Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rediscovering Children's Lit

Neil Gaiman once made a comment on his blog about passing stories on to his children. I don't remember exactly what he said, as though I took the time to write it down once upon a time, it got subsequently lost in an internet shuffle with another project I was working on (I blame Yahoo). The essence of it boiled down to the importance of sharing stories with your children, and how it's not only good for them but for yourself as well. It wasn't just about parental bonding, either, but the importance in and of themselves of stories and their telling.

I was reminded of that recently when I started reading The Wizard of OZ to my little girl. We have been reading books for years, but she's recently started to move from the standard picture books into more complex picture books. I've had OZ on my shelf for years, along with Alice and Pooh, since before I had or had even considered children. With regards to Alice and Pook, they were stories I enjoyed, and as for OZ, it was bought with the notion that maybe someday I'd have someone to read it to.

While Dorothy will never replace Alice, or Pooh, for that matter, I did enjoy the story. I was also surprised from the start to discover that the change from a black and white world to one of technicolor was not something done just for the movie. For those who haven't read the book, I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying Kansas is written by Baum to be literally grey. Everything he describes in Kansas is said to be dull and grey, so that the colors explode when Dorothy arrives in Oz.

(Not literally explode, mind you, at least not until Michael Bay does the remake.)

I don't plan on ever writing for children - though there is one idea clanking around in my head - but I think the sense of fun that is imbued by most children's stories is a good thing to interweave into any story, no matter the audience. Even if you're writing horror and want to scare the socks off of your readers, they should still have fun even as they're losing their footware. I also think it's probably not something that comes with trying to do it. Like humor, it will likely lose a lot if you try and actively make your story fun.

Just as importantly, there is a sense of discovery that seems to come from these books. Baum and the others have a real gift for crafting worlds where each corner turned brings something new. In an adult work it would be too much, and I noticed there were inconsistencies and things that just didn't make sense (in Through the Looking Glass it can be hard to follow the geography of Alice's travels, and there is supposed to be one, for example). But it was still nice to see an entire world where, unlike in a lot of modern works, the author made it up as they went along. Nowadays "world building" is it's own thing, and maybe Baum and Caroll could teach a thing or two about that.

Almost every writer I have ever read who commented on what it takes to be a writer has stressed that they read. A lot, and all kinds. It wouldn't hurt to put a few children's books on that list, even if they are things you read once as a child. Take it from me, they take on new life reading them as an adult.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Writing Diet

This is not about food. Just wanted to get that out of the way up front, lest anyone expects recipes or exercise tips here. (I could give those out, but once down that path forever would it dominate this blog. Here endeth the Star Wars reference.) Instead, this is about how the general smart and sensible approach to diet and exercise ought to work just as well for writing. I point out, in advance, I am an expert on none of those three. I try and eat right, I try and exercise, and I write. And while I have done the third well enough to be paid for it, that alone does not make one an expert, as any tour of the bookstore and DVD rentals will tell you. I struggle at all three (including a recent bout of homophone issues in my writing).

My particular issue is with adverbs, and how they have become the poster child for bad writing. I'm not sure where or when it started (Stephen King, who I think in general probably knows a bit more about the craft of fiction than I do simply by sheer weight of experience, mentions it in his writing memoir On Writing, so it's been around at least a decade), only that it seems to be the default position of all and sundry. Fellow writers have offered up critiques of things I thought were perfectly passable - which I didn't write - based solely on the presence of adverbs.

I'm here to say I think they're wrong. I'm not saying all adverbs are good, and like anything else they can be overused, but they are hardly the harbringer of impending writerly apocalypses. Like diet and exercise, I think it comes down to proper mediation.

Every so often, a new diet or exercise trend comes down the pipe. It never lasts (anyone remember Tae-bo? Anyone still doing it?) but while it's around it's the end-all be-all for all conerned. Until the fad fades or the supposed science behind the diet is disproved. Take that whole Atkin's thing, for example. Carbs were bad. Carbs were evil. Carbohydrates would lead to the dark side, which apparently meant cake. (Is cake a carb?) Or at least potatoes and pasta. Consumption of carbs would lead to dirigible-sized pants.

Only... it turns out, this is not so much the case. Now, at the time, there were enough people saying "Hey, wait, this is wrong and probably a little unhealthy," but they were by and large ignored by the dieting populace. Like all dieting fads before, the experts were ignored in favor of celebrity endorsements, and the themed cookbooks flew off the shelves for a while. And where are they now?

As in most things, the key turned out to be moderation. Sure, you don't want to gorge on pasta, and like most things on the American menu portion size is an important determinant, but carbs themselves were not inherently bad. Several million Italians can't all be wrong, after all.

Adverbs, I think, are like carbs. Or a glass of wine. A glass with dinner is considered a good thing. Two isn't bad. Downing a bottle on certain occasions is also okay. Emptying your wine cellar in a single outing is usually frowned upon, however. There is a line to be drawn, a balance to be struck. Some might argue otherwise, as I know there are places where even a glass of wine a night would be viewed as the moral equivalent of a bender, or a single dish of spaghetti as an all you can eat deep friend Twinkie binge.

(And on a complete aside, I think no single food more sums up everything wrong with current American dietary trends than the deep fried Twinkie. No matter how good they may be - and I have heard they are quite good.)

Adverbs are good things. There, I said it. They can be overused, certainly, and they aren't always appropriate (pasta doesn't go with every meal, for example), but they are a valuable part of speech. You can't really write without them. Sure, they can become a crutch in lieu of better descriptions, and they do facilitate the slide into "telling" as opposed to "showing," and I will adamantly agree they don't belong in dialogue tags, ever. But they aren't inherently bad.

If, by chance, you think I'm wrong about this, I encourage you to pick up any classic novel. Gatsby, for example. Now go through and look at all the adverbs. The text isn't drowning in them, by any means, but Fitzgerald certainly uses them. (Do not highlight or underline in your book. Just don't. Your librarian will thank you.) As does any other writer, even that master of spartan sentences, Hemingway. I am nowhere near their league, but I figure if adverbs were good enough for them, they are good enough for me.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

And then there were none....

Words are important things, especially for writers. Not exactly an earth-shattering kaboom of an idea, I know. What few readers I have (assuming any of them have stuck with me) know I listen to Radiolab, a radio science program. Back in may they did a program on a study someone did on the use of vocabulary in the works of Agatha Christie. I'm not sure if it was done intentionally to try and diagnose her, but by studying the words she used, and the frequency with which she used them, they were able to determine that Christie suffered from some form of mental degeneration, beyond what might be expected from simple old age. Alzheimers or a similar form of dementia were mentioned as likely candidates.

Now, while such a disease is scary in its own right, and I speak here as one who's seen too many close family members afflicted with it, as a writer this story carries a particular horror with it. The disease took away Christie's use of words. Her later novels, especially those towards the end, are far less complex and varied in word choice. She relies on more generic terms, less descriptive language.

Moreover, as in many cases of these kind of diseases, she seems to have been all too aware of it. In her last novel, it seems very likely one of her characters became a stand-in for herself, leading to the implication she knew what was happening to her. Knew, and was powerless to do anything about it. As a writer, I cannot imaging being forced to watch as my ability to express myself clearly and vividly was slowly taken from me, word by word.

The actual decline was somewhat less dramatic than that, of course. It's not as though one day she woke up and was able to use one word less. The study talked in frequencies of occurrences, and complexity of ideas, and how those could be charted to demonstrate Christie's failing mental faculties. But it's the idea of such a thing happening, of sitting down to write each day and finding, day by day, that your skills were a little less, and that there was nothing you could do about it, that is at once sad and terrifying.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Writer's High

You always hear them talk about the "runner's high." I have often pondered why that's limited to runners - in the lexicon, that is, as I know full well the effect isn't just experienced by runners alone. Anyone who does that kind of exercise gets the same sort of effect, which makes sense once you consider the biochemistry of the whole thing. I think runners just get all the press because they are both the most visible and the most vocal members of the exercise community. (In part because in television land, other than the gym and the exercise studio, running is the easiest to film it seems. At least judging by the number of tv characters who jog or run anyway.)

Now, while I have no idea if the biochemistry is the same, and greatly suspect it isn't, in large part, I am putting forth the idea of the "writer's high." No sneakers required. Also no shower afterward, and no heavy duty cycle on the laundry.

I discovered this - or if that seems to smack too strongly of ego-centrisim, I realized this - after a particularly good writing session the other day. I don't remember how many words I got out, and at any rate I am of the opinion it can be something of a trap to focus on the number of words, but however many of them there were, they were good words that day. The first set of good words in a while, as lately they've become something of a slog. Something to get through, get words down, even if they're all going to die later in the rewrite.

And they felt good. Really good. Not just the act of writing itself, but the afterglow when I was done, when I had walked away from the computer to go do something else. I have noticed that with a really good workout, that sense of accomplishment follows me the rest of the day, long after my heart rate has subsided. This was the same thing, where it followed me throughout the remainder of my day, making the day seem that much better.

It's not the first time this has happened, and it is that feeling which helps me get through the days when it is more of a slog, when it seems almost like a chore to sit at the computer and try and crank something else. It's the rememberance of that feeling, of knowing if I can get past the warm-up (so to speak) and into the main workout, when it's all done I'll feel better. Maybe not a whole lot better, but better. And the memory of that feeling, of knowing it's there on the other side, makes it easier to try and tackle it each day.

It doesn't always work, as just with my exercise routine there are days I fail, but it gives me something to chase, something to seek, a little reward each day for sitting down and doing what I'm supposed to be doing. Something that, unlike with exercise, I can continue to chase my whole life, regardless of failing knees or joints or whatever else in my body decides to betray me as I get older. So that, when I'm 70, while my days of earning that "runner's high" - which I never, ever actually run for - may be gone, the "writer's high" will still be waiting for me.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Have you ever noticed how it's "A penny for your thoughts" if someone else wants to know what you're thinking, but if you just opine on your own it's your "two cents?"

I'm not sure if this reflects a growing inflationary trend between when the two phrases entered into the lexicon, or if it's perhaps an indication that for most of us, whatever it is we have to say is a little less valuable than we think it is? I realize the irony of espousing such a position here, of all places, but nonetheless I stand by my contention that for the most part what we say is of somewhat less importance than we are oft inclined to give it.

Especially writers.

This is not always the case. I can think of a couple of writers who seem more than aware of the limitations of their own musings, whether in giving their opinions or in the pages of their stories. Of course, for every writer who claims to be just a humble author - who may even live up to that most of the time - there's always usually at least one story or incident where they do take themselves a little too seriously. There's that theme, or moral, or just their magnum opus that by the time they're done with it you can tell it had taken on a life and importance of it's own, particularly in the author's head.

Now, guilty as I am of this myself, I would also posit it's a necessary conceit. Somewhere along the lines we decided that, whatever it was we had to say, it was worth sharing. Beyond just conversation with friends or families or co-workers, beyond whatever social circle we may inscribe around ourselves on the internet, we have the need to share what we write. You can quibble over whether the need to entertain equates with importance (and there are certainly arguments to be made on both sides of that, though for myself I would state in strident terms the importance of entertainment), but you can't argue that we feel our stories are worth sharing.

Not always more so than anyone else. For those of us who know other writers, unless you're being harsh - which sometimes you ought to be - we're by default associating with others who have the same conceit as we do and may well be more justified in that. We establish something of an equal footing, wherein we say "Yes, you're good, and worth sharing, but look at me, too." In part this may simply come about because unlike other, non-writers, we're willing to put in the time and effort to get it out there in the first place. While there is some satisfaction that comes in admiring your own work for a job well done, we are conditioned as human beings to want that external pat on the head or hearty "good job" from someone else.

Certainly more so than say your Uncle Bob, though. Maybe you have one of these (apologies to you if you do). He's the guy always telling jokes or stories at family get togethers. Might not even be Uncle Bob. He (or she) might be co-worker Bob. Or friend of a friend Bob. Whatever. He's always got stories to tell. But not beyond the confines of that small group he inhabits with you. It's the same reason someone who tells jokes on the golf course doesn't go into stand-up comedy. That impulse to share it with a wider audience, the self-confidence to believe it's worth putting out there, that's lacking in Uncle Bob. He doesn't need it, and doesn't think what he has to say is worth that extra penny to the world at large.

(Even if he thinks it's all worth it's weight in gold amongst his relatives/friends/coworkers.)

This applies to far more than just writers, of course, as the entire industry of talk radio and cable news seems to run on this. In some cases you could make the argument that their audience values the thoughts of the hosts more so than their own, thereby reversing the analogy, but it still holds for all the pundits.

So are our own thoughts really worth the extra penny? I think perhaps that depends on whether we're asking others to assess our opinions at that higher cost, or whether it's more a case of how much we have to chip in to get them to listen in the first place. But that's another entry entirely.