Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Importance of Not Flinching

Now we come to what I think is the most important rule of all for a writer: Don't flinch.

Everything you see and experience can be used in your writing, but you must have your eyes open to see it.  Be aware of your surroundings.  Listen to what others say, and how they say it.  Don't talk much yourself, but draw others out on what they think and believe.  Be open to new experiences, different ways of doing things.  Travel.  Become friends with different types of people.  Even if it's hard, even if you're shy, do it for your writing.  Don't flinch.

Sometimes you'll see something happening that's wrong.  If you can alter it, by all means intervene.  But maybe you can't really do anything about it, or your interference would only make things worse.  If you're a writer, your job isn't over in that case.  Keep looking.  You can use it later.  When others learn of it, they may have the means to act.  Whatever you do, don't flinch.

When you start writing, and you're putting your thoughts and ideas on paper, you may come to a part that's emotionally difficult.  Maybe your characters will say ugly things, or uncomfortable events may transpire.  Let them.  This is the part that others need to read.  They need to know others have thought those thoughts, or felt those feelings, or had those things happen to them.  The ugliness and discomfort need to be out in the open.  If it's ugly and needs to be killed, how can you do that if you can't even see it?  But sometimes, something you thought was ugly turns out to be beautiful once you really look at it.  You have to see it to know.  Don't flinch.

Perhaps you're writing escapist fiction.  Shouldn't you leave the ugly and uncomfortable out?  After all, people sometimes just want to read something for fun without all that real world stuff in there.  You'll have to use your judgment, but I would point out that some of the world's great escapist literature had a lot of uncomfortable truth.  Think of Huckleberry Finn, on one level a boys' adventure story, on another a penetrating look at attitutes towards race.  And even in escapist fiction, characters still have to follow their own nature.  Plots still have to unwind plausibly.  Sometimes that means they don't quite go where you want them to.  Don't flinch.

Maybe you're writing a book for children.  Of course there is material that's inappropriate for kids.  That's why fairy tales disguise uncomfortable truths in magic.  Once you break it down, is there any story, anywhere, harder and more clear-eyed than Hansel and Gretel?  Perhaps Lolita, but not much else.  And it's a fairy tale!  Even when writing for children, don't flinch.

Once kids are older, they can handle a lot, probably more than you think.  I well remember the smart kids in the seventh grade passing around Flowers in the Attic.  That book was truly lurid, with themes of bondage and incest, but we ate it up.  Probably not the healthiest thing for us to read, but we weren't corrupted.  If anything, it provided us a few pieces in putting together the puzzle that was sex.  It doesn't matter that it was trashy, we knew that, and knew it wasn't something emulate.  We were wide-eyed, and willing to consume anything that might help us understand.  Better were the YA novels of, say, Judy Blume.  Heavy, sexual subject matter, but treated with sensitivity.  That's how you should do it.  But whatever you do, don't leave it out.  Don't flinch.

In the post on writing breakout novels, I think I mentioned how that book describes debut novels, and novels by authors who haven't broken out, as feeling small.  I believe one key to overcoming the smallness is being willing to turn the light of fiction on those dark corners that many are afraid to peer into.  Even if monsters lurk there, even if ghosts pop out, whatever you do, don't flinch.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

What I'm Reading: Hell Phone

I typically read a few YA or middle grade novels a year, usually when my wife, a YA librarian, finds a book she thinks I'll find funny.  But since my WiP is a scary middle grade novel, I recently asked her to bring some YA horror home.  One of the first ones she picked out is Hell Phone, by William Sleator.  I think she got it because for me, all cell phones are hell phones.  OK, maybe I'm something of a Luddite.  But on to the book.

In Hell Phone, Nick is a hard-working teen from a family without much money.  He wants a cell phone so he can call his girlfriend, and when he sees an ad for cheap cell phones at a skeevy convenience store, he goes in and walks out with the cheapest one they have.  Now the problems start.

Whenever Nick turns the phone on, he gets mysterious calls from individuals who sound malicious or victimized.  Then too, there's the phone's game section, with selections he's never heard of before: Torture Master and Don't Look Back.  Soon, he's following the instructions of one of the callers, Fleck, who claims to be trapped in hell, but thinks he can get out if Nick will gather some electronic items and connect them to the phone.  The phone seems to weaken Nick's willpower, and his changed personality causes a rift between he and his girlfriend and mother.

When Fleck threatens his girlfriend (and reveals details about her no stranger would know), Nick steals the necessary items to keep her from coming to harm.  After he puts them together, a beaten and bloodied man appears in front of his mom's trailer.  As you might guess, releasing Fleck from hell was not a good idea.  Fleck involves Nick in a conspiracy to gain a large inheritance, and is not above murder to get his way....

The book is definitely a page-turner, and I notice Sleator manages to include conflict on every page--as we've seen in previous entries on this blog, that is a requirement for breakout novels.  And there are some really cool scenes, especially later on, when we get a glimpse of hell itself.  Ultimately, I found the story disappointing, though.  The biggest flaw is the characters.  Even Nick is not especially well-rounded, and none of the characters besides him are anything other than one-dimensional types.  The setting too is under-developed.  It sort of feels like a small-town, but we don't learn anything about it other than the most generic indications of "trailer park", "high school", "avenue", and "apartment complex."

Also, the central device of the novel is a problem.  We never find out exactly why the cell phone works!  There's some handwaving about Fleck being a computer expert and his connection to its previous owner (who does show up), and certainly it's creepy not knowing much about the phone, but in this case I think we need to know more.  If it were some sort of ancient artifact from Hell, a reader could accept that we don't know how it operates.  But a cell phone is modern, coldly scientific.  So what makes it effective in the mystical realm of Hell?  Is it cursed?  Was there a ritual performed to make it work?  We don't really know.

In the end, I might recommend this to a teenager with a particular interest in horror and who has already read everything by Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, R.L. Stine, etc., or somebody who, like me, really hates cell phones.  But a general reader can skip it with no qualms.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

How to write about object location

One mistake I often used to make was over-precision in writing about the physical location of objects in a scene.

Robert put his keys on the end of the countertop.  He dropped his pen.  It fell to the floor and rolled three feet from his shoe.

The living room contained a love seat, two chairs, a shelf with books, and a side table with a lamp.  The two chairs were placed to either side of the side table.  The door was at the far end of the room and opened outward.

The first time a reader comes across something like this he may read it carefully in the expectation that for some reason it will prove important in a page or two.  When it doesn't he will skip any similar over-description the next time it occurs.

Far better to use vague terms for location and put in only a few important details.  Precise physical relationships are unnecessary.  The reader's imagination will fill in the rest.

The punch landed right in Edward's gut.  The gun flew out of his hand and landed on the ground, just out of reach.

Jane's bedroom was almost completely pink: curtains, carpet, even furniture.  Stuffed animals covered every surface.  On the pink bedspread was a single book: How to Commit a Murder.

For some reason the telephone tends to attract too much attention from writers.  Everybody knows how a telephone works, there's no need to attach elaborate description.

Don't do this:  The phone rang.  John crossed the room and picked it up on the third ring.  "Hello," he said, cradling the receiver between his head and shoulder.

Better:  The phone rang.  "Hello?" John said.

Friday, January 11, 2013

What I'm Reading: Superparenting for ADD

No, not a comic series, although maybe Superparent would be a good character!  Rather, Drs. Edward Hallowell and Peter Jensen have written a book encouraging parents to focus on the strengths of an ADD (that is, a hyperactive) child.  For those looking for a general guide to ADD and its treatment, this is not the book for you.  This is a more specialized book specifically on turning what are generally regarded as the negative traits of ADD into positive forces in your child's life.

Hallowell and Jensen make a good point, that though ADD is often thought to be a deficiency in the brain, it's really more of a personality type.  And really, it is sort of ridiculous to think that a trait that affects so many children (8.4% of all kids) is a disease.  It's just another way that people are.  In times past, it's easy to imagine that hyperactive kids would've had an advantage over others--centuries ago, when much of life was spent outdoors, the energy and diffused attention of the hyperactive personality would have been a real benefit.  It's only in today's world, where we expect kids to sit at a desk and listen to a teacher for seven hours a day, that it becomes a negative.

The authors provide some good advice on how to help your kids do their homework, get along in school, and make the most of their childhoods.  I don't want to give away all the secrets in this review, but a lot of their recommendations have to do with letting the kids move while they do their work, or have multiple sources of stimuli (ADD kids are natural multi-taskers).

They also present a system for measuring learning/working styles I've never seen before, one developed by a Dr. Kathy Kolbe.  It reminds me of the Meyers-Briggs personality inventory, but is a little different.  The Kolbe Index has four scales: Fact Finder, Follow-Through, Quick Start, and Implementor; and on each of these scales, an individual can score as resistant, accomodating, or insistent.  Again, read the book to find out exactly what these mean, but suffice it to say the Kolbe index is a useful lens for considering how people operate.

And it's with the Kolbe Index that the authors show how ADD can be a strength for your child.  ADD kids tend to be high (or insistent) in Quick Start and sometimes in Implementor, and low (or resistant) in Follow-Through and sometimes Fact Finder.  This is almost the opposite of the typical teacher, who are Fact-Finding and Follow-Through fiends.  It's easy to see where conflict can arise in school!  But that doesn't mean your child is destined for a horrible life--high Quick Start and Implementor scores correspond with success in a number of careers.  And once you know about your child's strengths, you can start to make changes in his approach to school that may lead to an easier time.

I would definitely recommend this book for any parent with an ADD child.  I sometimes wished while reading for a greater density of factual material and a little less rah-rah for how great the ADD child can be.  But then I've been known to read biology text books for fun.  I expect most readers will appreciate the lighter touch, and find a lot of useful information.  For myself, I think the book has made me more admiring of my own child and appreciative of his qualities, for which I owe the authors my thanks.

Monday, January 7, 2013

How does writing a novel improve your writing?

Well, obviously, if you commit to write a novel, you write nearly every day for weeks or months on end.  That much practice can't hurt!  As Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers, it takes 10,000-hours of practice to gain mastery of a skill.*   Writing a novel certainly burns through those hours.

It also keeps your creative pot in a constant ferment.  The creative side of your mind is always working to come up with solutions to problems in your novel: ways to deepen characters, close plot holes, intensify action.  And when you need to apply creativity to other endeavors, especially other writing projects, you're already spewing ideas.  I think this may be what rock musicians refer to as "road chops," the idea that the best time to record an album is when you come back from a tour.

Finally, I think writing a novel forces you to write scenes and situations you wouldn't normally.  When you write a short story, the scope is so limited you can really choose the scenes you feel most interested in or comfortable writing.  But in a novel, you're always coming to places where you have to write beyond your comfort zone, simply because the plot is so involved and the characters so numerous.  That, even more than the first two points, is what really stretches your writing skills.

* This may not be a rule Gladwell actually came up with him himself; apologies to whomever he cribbed it from if that's the case.