Saturday, August 27, 2011

Thoughts on Chapter 2 of "Writing Fiction" by Janet Burroway...

     Burroway's Chapter 2 is about "Showing and Telling," in writing...something we (as writers) harp on about a lot, but don't pay heed to when we write.  I'll be the first one to admit I'm guilty of over ponderous narrative devoid of great descriptions, littered with adverbs and overwritten with dreaded passive voice.

     JB (Janet Burroway) writes on page 21 that "Fiction tries to reproduce the emotional impact of experience."  This may seem counter-intuitive to the word 'fiction' itself, but the writer is not trying to reproduce exact emotions of a real experience, but seeking to reproduce emotions that most people would feel if a similar event occurred in their life. Loss of a loved one.  A plummet into poverty after living a life of luxury.  The enormous good fortune of finding buried treasure. Or the horrific experience of being buried alive.

   The reader needs to FEEL as if s/he is actually there, going through each experience, feeling what the character feels physically, mentally and emotionally if not spiritually.  When a writer helps a reader do that, then the author places an important ingredient into the story needed for a successful novel.

    JB talks about how the writer must include significant details in prose. She writes, "A detail is 'definite' and 'concrete' when it appeals to the senses. It should be seen, heard, smelled, tasted and touched" (p. 22). But she goes on to explain that not just any sensory detail is useful. The details must matter to the story.

    As I examine my own writing, I find I'm fairly good at surrounding descriptions, and including sensory details, but in my story, "The Flatulent Adventures of Dr Stench and the DC Underground," my individual characters need more description and detail.  They are odd, and a bit abstract and I need to describe them more to the reader so the reader can learn to know and love them as I do. The characters should feel real to the reader, not just in their emotions but how they look, move and speak.

    Another technique JB mentions is to avoid the passive voice in writing. This was something I struggled with early in my writing, and it still comes back to haunt me from time to time when I lose focus or when I just start writing in a free flow narrative to get started.  I've worked to avoid several words like "had been," "was," "were," "should have been," "seemed like," "became," from my prose. I'm not always successful. The active voice makes reading interesting and puts the reader into the story instead of telling them about it.

    In addition to avoiding passive voice, JB warns against overuse of the dreaded "ly" words.  Overuse of adverbs make a manuscript monotonous and lifeless, and I've struggled 'fervently' against using numerous adverbs.  In older novels (1950's-1980's), I find it interesting to read the liberal use of adverbs in the prose, and I guess it is either a sign of our times that we work to avoid them, or it is just (simply) better writing.  One thing I know for certain is the SOUND or rhythm of prose is much better without an excess of the cumbersome words.

    Some writers take "showing versus telling" to mean that there should be less narrative, and more dialogue. I don't think this is true. I think there is an art to writing narrative. The art of it is the construction, and how the story is woven to make it interesting to the reader. The narrative needs to involve the reader in sensory details, and in emotion, and this can be done without excessive dialogue.  As I  read through several manuscripts, I wonder sometimes if dialogue is used as a crutch for some writers who fear boring their readers with narrative.  I also wonder if editors would rather a writer who lacks the technique of developing interesting narrative, to resort to dialogue to keep the reader intrigued.

    After reading JB's Chapter 2, I plan to go back and look at my novel and rework it where I recognize changes are needed. Showing, instead of telling, can be tricky at times and I need to be sure I understand the difference.


“We are from the West. The world we suggest should be of a new wild West, a sensuous, evil world, strange and…

…haunting. The path of the sun.”
~Jim Morrison

I just finished reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House.”

     After reading other classic “haunting” stories, and listening to the hype of S.J.’s novel I reluctantly have to say I was a bit let down with this one when I was done.

     What I can appreciate is that it was perhaps a novelty of its time (I mean 1959 was three years before I was born), and the approach may have been unique in the horror/ghost world, but the story didn’t grip me.

     The first major distraction for me, as I read along, was the never-ending use of adverbs throughout the faded pages (I have an old copy).  I’ve mentioned this same distraction in an earlier blog with another older novel, but it is interesting to note how in many novels written betweem the 50’s to 80’s have “ly” words sprinkled liberally throughout them (kinda like salt on my French fries …and I adore salt and vinegar on my fries).  Today, a modern writer would get their pen or keyboard fingers smacked or hacked for doing such a thing.  And so I had to suppress my intense desire to start editing the text as I read.

     The second thing that bothered me is that I didn’t feel the least ‘involved’ in the story.  Neither Eleanor, nor Theodora, were particularly likeable characters. Actually, there wasn’t a human character I liked much at all. The only ‘being’ I liked (if one can call it such), was Hill House itself, if just for the descriptions and the ‘feel’ of it.  A couple of my favorite early descriptions were these…

“It was a house without kindness…” (So simple, yet evocative.)


“Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay until it was destroyed.” (This line sets up the rules of the novel in many ways, and lets the reader understand what kind of damnable building the characters will be dealing with.)

     Despite some lovely verbiage interspersed throughout, I wanted much more in the descriptions. I also thought at one point, if I read another line that described something as “dark” (a completely overused adjective) I was going to pull out a fingernail (someone else’s, not mine).  Another thing that bugged me was the repetition of certain lines . I really didn’t want to read another, “Journey’s end in lovers meeting.”  I felt there was little point in the extensive repetition.

     What I did like was some of the wording Shirley Jackson used in the novel. I found myself underlining passages and words that caught my eye and described something I may previously have had a ‘lack of the right word’ for. For example:

“…atavistic turn in the pit of her stomach...”
“…an act of moral strength…”
“…suspicious sullenness of her face…”
“…malicious petulance…”
“…arranged with unlovely exactness…”
“…her face was thin with anger…”
“…dim convoluted patterns…”

     I have a habit, when I read, of writing down words and phrases I like from novels, and keeping them in a notebook.  Anywhere from one word to three or five strung together.  I read over my notebook when I’m writing, and every now and then the perfect description will jump out at me.  One of my favorite descriptions is “gravestone gray.”  I’ve used that a few times.

     To finish with a brief summary of this novel, I felt it was okay, but it didn’t captivate me. I expected more, and maybe I’m just a poor reader and don’t recognize the brilliance of the story, but nothing about it really “wow’d” me.  My general feeling, when I got to the last page, was that at least I was at THIS journey’s end…and I was overwhelmed with relief.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Thoughts on First Lines...

 Thoughts on MGOC's Chapter:

"You Have to Start with SOMETHING, So It Might As Well Be Something Like This"   
by Gary Braunbeck

Assault, Intrigue and Beguile”

I found Gary’s descriptions of the three types of opening lines very interesting. I’d never had opening lines described quite in that way.  As a nurse-practitioner/midwife, my studies in anatomy often came with a different pneumonic for memorizing cranial nerves, or bones, or muscles.  Various silly (or sexual) mantras were repeated to help medical/nursing students recall vital procedures or medications.  Why not apply this method to the craft of writing?

When I went back and researched a few of my favorite novels, I found these opening lines:

"IT WAS THE PIVOTAL teaching of Pluthero Quexos, the most celebrated dramatist of the Second Dominion, that in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there was only ever room for three players." ~Clive Barker (Imajica)

"I've watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one." ~Orson Scott Card (Ender's Game)

"Picture to yourself the sickest place in the whole of Zamonia!" ~Walter Moers (Alchemaster's Apprentice)

"This memory came back to Billy Halleck, fittingly enough, as he stood on the scales at seven in the morning with a towel wrapped around his middle." ~Stephen King (Thinner)

Those are the 'first lines' of some stories I've enjoyed, but I'm not sure I'd say they are GREAT first lines. All I know is that the story pulled me in, and I was willing to go on the journey the author mapped out for me to take.  The first lines of these novels don't strike me as spectacular, but there is intrigue and a little beguiling in them.  I can't recall reading any novels that begin with a full frontal assault.

Gary’s examples of each type of opening line in writing were useful to read, and made me go back to look at some of my own short stories and other previous work.  What worked? What didn’t work, and why? I asked myself those questions as I did some self-analysis. Here are a couple of examples:

First line of Sapien Farm:

The farmhouse had been transformed in a matter of weeks into the type of lab they both desperately needed.”  (Intrigue? It's flat and I need to work on it.)

 First line of The Flatulent Adventures of Dr Stench and the DC Underground:

“The moon, still visible high above, began to fade against the dawning sky.”
(It’s a lackluster opening that does none of the three techniques Gary describes. The next line might work, however, to illicit intrigue…)
“A mournful tune rose up from Queen Vadoma’s throat and erupted into the branches of the old oak above her.”  (Is it better? I think so. But I think I'll still have to work on it.)

This first reading from MGOC has definitely encouraged my neurons to fire, and I’ve decided to go back and rework that ‘first line’ on all of my writings for better punch, quicker grab and deliberate impact.



Thursday, August 11, 2011

Writing Fiction: Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway (Chapter 1)

Chapter 1: Whatever Works: The Writing Process

I chose this "How to Book" for my 1st semester of the MFA Writing Popular Fiction program because "Many Genres: One Craft" (lovingly known now as MGOC) is a main text for other courses in the Seton Hill MFA program. I didn't want to repeat the same material, so here I am on Chapter 1.

Burroway starts out giving the aspiring writer some useful things to consider as s/he ponders putting words on the page, or more commonly on the screen. One of the first things she brings up is the usefulness of keeping a journal. She states to use journaling as a way to "give yourself permission to fail." I understand what she's saying but it sounds a bit lame to me. I mean, I don't need permission to fail. I can do it rather well. With style even. Still, her points are beneficial in that it's not so much WHAT I write, so long as I write every day.  And I think it should be something more than a Facebook post or a Tweet, although I'm poetic with those from time to time.

A journal allows me to capture some of the thoughts, and some of the experiences I've had throughout the day. People I meet have potential for characters in future books, etc.  For example, I go to surf often at a small little beach just north of Ventura called Mondos. There's a man there I see almost every time I go. He's built like I imagine a dwarf from Lord of the Rings to be.  He has "Gimli" hair, complete with the long beard, but he wears a wetsuit and rides on a longboard. He's graceful, and catches just about every wave he ever tries to take. One day, I started imagining him as a member of the dwarf species, but a subspecies that broke away from their earth dwelling brothers/sisters and took to the sea. I was embroiled so deep in the fanciful idea that when a large wave rose up in front of me without my brain registering it was there, I went tumbling in the froth, washed in the rinse cycle of the foaming wave.  Imagination can be dangerous sometimes.

Another area Burroway discusses is "freewriting", which is simply sitting down and writing whatever comes to mind. This is best done first thing in the morning, before the writer is really 'awake' in order to tap into that dream-functioning part of the brain. For me, what is more easily done is to sit down right after I wake and write about my dreams. I almost always remember them, at least for the first hour or two of waking. Every now and then they are so impressive that I never forget them. (I have childhood dreams/nightmares I still remember.) Sometimes I wish I had more time to put thoughts, ideas and concepts on a page. But life, for me, is not that kind. Time is precious, and its increments are a commodity I don't have enough of...not with a full time job, a family to care for, studies and other obligations.

Burroway describes how some writers are lucky enough to never have to "think" of a topic to write about. I suppose I'm very much like that. I can come up with anything that has story potential, and start writing.  The greatest dangers (for me) are: A. Losing interest in my story, poem, flash fiction and B. Starting something new before I've finished what I've started.  I've got a dozen or so short stories and novel pieces in a folder titled "Potentials" that would be dusty if electrons in a computer were pieces of paper.  They'd have coffee stains and wrinkles on them and might be piled into the bottom of an box. The greatest danger to them is a computer crash or some cyber-worm that decides to eat them.  Still, the parts and pieces of stories may come in handy in the future, so the folder remains there and grows.

Burroway's first chapter finishes with a few more items for the writer to consider. Things like being sure to have your work critiqued by others, forcing yourself to write even when the 'Muse' hasn't made an appearance to keep you company, and the benefit of workshops. She makes salient points that new writers should definitely pay attention to, because much of her highlighted areas are really writing "rules of conduct" that most of use abide by in the writing community. They are hints to help us get along on the prosey world.

Overall, I like Burroway's style of presentation. It is unpretentious and the first chapter is a writer's toolkit for getting started. As someone who didn't major in English or Creative writing, she hits some important points that I wish I'd known before I started writing novels, and I'm looking forward to the next chapters to see what she outlines next.