Posts Tagged novels

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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Good Or Best

In today’s all-or-nothing society, where everything has to be the absolute best there is, where every day has to be totally awesome and worthy of inclusion in the history books, where everyone is expected to perform at maximum intensity all day long, and where multi-tasking is not simply an uncommon though admirable character trait but an absolute job requirement, I believe we have begun to confuse the distinction between what is “best,” and what is merely “good.”  So often we are expected to be “the best,” or produce “the best” or see “the best.”  Good is, so often, not good enough.  We have ultimate expectations on our hands.  Much of what we read, see, hear and experience is touted as “the best,” as though nothing else is acceptable.  Like the character of Barney in the sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” every day has to be exceptionally awesome to the point of nauseous exhaustion.  Almost weekly, award shows give out awards for the best of this, that, or the other.  As I write this, the Cincinnati Bengals have just beaten the Pittsburgh Steelers to move to a season record of 7-0, and they are being considered as Super Bowl contenders.  The winner of the Super Bowl is, and rightly so, the best in the NFL for that year.  But will the Bengals be “the best?”  Everyone waits, breathless.  (Note in passing, I used to live in Cincinnati, and so still follow the Bengals during football season.)

But there’s a profound difference between “the best,” and “good.”  As a writer, I am expected to produce written material that is not only good, but “the best.”  Contests for writers abound.  For short stories, for poetry, for first novels, etc.  Submit and win, they say, as though that were a simple matter.  Winning a contest can boost your career.  Sure, but only one person wins a contest.  And if you lose, does that mean you weren’t “the best?”  Horrors.

Take the Oscars, or the Emmys, for example.  These are two of the best known “best” shows.  Always the emphasis is on what is the best: the best show or movie or song or performer or director or producer of special effects, or whatnot.  It’s always “the best,” as though good has nothing to do with it.  It’s vitally important to keep in mind that those awards are simply for what was best during the previous season.  Nothing is ever said about how “good” the show or movie or actor or director really is.  Was the winner of the Oscar for the Best Movie of 20-whatever really any “good” to begin with?  Now, to be sure, so many movies are made and so many TV shows are produced each year that by the law of averages, one or a few are almost certain to be “good.”  Maybe even excellent.  But let us never lose sight of the real question we should ask of any award.  Was it really any good in the first place?

As a writer, I look to the book awards perhaps more critically than the movie awards.  The Pulitzers, the National Book Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and many others.  I particularly like the fact that a Pulitzer award may not always be given out if the judges can’t agree on a winner.  That happened for fiction in 2012, in 1977, 1971, 1964, 1957, and several times earlier.  This happens when they can’t agree on a winner, though we generally make the assumption that the finalists for that year were very good to begin with.

In my opinion, good trumps best in most cases.  I try to write a good novel or short story.  It may be the best I can do, but did I make it any good, regardless of whether it wins a prize?  The fact that so many agents and publishers have rejected my novels makes me wonder if what I wrote was any good at all, but I persevere with an eye toward eventual publication.  This is one reason I don’t want to self-publish.  There’s no way to really know if what I wrote is any good or not without some form of validation in the broader publishing world.  I would certainly hate to write a lousy novel and put it out there.

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