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Shaken

Firstly, I apologize to the followers of this post for having neglected you for so long. This year, I have found many such apologies in the blogs that I follow, and I understand. Sometimes, we’re interrupted or become over-committed. LIFE gets in our way. In my case, I could kick about my situation or complain about LIFE stepping in and throwing my recent writing goals to the curb, but as a writer I know that we need LIFE to give us new material.

Also, after my three recent books on writing technique, I felt for a while that I’d said all I had to say on method and approach. This attitude is unfair to you as followers and shirks my responsibility to you. However, as a writing teacher once said to me many years ago when I was as yet unpublished and living on dreams and sheer determination … “From time to time, you have to let the well fill back up.”

Earlier this summer, when I was feeling guilty about posting nonsense about toads instead of advice on killing adverbs, I told myself to pull it together. It was time to walk into my office, sit in my writing chair, and resume posting on writing techniques.

Instead, a weird thing happened. I was plowing through a stack of possible novels to assign to my university course on genre fiction this fall when I read a book by a highly successful author of romance and romantic suspense. It was my first exposure to this writer’s work. I don’t know whether it’s representative of her usual effort or an aberration or a new direction for her.

All I know is that this genre novel had next to no plot. The protagonist hit a strong and dangerous problem in chapter one. That problem was resolved in chapter two. The romance was clenched in less than twenty-five pages. The subplots were introduced and resolved without any conflict. And the rest of the story filled in with illness, personal makeovers, and wardrobe decisions.

That book poleaxed me.

In hindsight, I realize that it got to me because I was tired and stressed due to LIFE. Worry and lack of sleep had sapped my reserves more than I realized. And for the last three weeks after reading that book, I kept thinking, What is the use?

That question is always a danger signal for any writer, at any time, in any situation.

It means, in effect, that the writer is surrendering, giving up, and abandoning the art and joy of creating with words on the page. Whether a writer is stymied by lack of time, distractions, hindrances, self-doubt, criticism, lack of support, or whatever form of resistance being thrown at her, too much of it becomes a tsunami that can drown intentions, goals, writing schedules, and projects.

What is the use, I wondered, of standing on technique, of trying to teach unwilling and recalcitrant students how to form scenes, follow plot questions, or handle pacing? It was as though I was trying to swim across a river, and that novel was a cement block thrown at me instead of a life preserver.

In recent years, I’ve seen waves of poor writing flood our entertainment industry, whether in books or films. I’ve read too many reader reviews raving about books that turn out to be nothing more than gimmickry or a mess of episodic events strung together. I’ve attended writer conferences where young, up-and-coming writers thumb their noses at plot and story design. I’ve watched the publishing industry crashing in Zepplin-flames as the seasoned editors retire or are driven from their jobs in the name of corporate downsizing.

From food to stories, the fashion du jour seems to be deconstruction. I understand this is a fad. I understand that youngsters love rebellion and delight in taking things apart. Yet in a year where the whole world seems to be embracing the cause of anarchy with no signs of stopping, I can’t help but think of that era of history when knowledge and civilization faltered, and Europe plunged into the Dark Ages.

See what I mean? In such a gloomy mindset, how easy–after reading a pleasant but utterly plotless effort by a bestselling author–for me to say, “Writing has reached its end. Stories are dead.”

Yeah, I realize I’ve been a drama queen about the incident. But writers have to over-react. Writers have to be too sensitive. Writers have to be so empathetic that we absorb the emotions of others and vibrate to their joys, tragedies, and comedies.

Good stories are still being written. Plots still exist out there. But, for the past month, I clung to the cement block and sank. I spent a lot of evenings thinking and pondering whether to abandon the abilities and skills I’ve been honing for a lifetime. Was it time to walk away? To say, no more writing?

Well, one of the precepts of genre writing is that readers will accept any emotion in a character except self-pity. It seems to me that it’s a good precept to follow in real life as well. So I dropped the cement block and floated back up to the surface.

Meanwhile, LIFE has backed off its pressure slightly. Stress has dropped a fraction. Sometimes, I get more sleep. I have been reading other books from my stack and they are better. I have dug down and found that my innate stubborn determination is still within me. It’s shaken but intact.

There is usefulness in what I do and teach. I will not stop doing what I know and believe in. I am competitive enough, stubborn enough, certain enough, and trained enough to go on. And if American literacy drops even lower than its current, shameful fourth-grade level, and we become monkeys able only to point and click, then I will hold my lantern aloft for as long as I’m able.

Meanwhile, my intention is to resume regular posts and put my writing schedule back on track. We’ll see how it goes.

 

 

 

 

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Never Surrender

Back in the spring of 2015, I announced in a blog post that I was going to attempt the reading of 100 books during that summer. No doubt some of you just rolled your eyes. A few cheered me on. And there were those who thought maybe I should allow myself a year to do it.

Smarties, aren’t you?

It took me a year and three months to fill in my list of 100 titles and authors. I feel a bit chagrined that it took so long.

Well, realistic or not, I prefer to dream big and reach high. And in my enthusiasm for the project, I have to admit that I was recalling those halcyon summers of my childhood when I had nothing to do but read–sometimes one book a day, occasionally two–and the most exercise I got was walking to the public library to check out more. Life is a little busier these days and, despite two summers, I somehow never got around to actually spending a day reading on the sofa now and then, which had been my intention.

I read several books that had long been on my get-to-these pile. Others were old favorites that I reread with pleasure. I did not write down the titles of any I began but didn’t finish. Several duds were chucked aside. And some ghastly nonfiction tome bogged me down for over a week.

But in November when I filled in the title for #100, it was with a feeling of regret that the list was finished. Now I sort of miss the discipline of recording each book, and I wish, too late, that I’d dated each one. I’m thinking about starting another list, just for grins.

People of leisure used to keep what are known as book diaries, where they would enter the title and author of each book they read, along with the date and either a brief synopsis or their opinion of the work. Isn’t that a lovely custom? I am enticed by the romanticism of it. The leather-bound journal and a mother-of-pearl Parker fountain pen lying just so on my antique slant-front desk, ready for me to sit down on gentle afternoons and record my impressions of someone’s toil and effort to bring characters and their troubles alive.

And yet, have any of us time for such an indulgence? In today’s harum-scarum world of texting, multi-tasking, racing crosstown on interstates, too many appointments and a phone chiming to remind us of them all while juggling jobs, soccer games, grocery shopping, online banking, pinterest boards, tweeting, and walking our dogs–how can we fit in a book diary? Is there an app for that?

We know, however, that we will always make time somehow to do the things we really want to do.

I suppose the question then boils down to whether I really want to devote the time an actual book diary would take, or do I just want an excuse to shop for a blank journal in pretty binding? In looking over my list of completed titles, I must admit that few of them are worthy of an essay opinion expressed via bottled ink on fine paper. And the OCD in me worries about the following:  how long a journal should I buy? What if I write several pages about a book and eat up the journal and then it’s not long enough to complete the year’s reading list? What if I need two journals? What if they don’t match? Should I buy two to start with? But wouldn’t it be neater if everything was contained in one?

(And people wonder why writers sometimes never get around to actually typing manuscripts.)

Just think, I’m contemplating a new way to procrastinate away from my keyboard. Because if I vent my writing steam on the book diary, will I have any energy or will or creative juice left to actually produce the day’s writing quota?

Whatever I decide, I have until January 1, 2017, because that is when I want to start my new reading project. Maybe I’ll face reality this time and forget the book diary. I can print out another numbered list to fill in. It’s easy and quick–as long as I don’t misplace the list–and can be done on paper or on my phone while on the run. It’s less expensive than a fancy journal, and I won’t have to hunt my elegant Parker pen, much less clean it or locate that dried-up bottle of ink.

Alas, modern-day life is so practical … so dull.

Meanwhile, I’m still reading sans list. And so my discovery of author Kate Saunders will not be noted in any official capacity. It makes me twitch, but that’s good practice for fending off OCD tendencies.

And I could always aim for a 200-book goal next time!

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Plot Extinction

Since the days of antiquity, since before the alphabet and written literature, story plots in western civilization have been linear in design.

Meaning, they have a beginning, a middle, and an ending whereby the hero struggles against forces of antagonism, nearly fails, but prevails through sacrifice and heroism. The hero is changed by the experience, and as a result, the closing lines of the story point to this individual living a better life in future.

This basic template is founded on the structure of mythological tales. We respond to it as instinctively as we do anything that starts with “Once upon a time …”

However, in the last decade the linear plot has fallen out of fashion. Editors sometimes reject it in favor of a nonlinear storyline. Writers are told that readers are now web-thinkers (and we ain’t talking spiders).

A while back, I lost what would have been a very lucrative book deal because I was offering a story that was “too linear.” At first, I tried to make rocket science out of this new plotting concept. Then I figured out that all editors want are multiple viewpoints, cross-cutting, and lots of flashbacks mixed with a blistering-fast pace.

Not so revolutionary, after all. Thriller writers have been employing strategic viewpoint shifts and cross-cutting between subplots for years.

However, the trendy push is to employ these web-like plots to all genres, especially those for young readers. So far, fine.

But what I’ve been noticing lately is a more disturbing result of this trend–in plots that are increasingly frenetic and chaotic. They’re fast. They jump about with forward progress counter-balanced with flashbacks. They feature a lot of characters, sometimes to the point of making it difficult to tell who exactly is the protagonist. At their best, they’re lively, engaging, intriguing, and complex. At their worst–and I’m seeing more and more of the worst–they’re impossible to follow, confusing, and boring.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with a novel–the latest in a long-running and fairly successful series. In this author’s books, the characters and their backstories are emphasized over the plots, which are simple and small in scope. That’s perfectly fine. Sometimes I enjoy a book that’s more character-driven. But this particular novel had no plot. It featured instead a situation: a reunion of characters. The characters could barely speak to each other without us flowing into reverse for long flashbacks culled from past novels. The novel was short, but it took me forever to finish it.

Normally I would toss it aside with a shrug, chalking it up to a writer temporarily out of ideas who had to meet a contractual deadline.

Except that recently I read another novel that rambled around. It was a genre book, not mainstream at all. It should have had a plot. But it couldn’t seem to get going. Reading it was like trying to drive with a clutch for the first time. Jerky starts. Lurching stops. Stalled.

Normally I would say, new writer lacking in experience. But it wasn’t. This author has written many novels.

Television is on a similar trajectory, perhaps even more so than novels. Once upon a time, a TV show was episodic, meaning each weekly episode served a complete story. It had a beginning, middle, and end. The problem was resolved; the star saved the day; we knew that on the following week there would be a new story problem and new guest stars to see.

Of course, TV–in a rather odd development–now moves along a novel-type structure with each weekly segment of the show contributing to a continuing storyline. The entire season comprises the story arc. If you miss an episode of these dramas–let’s call it instead a weekly chapter–you’re in trouble. Still, that’s what DVDs are for. You can settle down with your popcorn in your living room and watch the entire season in one weekend marathon.

But even TV’s grip on plot is slipping more and more as it attempts to juggle the novel structure of linked weekly installments with the trend of web-like plots.

In September 2013, I sat down in excited anticipation to watch the season opener of PERSON OF INTEREST. Normally this is a well-written, intriguing show. The flashbacks feeding backstory on various characters takes some getting used to, but generally it goes well.

Not the season opener. I couldn’t follow it. Was I experiencing the onset of senile dementia? Or was I trying to watch a mish-mash of too much cross-cutting and references to past events from prior seasons? It’s TV. I shouldn’t have to work that hard to watch an episode. I shouldn’t have to have watched every second of multiple seasons in order to follow the plot. Granted, if I had done so I might have gotten all the nuances written into the script, but I should be able to click on, understand the gist of the story, and reach the closing credits without saying, “Huh?”

Okay, it’s supposed to be intelligent and complex. But this season has been a mix of shows that made sense and were very satisfying and shows that made me say, “Huh?”

I couldn’t help but compare it to another popular program, BURN NOTICE. Splashy, colorful, action-driven. A lot of plots and subplots woven through the seasons. However, I could miss half of a season, click on and pick up easily. The episodes made sense, even if I didn’t recognize a new character that had been on for several weeks during my absence.

Over this weekend, I came across a Dr. Who episode. It began with a great hook. The sets and costumes were a marvelous steampunk montage. Alien lizard girls in Victorian dresses–YES! The modern Dr. Who shows have better budgets, better set design, and better makeup departments than the low-budget versions of the past. Woo-hoo!I thought. Let’s watch this!

What I saw began well, shoved great concepts at me, and failed to deliver. The script hopped here and there among the characters, tried to handle more characters and subplots than the writer evidently could manage, cross-cut with all the reckless abandon of a drunken driver veering down a highway, and grew increasingly chaotic, fast-paced, and pointless. By the finish, I’d moved on from “Huh?” to “Who cares?”

Now, if someone wanted to defend this program, he might mutter to me about my having seen only the conclusion of that particular plot segment. Doesn’t matter. I should still be able to follow the story.

I’ll contrast it with another modern Dr. Who episode that I saw a couple of years ago. Different doctor as the star. It, too, was the concluding episode of a plot segment. The setting was Venice and some girls’ school where all the young maidens were vampires. Evil aliens were about to conquer Earth. (The Whosians out there will probably recognize this one.) In three minutes–I was up to speed. I could follow the story, and I didn’t have to strain to do it. The script made sense. It clearly wrapped up all the threads in the storyline. It served a satisfying conclusion with the little trademark twist of the program. Terrific and fun.

So what’s my point besides a rant about how plotting is falling into the decay of anarchy?

Plotting is falling victim to anarchy.

It doesn’t have to, of course. But writers have to stand fast against sloppy plotting, weak storylines, and the mistaken notion that chaos equals complexity, that speedy pace alone guarantees reader/viewer involvement, and that giving all the characters equal attention delivers satisfaction.

Methods of storytelling evolve with changing times. But the linear plot works well, if you’ll let it. Complexity is desirable, if we don’t unleash it like kudzu and let it smother the forward progress of the story.

Balance and control. Managing the story so that it unfolds quickly and unpredictably, intriguing our audience while holding them enthralled. That’s a writer’s job. That’s a writer’s responsibility. Trends come and go, but effective story design has to be preserved … and delivered to our readers.

Maybe I’m just an alarmist, paranoid enough to see the fall of civilization based on a few badly written books and teleplays. And maybe I’m an individual who grew up reading every novel I could get my hands on, watching television written by people trained in the old studio systems to deliver solid plots week after week. I’m not satisfied with the drivel of reality shows and book plots that crumble like cupcakes baked without eggs. I want more than that, and so should you.

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