Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Writer’s Little Helper

Do you think writing is a matter of inspiration and intuition, that talent is what singlehandedly produces classics, that it is up to creative geniuses to forge fiction’s universes, and that a great work’s words are addressed to those readers smart and patient enough to grasp the true meaning that hasn’t been polluted by commercial concerns? If your answer is yes, then be aware that the author of the book I’m briefly describing here would emphatically say no.

The book is The Writer’s Little Helper, by James V. Smith, Jr. (Writer’s Digest, 2006, 246 pp.). This book stands out from the formidable number of writing how-to books by analyzing “the technical aspects of writing fiction from the point of view of giving readers what they want in a best-seller” (2). That’s how the author puts it, at least. The book is certainly out to help writers produce commercial fiction, and more specifically bestsellers. Smith doesn’t want to help you become a writer’s writer, or a lit theory professor’s writer. He wants to help you reach mass audiences and sell. That doesn’t necessarily mean to sell out—more on this in a second. In that, Smith’s book is not alone. There are several books with the same goal in mind; think back briefly to another title I discussed: Morrell’s Thanks, but.

Even if its focus on readers is not unique, there is something distinctive about Smith’s book—aside from the succulent, full-color, glossy-paper edition. And that is its commitment to the measurable. This may sound odd, but the book is loaded with tools, numerical standards, and schemes you can apply when you plan your fiction, write it, and above everything edit it.

Like what? Like this: structure your novel around ten major scenes. Stick to a Flesch Reading Ease level of 80% or greater. Keep fast-paced scenes above a composite score of 86, obtained by subtracting the Flesh-Kincaid grade level from the Flesch Reading Ease level. Write simple sentences of less than 20 words, while aiming for an average word count of 12. Plot pace across an n-scene stretch in a graph, in order to see how the pace rises and falls and whether this pattern conforms to what you had in mind when plotting those scenes. Strive for singularity: a single idea in each sentence.

The author explains one of the benefits of using such numerical devices: “You don’t have to rely on some vague scale like, It sounds good to me” (130). The catch is also set forth in the book: “don’t rely on readability and mathematical results alone” (133). And that’s a sensible assessment of what the book offers: tools you can use to structure and adjust different aspects of your work (always keeping the mass audience in mind), while remembering that your writing instincts and your other methods to edit and plot are also important. Calculators don’t write novels, but something that sounds good to a writer can also lead straight to his or her manuscript’s rejection at an editor’s desk.

So, whatever your gut reaction to such number crunching is, it all shows a highly professionalized book industry in action. Becoming a professional author, living off it instead of dabbling in it enough to make it to an occasional writer’s conference, demands professional commitments. The tools Smith discusses set standards that help us understand why fiction sometimes goes awry, or why it’s soporiferous to readers and shunned by editors.

Now, these standards are no substitute for talent and good judgment. Smith says you become a truly competent writer once you’ve written a million words (225). It’s your profession by then, and not vulnerable to seizures like writer’s block. The million-word mark is interesting, and there’s probably something to it (Gladwell speaks of a 10,000-hour mark in Outliers). But talent cannot be left aside. Not everyone can produce durable and marketable fiction by just cranking out a million words. To take an example at hand: honestly, the quotations Smith draws from his own fiction weren’t appealing at all. That doesn’t make him a bad writer about fiction, though.

Here’s my take: if you write frequently enough to care about these devices, you’ve probably been doing it for long. You’ve been inebriated with words to the point of being teased by playmates in school and tormented by classmates later on. You’re likely to have put off pub crawls in order to stay inside and read. You’ve probably been honked at after you didn’t see the light turn green because you were probing imaginary people to see how they would react in a given situation. If you haven’t given up on writing after such a long and trying time, perseverance is on your side. And talent probably is too.

If you’re such a person, and you believe you can fine-tune your fiction in order to reach wider audiences, and thus have more time to do what you really wish to do (read and write some more), then books with practical advice of the kind you can try at home and use to tweak your piece can’t hurt. For instance, Smith’s Reading Ease Index would alert me to the fact that the sentence I just wrote, and the first sentence of this post, are both in dire breach of readability. They’re treacherously long. You can take that advice and choose not to use it. But at least you know where to start chipping away if your fiction is running into trouble.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

John le Carré, The Little Drummer Girl

In keeping with this year’s interest in bestsellers, here is a brief comment on a novel from bestselling author John le Carré: The Little Drummer Girl (New York: Scribner [1983, 2004], 473 pp). Let’s start with the plot: Israeli intelligence officers enlist Charlie, a young, emotionally fragile British actress with radical political views, for a mission to bring down a known Palestinian terrorist (Khalil). She is persuaded to help mainly because she falls in love with one of the Israelis (Gadi Becker, known to Charlie as Joseph). The mission consists of an elaborate hoax to fake a secret love affair between Charlie and the terrorist’s younger brother (Salim, who goes by the alias Michel) in order to get Charlie into the organization and then wind her way up to the older brother. (I can’t say if the hoax works without giving away the ending.)

I started with the plot to make this point: the novel is just too long for the slenderness of the plotline. We get such a dizzying density of detail that, even when those details are well chosen and cleverly described, it’s hard not to wish that something would hurry the story along. In fact, I kept thinking that a screenplay would do wonders for the novel, paring the excess down to the admittedly well-built essentials. Take the part about enlisting Charlie; the novel needs the whole of 150 large, small-fonted pages to get there. When the plan is finally set in motion, we are around page 250.

There is something to be said in defense of these details. In fact, the novel says it: “She [Charlie] picked out these details with accuracy because there are times when details can supply the only link with reality” (265). So there you go: the novel sees details as the way to produce verisimilitude. It works. You do get a sense of having toured a convincingly real world. But, like some ten-day, ten-country tours, it’s overkill. You can sample the degree of detail by reading chapters 8 and 10, which focus compulsively on details in order to build a credible story for the terrorist organization. That’s pretty much how the book as a whole works. Characters abound, many of them named and characterized to never appear again. Descriptions of setting are intricate. Everything seems to be under the scrutiny of a microscope rather than the lens of a regular camera. (Okay, it’s not the most obsessively detailed novel I’ve read: that would be A Suitable Boy, on which I’ll have something to say later on. But The Little Drummer Girl still traveled heavily through the story.)

Now, there are some brilliant characters in the big constellation created in the novel. The German terrorist Astrid Berger is a powerful presence in the book. And the person I considered most intriguing was Kurtz, an Israeli officer who impersonates a whole cast of characters as he moves from one setting to another, always knowing how to present himself and his information in order to get his way. He is calculating and more than willing to make sacrifices, but he wants to stave off the hawks in government.

Many of these characters are created by evocative and effective brushstrokes. Some of the descriptions make nice use of lyricism, without overdoing it (“lucid but allowably lyrical sentences,” in James Woods’s brilliant description of the language of mainstream realist fiction). But there are two main flaws with the novel’s narrative technique.

The first flaw is the way in which the descriptions are presented, which may appear freshly varied but it strikes me as plain sneaky and noisy. Sometimes the narrator is so fully aware of everyone’s intentions and thoughts, even those of minuscule characters, that it could be aptly described as overomniscient. “Over” because most omniscient narrators nowadays exert some kind of restraint, often relying on what specific characters experience. Not in this novel. And that same all-knowing narrator often moves without warning to the tone of a field report in which information is kept from everyone except privileged observers. This is an example: “What passed precisely between the two men could not at first be known, for neither Kurtz nor Gavron was of a confiding nature” (33). As I said, we may argue in favor of this wavering as a source of amusing variety, but sneaky is, again, the word that comes to mind, the apparent result of the author’s strategic indecision rather than the smart construction of a narrative voice.

The second flaw is one we could call overintrusion. At times, the author butts in with aphorisms that make me think of a fireside lecture about life delivered by a man on a rocking chair. Take these three examples: “that also is a feature of explosions […]: a communal, wild urge to celebrate the living, rather than to waste time mourning the dead” (5); “But lust, or nature, or whatever it is that makes fools of us, had its way” (49); “There is a terrible, yet pastoral peace that comes from living for a long time among the world’s real victims” (378). At other times, the descriptions become a bloated display of cleverness; even if they are enjoyable when considered individually, they often get in the way of the narrative. This may be a suitable example: “He had the senior policeman’s fastidious bad grammar and the borrowed good manners of a gentleman, and both were returnable without notice any time he damn well felt like it” (316).

Even with that aphoristic tendency, le Carré often rises as an insightful observer of human affairs. I liked, for instance, the way in which Kurtz describes Charlie’s embrace of radical politics: “Do you think we do not understand that your politics are the externalisation of a search for dimensions and responses not supplied to you when you most needed them?” (149).

So, do I recommend it? Sure, if you have a long flight or whatnot. The plot is good enough to carry you through to the end. It’s not poorly written; in fact, it’s in a different category altogether from some of the badly written bestsellers (e.g.). But the narrative technique and the deluge of details did sometimes interfere with my reading pleasure.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Vheissu: An Autoblography

A hundred posts. This is post number 100, in fact. Is 100 a lot? (At the very least, that’s quite a few hours spent blogging.) Is 100 too little? (A post every five and a half days, more or less, over the past 18 months.) Too many or too few, it’s still a good chance to stop and think back about Vheissu. Hence the title of this post: the autobiography of a blog. It’ll be brief. Bear with me.

I was far from an expert on blogs (I still don’t consider myself one) when I started blogging back in December 2008. I had roamed around some blogs, and sprinkled some comments here and there (taking them much too seriously, I now realize). I saw the forms some blogs on literature (in Spanish) were taking, and was both enticed and deeply disappointed. I also saw what kinds of hokum often became instantly popular with bloggers (many of those blogs read like prolix, intimate letters that went public by mistake), and felt both puzzled and determined not to repeat the pattern. At the same time, I felt sickened by some novels that in late 2008 were getting prizes they really didn’t deserve. The combination of that revulsion and my first dip into the blogosphere became the driving force behind my first idea for a blog: writing about (strike that: denouncing) novels that were winning prizes. A blog about award-winning novels. I tried to cajole other bloggers I knew to join the project. Got a couple nah’s, and the idea fizzled out.

I still went ahead and hatched a blog, encouraged by my cousin, who had far more experience with that universe. The blog needed an address and a name. Some daft fellow somewhere had taken federicoescobar already, as a class exercise it seems, and left it moribund. So it was down to federicoescobarcordoba. What about a name for the blog? I was entranced by Pynchon then, and I was hooked by the mysterious Vheissu that appeared in his first novel, V. So that would be it. Later I realized that Vheissu was also an album by Thrice (the name was inspired by Pynchon too), which will probably be your first hit when you Google it. I closed my first post pointing to Pynchon’s Vheissu.

Next issue was the language of the posts. As you can see, post number 1 was in English, posts numbers 2 and 3 in Spanish. Somebody asked about that wavering. The answer I gave then is still true today: it depends on what I’m writing about. If it’s a book in English, the post will follow suit; if it’s in Spanish, ditto. Lately, though, I’ve been indulging English more than Spanish (good ole post 100 is an example). Why? Good question. Perhaps it’s just a matter of the gravitational pull of what I’ve been reading the most recently.

The contents of the blog were fixed: I would be writing comments on literature and thereabouts (the book industry or language, for instance). I’ve made an effort to keep silent on nonfiction books, which I love to read, but I may give in to temptation when they are particularly significant.

I had my doubts about posting my own short stories. With some misgivings at first, I did post a few, both in English (tag: Fiction) and in Spanish (tag: Ficción). I’ve removed some of them, though, because I submitted them to journals or mailed them to contests. And I haven’t posted any recently, largely because I’ve been working on a novel, with little time left after bill-paying work for writing short stories.

The frequency of posts has varied. I left the blog dormant for a while (starting here), mostly because I was having doubts about keeping the blog and because work got out of hand. But work hadn’t abated when, in a moment of madness, I committed myself to writing a post a day during the whole of August 2009. It was a self-proclaimed short story month, announced here and begun here. It was exhausting, and I have no immediate plans on repeating that frenzy. Afterward, I have been writing posts on and off, posts have become shorter than at the beginning, and short stories figure prominently as subjects.

That last sentence pretty much brings us to the present. I set out some goals for the year, and hence I’ve been writing about bestsellers (even about books literary types outright shun, and I mean this literally: I recently tried to give away this book to three writers, and all of them snubbed it with gagging sounds and head shaking). I’ve also discussed books on writing, and more comments along the lines are on the way.

So, having said all that, retrospection time is over. What’ll come next? A note on a John Le Carré novel. Comments on a barrage of One Story stories, and then back to TNY to discuss recent pieces. Somewhere along the line, postings on the three most recent Zoetropes. It’ll take a while to get there, but that’s the plan.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

iPads, Doctorow, Journals

I know it’s aged in the last few weeks (three generations or more in magazine shelf life), but the article by Ken Auletta called “Publish or Perish” (TNY, April 26, 2010) is certainly worth reading. The future of books appears even gloomier than I had thought, with many people just giving up on the printed tomes we’ve grown so accustomed to over the last hundreds of years. Add to that an economic crisis and a culture of downward pricing (or free access) associated with the Internet, and we are left with legions of authors orphaned by traditional publishing houses (or simply routed away from them), who turn to self-publishing and direct marketing of their books through retailers like Amazon.

The article is filled with interesting facts about the book industry, which I always find elusive and intriguing. For instance, I didn’t know that Amazon is constantly selling books at a loss, and has done so especially in its e-books for the Kindle. I was surprised to find out that the major book publishers “do no market research.” And this was sobering: “The industry produces more than a hundred thousand books a year, seventy per cent of which will not earn back the money that their authors have been advanced; aside from returns, royalty advances are by far publishers’ biggest expense. Although critics argue that traditional book publishing takes too much money from authors, in reality the profits earned by the relatively small percentage of authors whose books make money essentially go to subsidizing less commercially successful writers. The system is inefficient, but it supports a class of professional writers, which might not otherwise exist.” Seventy percent? That’s far higher than I expected.

That same edition of The New Yorker published a short story by E. L. Doctorow called “Edgemont Drive.” It’s a story that describes an old man—a poet, a professor—who parks in front of a house where he used to live as child. There are no quotation marks or narrators: just the people speaking, a paragraph each. The story exposes the struggle between a jealous, pessimistic man and his naïve, depressed wife. The couple lives in the house that the poet visits. The story is daring, and it gets away with it because other voices intrude and we don’t lose our sense of who’s speaking. But that’s all I have to say about its merit. The story reminded me of a piece by Sam Shepard in Zoetrope last year (a comment here on Perpetual Folly), but Shepard’s brief story was more intriguing and provocative.

On a final note, an interesting ranking of literary magazines was published a few days ago by Lincoln Michel of The Faster Times, here. He organized the journals into tiers, with an off-the-charts tier made up of Harper’s and The New Yorker, followed by five tiers. The author has since given up on his ranking (the reasons are explained in the article), and what you find now is a list. Still, it’s very useful if you are considering what magazines you should submit your stories to. It also gives you a sense of the magnitude of the universe of literary magazines in the English-speaking world. It would be a serious challenge to do something similar in, say, Spanish: I can count respected literary journals in Spanish with the fingers of one hand. So, after the sour note about book publishing at the beginning of this post, I end with a heartening reminder of the wide array of publishing opportunities still available for fiction.