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More than One Way to Skin a Cat

by Jonathan 2 Comments

The imagery of this post’s title is awful, but I like the meaning. I’ve hared off and slung a whole bunch of words down on my laptop and am close to wrapping up the first draft of my first novel. Part of me thinks I should have studied more about the craft: plot, characterization, setting, and so on. However, I may never have written if I had gone about it that way. I just got a couple of new books as a 9th anniversary gift from my loving and supportive wife (Thanks!). BTW, is the 9th anniversary the Book Anniversary? It is at our house. I picked up Emily’s Ghost by West Virginia’s own Denise Giardina and The Lady with the Little Dog by Chekhov.

Character & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Character & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Both books I received are Writer’s Digest publications. The first is Character & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. I posted a little while ago about the search for inspiration to keep going (or inspirado as the D calls it). I highlighted Card’s book, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy there. Well, Mr. Card, your clever marketing pitch among those pages worked. I put Character & Viewpoint on my wishlist. So far I am enjoying it. Of course, I could read about the craft all day long and never do any writing. I think it will be useful over the long haul. I like Card’s easy style. He writes in a way that makes the techniques accessible, but not oversimplified.

The other book I received is Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. Again, this book is written in a easy style. Bell opens the book by exposing what he calls the Big Lie, which, alone, is worth the price of admission. Granted, I just gave you a link to said opening for free, but whatever.

And I discovered the most incredible thing. The Big Lie was a lie. A person could learn how to write, because I was learning.

James Scott Bell from Plot & Structure.

Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell

I’m about 60 pages into the book and I find it to be useful. I don’t know how many of the exercises I’ll do, but some will dovetail nicely with the novel I’m already working on.

So here I am, my first draft almost complete and I’m reading books that might have made my writing life a little better had I read them before embarking on my journey of a thousand miles. I will be devouring these books now in hopes that I can put some of the info to good use during the revision phase as well as trying out some of the techniques for some short stories I have in mind. We shall see.

If anyone has any experience with these books, please feel free to share. Or, if you have other writing books you find useful, throw ’em out there!

Latest Reads

by Jonathan 0 Comments
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Check Out All These Cool Fish!

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or Check Out All These Cool Fish!

I finally finished Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver a few weeks ago. I had planned to hit Don Quixote next, but, for reasons too complicated and too boring to recount, I opted for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I’m a little over half way through and I have to say that I’m getting more and more resentful with each page. I really wanted to like this book, but, so far I don’t.

Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat

First Edition of Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat

The story starts off well enough with a mysterious sea monster attacking ships, but bogs down in Verne’s love affair with marine biology. It’s kind of like ready Moby Dick, which is a pretty cool story, but having to slog through page after page of treatises on different whales and their respective anatomies. Hey Jules Verne, if I wanted to know so much about sea life, I would have been an ichthyologist. Perhaps if he had stuck with more sweeping description and less minutiae I would be less bitter.

On that note, I put down Verne and picked up Tortilla Flat by Steinbeck at the recommendation of a friend. I posted a couple of months ago about The Grapes of Wrath – if you don’t feel like checking that post out, just know that Grapes vaulted into my top 5 books of all time and I don’t even know what two of my top five are! Maybe that makes it a top 3. For the record Lord of the Rings and Song of Ice and Fire are my top 2.

Tortilla Flat delivers that same kind of feel as Grapes of Wrath. Set in Monteray, California at the end of World War I, Steinbeck delves into the lives of the paisanos just returned from war.

From Tortilla Flat Wikipedia Entry:

Above a town of Monterey on the California coast lies the shabby district of Tortilla Flat, inhabited by a loose gang of jobless locals of Mexican descent (who typically claim Spanish descent) whose riotous adventures are compared by Steinbeck to the exploits of the Knights of King Arthur.

Soft-hearted, unquestioningly loyal to one another, and in complete disregard of social conventions and expectations, the gutsy paisanos of Tortilla Flat cheerfully reside in a world of idyllic poverty. Steinbeck gives a description of a paisano, who according to Steinbeck speaks English with a paisano accent, and Spanish with a paisano accent: “He is a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican and assorted Caucasian bloods. His ancestors have lived in California for a hundred years or two…. He lives in that uphill district above the town of Monterey called Tortilla Flat, though it isn’t flat at all.” Most of the action which takes place in the novel is in the idyllic time of Steinbeck’s own late teenage and young adult years, shortly after WW I (1919, approximately).

It’s a quick read and highly entertaining. I enjoy the way Steinbeck explores the ability of men to rationalize what would otherwise be considered reprehensible actions. If you haven’t read this, do yourself a favor and check this out. In the meantime, it’s back to 20,000 Leagues for me. Hopefully the story will emerge more frequently than the Nautilus does.

Inside Captain Nemos Floating Man Cave

Inside Captain Nemo's Floating Man Cave

What Makes a Good Story?

Amazing freehand art by Gao Guangyan

Amazing freehand art by Gao Guangyan

Drifting through the ether of the interwebs, I’ve come across numerous accounts of what makes a good story. Here. Here. And here, for example. Commentors weave common answers related to plot, characterization, diction and so forth into the ongoing discussion. Along with techniques, style and the story itself, the reader’s predilections also determine what makes a good story. Those who devour mysteries have different criteria than consumers of inspirational writing whose criteria differ from fans of pulp fiction. And that’s okay. In fact, it is better than okay. I think that’s the part I love about reading. I have a pretty good handle on what I like – characters that surprise, world building with depth of time and geography, action, to name a few – but I also find that my willingness to try new works in different genres is exciting in its own right.

I commented earlier in Writing Standards, my post about my perception that it can be difficult to feel like your writing, your story, is different from others when you start using the conventional wisdoms of writing as your guide more than the story itself. I’ve read thrillers by many different authors and, after a while, they do start to run together. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop reading those, it just means I just don’t hunger for those kinds of books like I do for books such as Blade of Tyshalle, or Game of Thrones, or The Darkness that Comes Before. And there it is: I like fantasy of the epic sort. So not only do I need a good story, but also I need a certain elements that resonate long after I’ve finished the book. What makes a good story for you, the reader?

Though I’ve run off on a bit of a tangent here, my takeaway as a writer is to keep the audience in mind (in this case, it’s me). If I’m not enjoying what I’m writing, then my ideal reader probably won’t either.

Nugget of Truth

Came across this from Bibliophile Stalker.  I dig this particular Q & A from this Robert Freeman Wexler interview:

In your own words, how would you describe your style of writing? Or is Robert Freeman Wexler his own sub-category?

Every interesting writer is their own sub-category, and every interesting writer has been influenced by a lot of other writers. I don’t know how to describe my style of writing. I read things I like and try to write something that I would like to read. I like surrealist art and try to incorporate a surrealist feel into most of what I do. Is that a style-box I can fit into?
Amen, brother. Nice distillation of the why. If I’m writing something I’m not interested in reading, what’s the point?

The Search for Inspirado

I’m taking a little break. I just worked out about six hundred words that aren’t horrible and I felt like telling someone. Of course I’m assuming that someone might actually be reading these posts. I’m all about the fantasy.

How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card

I’ve read a number of places (Steven King’s On Writing and Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy immediately come to mind) that writing is a lonely job.

I am committed to having my first draft by the end of August. I am committing to increasing my actual writing time each day. I thought I would originally be shooting for 100k words, but it looks like I may have to eclipse that a bit to tie everything up. I’m okay with that (at least now. I’ll probably be despairing sometime later this week on my rollycoaster ride that is writing).

Stephen Kings On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I would love to get published on my first effort (not first draft, first effort), but I understand it is a long shot. I consider my current work to be, at the very least, an awesome learning experience. It’s a great way to let me know what works for me (scheduled writing time) and what doesn’t (totally winging the story). It also helps me wrangle my inner critic enough that I enjoy even the clunkers and the hard days.

Jack Black once said in Tenacious D, The Search for Inspirado (HBO TV), “I could manufacture Inspirado, but that would be false.” Of course he’s dead wrong, but still funny. The best way to manufacture Inspirado is to sit down and write. I’d love to hear any anecdotes of your search for Inspirado and enjoy this little Tenacious D video. ***Coarse language warning and irrevocable loss of the next 9 minutes and 10 seconds of your life.***