Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Few Words on First Drafts

I've been moving between two first drafts lately (my least favorite part of writing). And I've realized that a lot of my early drafting is me looking for the rhythm of the story (also the voice, but more specifically the rhythm of the sentences). I can't really go until I have a sentence that's my anchor, that gives me a model to hold onto while I write the rest. Sometimes it's the first sentence, sometimes not. In this case: "The fair was open into the night, but finally there would be a time when the gates had closed, and even the stragglers had been expelled, and the villagers had their village to themselves," it's a few pages in. But it wasn't until I got this sentence (which probably seems quite mundane to you) that I felt confident that the story would actually happen.

Another thing I realized lately is sometimes my draft isn't going well because I simply haven't given myself enough to work with. First I wrote this sentence "They had arrived a month before the fair began, after a steamer trip from Constantinople to New York, and a train trip from New York to Chicago" which was basically a filler expositional sentence but then on a whim, I changed it to this sentence: "They, with one exception, had arrived a month before the fair began, after a steamer trip from Constantinople to New York, and a train trip from New York to Chicago" ... and it felt like I had something to build on. Stories are often built out of difference I think--the one person or event or what-have-you that doesn't fit the mold. Might not keep it, but it's an indicator of where most of my ideas come from. From the sentence. As I write it.

Friday, February 18, 2011

American Idol and the Art of Storytelling

I'm not sure anyone else is still watching American Idol, but I'm quite enjoying the new judges and whatnot. But my mom and I have decided that what's really needed is an overhaul in the editing department--by which we mean the people who craft all the narratives that get created around the idol wannabes. The problem is this: American Idol confuses melodrama and sentimentality with good storytelling (just like many an intro to creative writing student) Melodrama--look at all the terrible things that happen to people!--and sentimentality--cry for me, terrible things have happened to me!--are being employed to try to shortcut viewers into caring about the "characters". It doesn't work. On the other hand, the storyline the other night, in which a baby-faced fifteen year old, Jacee was cut from his group in the middle of the night leaving him stranded actually made for a good story. Why? Because the "villain"--the guy, Junebug who decided to cut Jaycee was 1) a likeable, kind of funny looking, talented singer who 2) did a bad thing for a good reason. Jacee, by all appearances, couldn't project enough. He was going to mess up. The group was probably better without him. So good reason. But Jacee is really young (vulnerability!) and it was really late in the game to cut someone (cruelty!). So bad thing. As a result, I could understand why the group wanted to cut him but I felt really bad for him when they actually did it... and so I became invested in what would happen next. Would Jacee find a new group? Would Junebug be punished for his wrongdoing? ... suspense! tension! a narrative that wasn't backstory (like most of what the show tries to use for characterization) and in which the characters were active agents in the story (as opposed to victims of circumstance). And even better, it turned out there was a group that needed another when they took Jacee in, it was not just because they felt sorry for him, they had needs of their own (characters always have needs of their own). And when Jacee messed up with the new group, he still got voted through to the next round...why? because he had a story! People felt for him! Probably if he hadn't gotten kicked out of his old group, he would have been sent home... Now in all of this, Jacee was a somewhat passive character--he got kicked out of one group and pulled into another as opposed to quitting a group and joining another, but he remained interesting because of his reaction to the events. He was obviously hurt by it, but he was so dignified (which contrasted wonderfully with his babyface) and tried to act unemotional but the tears kept sneaking up on him. He was the exact opposite of the hysterical, incredibly annoying people that American Idol keeps putting on the show for drama. (again confusing drama with melodrama). So, my point is, and American Idol producers should take note (alert the media!)'s very hard to create characters if you don't give them a story to operate in. You want us to care about these wannabes, give them a narrative in which they are active participants who engage in recognizable and understandable human emotions.

Monday, February 07, 2011

House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer's Journey Home by Mark Richard

When I was in the middle of this memoir I thought, I should only read books this good. Wouldn’t my life be better if I only read books this good? But truthfully, not that many books are this good.

Many times over I’ve read (or let’s face it, written) a piece with a strong, compelling voice right at the beginning that then switches over to a weaker, more conventional voice. And the reasoning is either—I, the writer, couldn’t sustain that voice over a long period or the reader wouldn’t want to read a whole book in such a noticeable voice. Well. This is a case for committing, for stick-to-it-iveness, for not underestimating the reader. I know Richard wrote the essay that became the opening to this memoir about fourteen years ago, and given that the memoir is out this month, I have to assume there were quite a few years in between the essay and the developing of the essay into a book. But the voice. It never falters. The moment where the essay leaves off is invisible.

So let’s talk about the voice. It’s second person. An entire memoir written in second person. I think on principle most people hearing of such a thing would just say no. The guy who came up to me when he saw me reading the book at the airport said, “that would never fly in workshop” (he was coming from the same writing conference I was; I don’t think random airport travelers know about workshop). But there are a couple of reasons a book-length second person isn’t a problem, at least in this case. For one, Richard isn’t writing in scene so you don’t get awkward dialogue tags. And for another he almost never writes action. So you don’t get a lot of You do this, You do that. In fact “you” rarely starts a sentence; it is almost always buried inside. Now before you go all “show don’t tell” on me, let me explain that while Richard doesn’t write much dialogue or action (otherwise known as scene), this memoir does nothing but show. It’s just expositional showing. It’s like a memoir of every striking image, Richard has ever seen. And you quite literally see the world through his eyes, and as a result you feel like you know him intimately (probably much more so than if he gave you the usual blend of scene and reflection).

Case in point: “The snake gets in there and unhinges its jaw and starts to try to swallow the baby headfirst when the mother comes in from the neighbor’s laundry and the baby is screaming with a snake on its head like a skullcap with a length of yellow and brown tail.”

Full disclosure: One of my favorite memories of graduate school is Mark Richard reading the "Why I Write" essay that opens this memoir to our class. And he gave me a copy of this book for free, which was really nice. The even nicer thing is reading the book made me think, Good grief, I need to work harder.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Recommended Reading

Sometimes my friends and colleagues exhaust me with their talent, but I celebrate them all the same. Check out the latest translation by Becka Mara McKay (of Alex Epstein's short fiction) in The Kenyon Review. I especially love "On the Power of Russian Literature."