line revolves around Rocky Balboa as he trains for his big boxing match with the world champion, having been plucked out of obscurity by the champ and given a chance to become a big-time fighter.  Okay.  The subplot involves his relationship with his girl friend.  The reason this subplot works is that it appears at logical times in the story.  Rocky trains during the day, and sees his girl in the evening.  Sure, the action slows, but it still involves Rocky.  It comes at a reasonable point in the plot, and it doesn’t occur as a sudden interruption in the story line.  It’s a smooth transition, not abrupt.

If you are writing a novel or screenplay or short story or even a memoir, keep in mind that whenever you abruptly stop the action and go to something else, especially something quieter in the story, you run the risk of losing your viewer or reader.  Keep the action going, even if it slows somewhat.  As Aesop said once, “He who hesitates is lost.”

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Notes And Commentary, Part 2

Here are a few commentaries and observations designed to fill this space with words.  These are especially directed toward those of my readers who are writers.

Which of the two constructions do you prefer?   1) I’m ten years older than him.  Or: 2) I’m ten years older than he is.

The quote, “A [fill in your work] is never finished, only abandoned,” has been attributed to several writers.  The poet Paul Valery is credited with, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”  Graham Green said, “It,”—referring to a novel—”is never finished, only abandoned.”  The novelist E. M. Forster said, “A work of art is never finished.  It is merely abandoned.”  I’ve even quoted it myself without giving proper attribution, usually referring to novels, rather than poems.  And I’ve come to believe the truth in that quotation (whoever you feel is the real author).  I’ve just completed a serious revision of the third installment of my sci-fi novels (it’s called “Warrior,” but hasn’t been published yet).  The revisions filled in quite a number of plot holes, and smoothed out some awkward phrasing here and there.  Now all that is left is to print out the novel (the first time that novel has been printed) and read it in the “paper” stage (see last week’s blog) and read it out loud.  And then make whatever changes I feel are necessary.  All of that won’t be a simple matter by any means, but it will insure that the novel will be in a reasonably good state, ready for beta readers or critique groups.  Yet, based on my experiences with the first two novels, both of which have gone through that “print/read/out loud” phase, small touch-ups will always be possible at any time.  It’s true, the novels are never finished; you can always make changes.  I just have to be willing to drop them and let them go.  And not obsess over small things.

If you have a character in your writing who is angry, and you need to show intense outrage/passion/displeasure/hatred, and you are writing in the 3rd person point-of-view, which way do you like to express it?  By having the angry person be the POV character and present to the reader directly his/her feelings ?  Or by having the character be not the POV character and letting him/her—and by extension, the reader—view it from a distance?  It can be done either way, of course, but does it seem to fit your style of writing better one way or the other?  Generally I stick with the indirect way: presenting the anger of someone directly in their head seems too much like telling, not showing.

In this day and age of climate change when storms are getting more and more powerful, and forest fires burn more and more square miles, I’ve noticed that people caught up in these events tend to use a curious method of comparison to try and describe how they sound or feel.  Frequently that comparison is to a “freight train.”  Most frequently, this is the object of comparison for tornadoes, but it has also been applied to land/mudslides, and even hurricanes.  But I’m curious, do most people really know what a freight train sounds like?  I’d almost be willing to bet that most don’t.  I’ve heard a few freight trains in my life, and though I’ve never heard a tornado, I really wonder if the two sound alike.  Anybody know?  In this day of long trains pulled by large-horsepower diesel engines, the sound is more of a growl of low pitch and high.  I suppose that back in the 1940’s and 1950’s when large steam engines pulled long trains of coal out of the Appalachian coal fields of Kentucky and West Virginia, and they had to literally pound the rails to get it over the mountains, it could have had a terrible rumbling feel, especially considering the power in the exhaust of the mighty engines and the shaking of the ground if you stood too close.  But diesels don’t do that much any more.  They seem to glide along; there’s no pounding and no heavy exhaust.  I wonder if a tornado or mudslide really sounds like that.  Anyone have any idea?

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Beyond Creativity

What is it we are actually doing by being creative?  That is, by making up a story such as a novel or a short story, or by producing a scientific paper that adds to the sum of human knowledge about some aspect of humanity, what is it that lies below the surface of this creativity?  As a scientist trained to work with viruses, and later as an aspiring novelist, I’ve taken on and conquered (hopefully) two aspects of creativity: fiction and science.  Both utilize the power of the human brain to come up with new ideas on a regular basis and do something with them.  The question I’m trying to answer here is simply, what is the end result of that creativity?  Where does all that thinking up experiments with viruses and writing fiction go?  What do we get out of it?  (I certainly don’t mean to imply these are the only ways to be creative; they just happen to be the two I’m most familiar with.  You can probably think of others.  But my comments here will apply to all.)

My first answer is two-fold.  First, scientific experiments are done to gather information.  Information that, somewhere down the line, can be used to improve the health of people, animals, the planet, or whatever.  Some scientific papers are so esoteric that their ultimate usefulness to society may be  hard to grasp in the immediate aftermath of their publication, but somewhere, sometime, they should be important.  Creative writing, on the other hand, has as its most immediate goal that of entertainment.  A good story is worth a thousand words.  A story or a movie seeks to take us away from the cares and woes of everyday life and let us lead a different life vicariously in the guise of a fictitious character.  Always fun.

But I maintain there is a higher purpose to creativity, and that is to teach.  Scientific experiments produce good information about a subject, but they are also used to teach students how the scientific process works, and students learn more than what is written in the paper.  They may learn a new technique from a paper, they may learn how a technique is applied to study a given subject, but most importantly, they take that information and merge it with all they’ve learned previously and begin to understand how the scientific process works in the broadest of terms.  Each paper is a brick, and brick by brick, a wall can be built, and eventually an edifice can be constructed in the mind of a student that tells him/her how to proceed with the smallest of experiments he/she may be currently working on.  They learn something, specific and general, at the same time.

Likewise with a novel or a short story.  A reader gains access to the details of the story, the plot, the hero, the villain, the setting, and so forth.  But a student of literature will also read to learn how a story is put together—point of view, description vs. dialogue, telling vs. showing, etc.  Reading is the best way to learn, and ultimately, by reading many stories the student learns how to put his/her own story together.  Creativity, therefore, is ultimately a teaching tool, not merely a device to convey information.  Creativity is death to indifference and boredom, and we need as much of it as we can get.

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Starting Slowly

Why do written works have to start with something that captures the reader’s attention immediately?  We novice writers are told repeatedly that in order to get a book to sell, we have to grab the reader’s attention with a boffo line or sentence.  This is because, we are told, readers are a fickle group and will not read into a book or even into the first chapter unless we capture their imagination right away.  Especially nowadays, what with so many other things competing for everybody’s time and attention.  Also, we are told, an agent or an editor won’t consider a book if it doesn’t grab their attention in the first paragraph or so.  But, why should that be?  Is that really essential?

I like to compare books to music.  A good book is like a great piece of music that takes you to an alternate world and leaves you there to explore on your own.  But many great works of music start slowly and build toward a stupendous ending.  Bolero, by Maurice Ravel, comes to mind in this category.  Even as I write this, I’m listening to a piece by American composer Joseph Curiale called Wind River (I am).  It, like the Ravel, starts slowly and quietly, and builds to a fantastic and masterful ending with drums and brass and all that sort of stuff.  Other pieces, too numerous to mention, do the same.  It’s not an unknown or unrealistic technique in music.  Like, for example, the “Invasion Theme,” in Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, which starts with a simple theme and builds to a martial ending.

Of course, musical compositions are much shorter than books.  A great symphony may take 45 to 60 minutes in performance, (the Shostakovich symphony mentioned above is about 75 minutes and that’s long for a symphony) and an opera is considered long if it runs four or five hours (some of Richard Wagner’s operas are that long), but a reader may spend several days or weeks enjoying a book.  It’s also true that some great symphonies, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, do start big, with a entrance that grabs the listener right away.  But not all.  And I maintain that isn’t entirely necessary.

I have tried in all my books (currently unpublished) to write a beginning that snags the reader’s attention and induces him/her to read on, and then buy the book.  I have to, if I want to get it published.  (For me, that’s the hardest part of writing a novel.)  Even if I self-published my novels, the reality of the situation is that books sell on the basis of the first several lines or first chapter.  I admit that I, too, look at the first few lines of a book when I pull it off the shelf when considering whether to buy it.  It’s a fact of life.  Yet, it doesn’t have to be.  A book that starts slowly should have just as much chance as one that starts with fireworks.  But it’s not likely to get published, or even read.  If listeners are willing to accept a slow beginning in a musical composition, why should readers not be content with the same in a book?

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Random Thoughts And Ugly Comments

Just a few thoughts about incidents that have taken place over the past few weeks.  I’ve completed a massive revision of the third novel in my Anthanian Imperative trilogy, and now the novel looks pretty good.  I’ve been working on it for about five years now, and it’s in good enough shape I wouldn’t be ashamed for someone else to take a look at it.  And that brings up an important point.

I’m looking for beta readers for all three of the novels which constitute the trilogy, especially the last two.  The first one has been through five or six critique groups over its eighteen-year lifespan.  (Yes, it’s true, if that novel were a person, it would be old enough to vote in the coming election.)  But those groups were made up almost exclusively of amateur writers, people who had never published a novel before, and who, like me, were novices at writing.  I admire and appreciate their comments.  However, I need a professional to take a look at it.  Someone who has actually published a novel.  Someone who knows what the publishing world wants.  Self-publishing doesn’t count.  And this applies to the other two also.  If you’re a professional writer with a history of getting publishers to take a look at a science-fiction novel, let me know.

You may say, why not use some of the literary critique websites, and I certainly could.  Perhaps I could get one or more good reviews that way.  But I’m not sure I want to give it to just anyone, sight unseen.  I’d like to know a little about whoever it is I’m sending it to.  A little familiarity perhaps, say from Facebook or from personal experience in the Albuquerque area.

Also, I’ve just finished querying eighteen agents with the first novel.  I’ve completely revised my query letter along the lines of I-don’t-know-how-many authors, agents and editors who have all published helpful hints on writing a query letter.  I’ve already gotten two rejections (some agents are really good at keeping up-to-date with their inbox submissions).  But the other sixteen will, if experience is any guide, dribble in over the next several months.   Some will not reply at all, and after about three months, that will constitute a rejection.  I’m upbeat about the possibility of getting a request for more pages, even for a full manuscript, but my experience tells me not to be.  I’ve had so little luck with either the novel or the query process, I tell myself to stay grounded and not let a good novel or query letter go to my head.  I really like the first novel, though.  I think it’s my best work.  But nobody else does.

Other comments:  If you are one of my “friends” on Facebook, you might have noticed that I criticized LitReactor for their use of profanity (i.e., four-letter words) in endorsing an author they like.  Call me a prude if you want, but don’t call me a taxi.  I happen to believe that the profession of writing is above all that.  The use of profanity is disgusting and repulsive.  It drags the user down into the gutter, and the book and author with it.  It makes me wonder about the character of the people who run the website.  What are they thinking?  I sure hope that if in the (unlikely?) event that I get a few books published, LitReactor won’t call attention to mine in the same manner.  I would rather have them keep quiet than submit to that form of support or approval.

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Sex Scenes

Are sex scenes really necessary in novels?

That depends.  I just read a book that had a sex scene that took up one entire chapter, and I got to wondering if it was really necessary to the plot.  Did the story really need that chapter?  The scene was between two characters, a male and a female, who had already been introduced to the reader as lovers.  Before the sex scene, they’d never been shown having sex in any overt way, but because of their well-characterized relationship, the reader almost certainly got the idea they were lovers.  My conclusion for that book in particular was that, no, the sex scene wasn’t really necessary.  In fact, when I  began reading that chapter, I wondered almost immediately why it had been put in.  It seemed so out of place.  I assume it was there largely for the titillation factor.  Possibly to hold the reader’s interest in the crucial middle section of the book when the reader might falter in his/her desire to continue reading.  He/she might put the book down and have a ham sandwich.  But that brings up the real question I want to examine here: are sex scenes ever really required in a book?

There are a few reasons a sex scene might reasonably be present in a novel.  (I’m not talking about porn novels here.)  Sex scenes are always going to be suspect because of the titillation factor.  Many readers might look at them as simply erotic nonsense, unrelated to the plot of the book.  And why have a sex scene if you can just tell the reader that two characters are lovers, or show them being lovers in other ways?  But I think there are two situations where a real sex scene might be acceptable.  To wit:
1.  To introduce two characters as lovers when that fact was not evident from the context preceding the scene.  This might be difficult to pull off, though.  Again, why not just tell the reader the two are lovers?  In some cases, the old adage, “Show, don’t tell,” could come into play.  “Telling” the reader could be literarily unacceptable.  An intimate love scene might just be the best way to show the love between two characters.
2.  To demonstrate the conception of a child.  And even introduce that child as another character in the book.

I have to admit that in the three science fiction novels I’ve written, two had sex scenes.  In one, the second reason above was the prime motivation for including the sex scene.  The birth of the new character becomes a vitally important factor in the plot.  (You’ll have to read the book to find out exactly how.)  In the other, the sex scene wasn’t as graphic as it was in the first, but it did show the developing relationship between the two characters, who hadn’t had any sexual relations up to that point.

I may be treading on thin ice here with this post, because many people may consider sex scenes totally and completely unnecessary.  But sex scenes, like anything else in the book, can work if used sparingly and properly.  Everything in a novel, and this includes sex scenes, must do one of several things: advance the plot, show us something about the characters we didn’t previously know, or provide a little background in the form of backstory.  A sex scene, tastefully done, can be a part of that.  Everything else is fluff, and probably should be removed.

What do you think?  Are there other reasons sex scenes might be acceptable in a novel?

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Teaching Writing

I’ve noticed on Facebook recently some postings from at least one (possibly more) famous author(s) that are essentially advertisements for writing programs that purport to help the person who responds to the ad learn to write novels like the famous author.  Some even say “I’ll teach you to write like me.”  I’m a little concerned that this may lead people who read the ad into thinking that once they take the course they’ll end up being able to write novels that will sell millions of copies and make them as famous as the originator of the writing course.  I hope most people already realize that isn’t going to happen.

Taking a writing course, whether taught by a world-famous author known for selling books, or by a much less well-known author who resides comfortably on a publisher’s midlist, isn’t guaranteed to endow the student with the ability to write spectacular, prize-winning, top-selling novels.  Those programs are designed to teach the student the basics of writing, and even some of the more advanced concepts.  It’s up to the student to produce a novel of his/her own design.  It’s my opinion that regardless of what the famous author says, writing a novel that sells millions can’t be taught.  All you can do is learn the basics, and then it’s up to you.

That famous author, indeed all famous authors, are famous for their style, their flair, their innate ability to string just the right words together into sentences and paragraphs and chapters that condense into novels that are a reflection of themselves.  Contrast Faulkner with Hemingway, for example.  That’s what a novel is; it’s a reflection of an individual.  It’s as individual as a reflection in a mirror.  J. K. Rowling can’t teach you to write like her even if you did learn how to “show” and not “tell,” and what the difference is between first and third person POV.  If you learned music from Beethoven, you wouldn’t necessarily compose great symphonies even though you might be able to put notes on treble and bass clefs that produced lovely, lilting, ethereal music.  Learning art from van Gogh wouldn’t teach you how to paint great masterpieces, even though you could apply paint to a canvas in a beautiful and expressive manner.  There’s more to writing than the basics; more than putting one word after another.  If you want to take the course from the famous author, by all means go ahead.  I have no doubt the course(s) is/are legitimate.  You may learn a lot.  But you aren’t likely to write a best seller with your first novel, and you sure as hell won’t write just like the famous author.

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