friends, enemies

The internet is my friend.

It saves me a great deal of time and trouble when it comes to research,  finding references, quotations, books. It has relieved me of the onerous need to go clothes shopping. It has introduced me to like-minded women who have become good friends. It provides me with news that I can trust (if I look hard enough, and carefully enough, and compare). When the newscasters and politicians are lying through their teeth, somebody on the internet will be providing a different perspective and hopefully, at least some part of the truth. Or at least a laugh. The internet shows me movie previews and clips from broadcasts I missed, but wished I hadn’t. It lets me find a good, cheap hotel room (again, if I know how to look) and tickets to Spamalot for the Girlchild. It shows me photographs of places I have never been and probably will never go, taken by people who are more adventurous than I am. It distracts me when I’m edge and unsettled. It brings me notes from friends who are far away, from relatives I rarely see, and a way to respond without the pressure of an open phone line. It is the way I talk to the people who buy and/or read my books, to my editor and agent, even to the Mathematician, one floors down in his own office.

The internet is not my friend.

Procrastination is a binary proposition. Will I work, yes or no? The internet provides a thousand ways and reasons to step away. Link by link, inch by inch, it draws me further away. It introduces me to people who write beautifully about things that are important to me, who provide perspective on what is going on in the world. These people are far more interesting to me than working, or cleaning up the kitchen.

It is very hard to resist the temptations of the internet. I try to restrict myself to reading the feeds I have setup on Bloglines, but sometimes I am weak. Just recently I added Teach Me Tonight, “Musings on Romance Fiction from an Academic Perspective”. Six academics talking seriously about romance fiction; a sinkhole of interesting, relevant posts on matters of professional importance, written by a group of six academics.

The internet is merciless. What would I do without it?

getting even

You remember when I wrote the other day that I don’t base characters on my novels on a specific person in any kind of direct way? In particular I avoid anything of that kind when it comes to unlikeable characters.

Some writers are not so concerned about this. I was just looking through my collection of quotes on writing and storytelling, and two jumped out at me:

The best revenge is to write about it. – Meg Cabot

Getting even is one reason for writing. – William Gass

And of course, it does happen that writers work through painful episodes in their own lives by putting them down on paper. I should have said so more clearly. Note: There’s a distinction between putting a character in a story exclusively to get back at somebody you have cause to dislike in an ad-hoc kind of way, and telling a bigger story involving a variety of characters and a series of complications based on personal experiences.

When I taught creative writing at the university level, I found that many students new to fiction had a hard time stepping back from their own experiences. That’s perfectly understandable, especially for younger people, but it is something that has to be modified. If you’re too close to a story it’s less likely you’ll tell it well. Especially if a lot of emotion is involved.

A standard suggestion in this situation is this: if you are compelled to write a story based on your own experiences with something big and difficult (divorce, betrayal, loss), one way to get the necessary distance is to switch genders. For example:

You have been wanting to write a novel based on your experiences with a college professor. You are male. The professor was female. You admired the professor and learned a lot from her, but then one day you saw her shoplifting. You became obsessed with this new knowledge, and so you started following her and documenting her life of petty crime. In her theology class (that just came to me) you found yourself getting angry in a discussion about moral relativism, and before you could stop yourself, you made a comment to the professor about her extra curricular activities. You find yourself suddenly in a unique situation: you are being cited for sexual harrassment by your teacher, and she’s about to sue you for defamation.

So how do you approach a novel like this? My strong suggestions: 1. do not write it in first person. 2. switch the genders. The professor is now male, and the student who sees him shoplifting, female.

If this were a real scenario — you lived through this experience ten years ago and find it won’t let you go unless you write about it — you need to skew your approach not only for the sake of the story, but also because in this situation, there are legal considerations. I think that must be obvious. The question is how much you have to change things to avoid a letter from a lawyer. You might have to change the setting. An insurance office instead of a college campus, for example.

You might be thinking that these changes will take away from the ‘getting even’ experience but consider one thing: if you really want to tell the story for yourself alone, you can write it exactly as it happened with no worries. If you want other people to know exactly what happened and you want them to know the how and where and why, write it as non-fiction, taking care not to slander or defame anybody (note: you can’t be sued for stating the truth, no matter how distasteful the truth might be; so, in this scenario you might write that Dr. X was seen shoplifting on a store security camera –if such a thing exists — without fear of legal action).

If you want to really explore the potential in the story, you’ll need some distance, a lot of time, and patience. And possibly the characters will need to be tweaked to give you the perspective you’ll need to pull the whole thing off.

sentence fragments

People who teach composition often have a bit of a blind spot about sentence fragments. A sentence fragment is (by one popular definition) a partial sentence that has been incorrectly punctuated.

To this I say: hogwash. Hogwash, say I.

I will admit that not every genre lends itself equally well to the kind of stylistic flexibility that produces these so-called sentence fragments. Legal documents, I suppose, really are better off without them. But that’s about it.

The important thing for those of us who write fiction to remember about sentence fragments is this: people don’t talk in classically defined sentences. Written dialog will sound stilted if you insist on making your characters toe the line that your fourth grade English teacher drew in the sand. For example:

The kids always go crazy just about now. This kind of summer night.

Sure, it’s a fragment. But put quotations around it and see what happens. “The kids always go crazy just about now,” said Laurie. “This kind of summer night.”

Characters talk in melodious fragments and riffs. It’s a complex process, getting the right. It has to do with syntax and tag words and a good balance between direct and indirect dialog.

Elmore Leonard, who is a master of written dialog, put it like this: “The main thing with my dialog is the rhythm of it — the way people talk, not especially what they say.”

A character who insists on toeing the line and speaking Stilt probably doesn’t belong in your novel. Another interesting quote from Elmore Leonard, which comes from an NPR interview:

“From the very beginning, my purpose was to [let the characters talk],” Leonard says. “To first of all establish the characters, as many as possible in the first 100 pages and audition them. Let’s see if they can talk. If they can’t talk, they’re liable to slip from view or get shot early on.

“If I have several bad guys, and I only want to end up with one of them, then I have to decide which one I want in the end. Normally, it’s the one who’s the most interesting talker.”

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