I have been reading "Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler," edited by Frank MacShane, and I feel compelled to write something about the man here. First of all, what a hell it must be to have one's letters published posthumously. There's one here where he corresponds politely with James M. Cain, author of works like "The Postman Always Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity," and another one later to someone else where he states that everything that Cain writes "smells like a billy goat."
It is often, if not always impolitic, to state one's full and honest opinion about someone to that that person's face; it also doesn't serve any useful purpose. Stating one's opinion to a third party, though, often does and as long as the two receiving parties don't cross, nobody gets hurt. We all do this and it is part of life. Most of us are just never exposed. Thank god e-mails are ephemeral where letters get stashed in shoe boxes.
This is mildly interesting but not what I find very compelling. Chandler's view on writing and writers are honest, insightful, and sharp as a razor. And like Harlan Ellison, his voice comes through in his writing as if he were speaking directly to you, with no filters, fuzzy edges, or ambiguities obscuring the intended message or sentiment. He was clearly a very intelligent man, something of a curmudgeon, and through his letters comes off as a supremely honest thinker, the kind of man I truly respect.
On encouraging new writers: "...any writer who cannot teach himself cannot be taught by others, and apart from the extension courses of reputable universities, I take a very dim view of writing instruction in general, above all the sort that is advertised in the so-called writers' magazines. They will teach you nothing that you cannot find out by studying and analyzing the published work of other writers. Analyze and imitate; no other school is necessary. I admit that criticism from others is helpful and sometimes even necessary, but when you have to pay for it, it is usually suspect."
On John Dickson Carr's apparent sentiment of "hating the actual writing": "This explains to me in a flash why I can't read the man, because a writer who hates the actual writing is as impossible as a lawyer who hates the law, or a doctor who hates medicine. Plotting may be a bore even if you are good at it. At least it is something that has to be done so that you can get on with the real business. But a writer who hates the actual writing, who gets no joy out of the creation of magic by words, to me is simply not a writer at all. The actual writing is what you live for. The rest is something you have to get through in order to arrive at the point. How can you hate the actual writing? You might as well say that a man likes to chop wood or clean house and hates the sunshine or the night breeze or the nodding of flowers or the dew on the grass or the songs of birds. How can you hate the magic which makes of a paragraph or a sentence or a line of dialogue or a description something in the nature of a new creation? Well, apparently you can and be successful in spite of it. But it certainly depresses me to feel that this is possible."
On reviewers: "Let's face it. One of the penalties of any kind of success is to have the jackals snapping at your heels. They don't hate you because you're bad. They say you're bad because they want to hate you."
On Ernest Hemingway and Cyril Connolly: "The kind of thing Hemingway writes cannot be written by an emotional corpse. The kind of thing Connolly writes can and is. It has its points. Some of it is very good, but you don't have to be alive to write it."
After coming to the conclusion that he has to start on a book "all over again": "That's the hell of being the kind of writer who cannot plan anything, but has to make it up as he goes along and then try to make sense out of it. If you gave me the best plot in the world all worked out I could not write it. It would be dead for me."
These selections should give you an idea of his voice, as well as parts of his philosophy. There is much more in the book (and in "Raymond Chandler Speaking") and I will be reading them over and over and over. I'll leave off with the end of a letter where Chandler goes off, tongue firmly in cheek, in response to something that appeared in a magazine:
"I do a great deal of research, especially in the apartments of tall blondes. I get my material in various ways, but my favorite procedure...consists of going through the desks of other writers after hours. I am thirty-eight years old and have been for the last twenty years. I do not regard myself as a dead shot, but I am a pretty dangerous man with a wet towel. But all in all I think my favorite weapon is a twenty dollar bill. In my spare time I collect elephants."
When I was a young boy, and I do mean young boy, Richard Bach's "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" was a big enough phenomenon to come to the attention of even some of us in the elementary school crowd. This is completely from memories of that time so I will not vouch for their accuracy but the point I'll try to make is still a valid one. And then I'll use it to try to appear less stupid than I might otherwise.
The book is a parable about a seagull who tries to fly faster (and higher?) than the other seagulls in spite of their ridicule and questioning of his sanity. It's who he was and the fact that it made him different from his peers wasn't something he welocmed or even understood. But it's who he was. In any case, I think I remember a message in there about having to do with the question of how fast was fast enough. The answer Jonathan received was, "The perfect speed is being there." As long as you're where you need to be when you need to be, it doesn't matter the actual speed involved in getting you there.
Clearly that's stuck with me and I've tried to use that message in personal life as well as in coaching others in various activities. For whatever reason, it appeals to me. Now I can use it to excuse the lateness of coming to a conclusion that I probably should have come to a long time ago, but didn't. I'm talking about finally understanding the difference between plot and story.
As I wrote about in earlier entries, I wrote myself into a solid dead end with the novel I was working on before I became injured. To my mind, this was because I began writing it without a clear idea of what the main characters really wanted. Without knowing this, I had no idea what their motivations were or how they all interacted with each other.
I have no problem with chalking this up to a learning experience, taking my lumps and walking away, having learned that a certain number of questions should have been answered before I began the actual writing. On the other hand, after reading more than thirty books for research and committing forty six thousand words to paper, I'd like to save it if I can. But it has to be a real save, one that allows me to produce the book that I wanted to produce when I had the original inspiration.
After sitting down, walking, sitting down, walking, etc. this weekend, I finally came up with a tight, plausible scenario that involves all of the main characters and what they want for themselves and from the others. It's a complex premise of diamond smuggling, rogue intelligence operations, and misbehaving governments that I believe is complicated enough to be interesting without being confusing or overly arcane.
But then it occurred to me: this is not what the book is about. This is the background against which the protagonist, recruited by another character to save his own bacon, travels against this back drop uncovering what's really going on among the players and how he handles it and eventually does the right thing. The story of how he does this is the actual plot.
As a reader, I think it's difficult to separate plot from story. Both of them is basically what you read, as you read it. From a writer's perspective, however, the two are distinctly different, as I hope I've made clear without getting into the actual specifics of the book.
Now none of this may be news to anyone who's reading this, or, like me, it may never have been a clear enough issue to even know it was an issue. So whether this was a EUREKA! event for me, the end of a moment of stupid (as a former network instructor used to say), or something else (no, I'm not blonde), I choose to recognize that I've learned something I need to know at the time I need to know it. Which isn't bad for someone who's not a seagull. Bread crusts all around!
Practically, all this really means is that I'm one huge step closer to thinking I can save this book. I still have to figure out the key, the sequence of events that the protagonist uses to actually figure out and then dismantle the evil plans of everyone else. Knowing that this is plotting as opposed to something else doesn't actually help me come up with this, but this is one of the reasons writing a book, as opposed to just writing, is difficult work. And it beats the hell out of a lot of other things I could be doing.
I know a lot of writers are also musicians and I think there's a lot of symmetry in the ability to express your own thoughts and emotions through both mediums. I just wish I were one of them. My own musical background is spotty at best and while I hope I have at least developed a quasi-educated ear, I have never spared the time to translate that to truly interpreting my thoughts through the actual playing of an insturment. One day, perhaps. Of course, I've heard that one before.
Anyway, it's always struck me how you can play a sequence of notes or chords on a piano or keyboard exactly the way they're played in a favorite song and that's all they sound like: a lifeless series of sounds. And yet, you play the song just one time and there's actual life and movement in them there notes. The song itself gives life to the notes, which leads me to believe the brain is doing its thing and taking the context of the songs, the wholeness, and providing you with the powerful experience of actual music. Not individual sounds but an organic, lively work to be experienced.
So of course I wonder if words out of context work the same way as those notes. I think they must. I don't think writing is inherently difficult to do. I think millions of people can write gorgeous, eloquent sentences or phrases. But I think many less can do the same in a paragraph length piece, and still fewer for something even a whole page or longer. It's not the act of writing that's difficult, it's the act of producing a work through your writing that translates into a moving and positive experience for a reader. Anyone can plunk out notes on a piano but how many can create an entire song, opera, symphony? Or play inspired jazz, drawing the music up from learned musical knowledge and inborn instinct? And I mean the Miles Davis kind, not the Kenny G stuff, whatever that is.
I'm not a good rewriter so to all those writers who say the same thing, thank you for saying it in places I've been able to hear it. It counters the folks who claim that writing is really re-writing. I've tried but I just can't do it; once the piece has been written, it's over, like water gone downstream. I just can't get it back.
What I can do is go back over the material and find the passages that just don't work. They don't read write and I often wonder how they made it onto the paper. I can either revise them, rework them, or even throw them out, although sometimes I just have to flag them and do it later after some more distance has been achieved. But I go through the work, word by word, line by line, and make sure that the cadence works, that the sentences lilt the way they're supposed to, that the rhythm is readable and catching.
When I describe the process like that, which is accurate for me, it reads like I'm describing how I think of music. It makes me wonder if psychologists or whoever it is that studies brain functions has compared the chemistry going on inside someone who's listening to good music with someone who's reading a good book. Two very different types of experience, I grant you, but my guess is that there are some overlapping things going on upstairs. Providing anything's happening up there at all. Which may not be a given, depending on what you're listening to or what you're reading.
So self-editing for me is concerned mostly with things like sentence structure, word choice, pacing, and the flow of the story. Sadly, I can only do it through a limited number of iterations because of the over-familiarity that kills the creative energy for the "finished" work. I did read somewhere, though, that Stevie Wonder sets an end date for his album projects and no matter how he feels about it, he lets it go then. Otherwise he'd keep tinkering with it for ever. Who was it who said that a work is never finished, merely abandoned?
Is That A Frying Pan On Your Head Or Are You Just Happy To See Me?
When I was a wee one I used to read several books at once, probably because I was so excited when I got a new one I couldn't help but start it. Gradually my routine evolved into bringing the book home, reading the jacket material and possibly any introduction pages, and then shelving it until its time. Whenever that turns out to be.
Right now I find myself reading a bunch of non-book length pieces simultaneously: the current issue of Outside Magazine, the current "View From Africa" issue of Granta, a new Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and a book of essays on creativity by Ray Bradbury. This isn't something I want to make a habit of, but there are reasons.
First of all, I subscribe to three nature/adventure magazines: Outside, Adventure and Men's Journal. In an earlier post I talked about Outside; it's monthly column by Mark Jenkins is worth the price of the magazine by itself. I like National Geograpic's Adventure although in some issues there's a bit too much travel info for me and not enough good article writing. Men's Journal shares many of the same writers as Outside and therefore I like it for similar reasons. What I HATE about both those magazines, especially Men's Journal, is their insistence on having a celebrity cover story EVERY issue. I don't give a fig about Kid Rock or Jesse James or Ted Nugent, ESPECIALLY not how they can be, however obscurely, tied back to my actual interests, you know, the things that the magazines are supposed to be about. Laird Hamilton and Jack Johnson may be cool guys but I'm willing to get over that.
Anyway, if you don't keep up with the magazines they pile up in a hurry, even if you skip the celebrity profile junk. I'm reading the Hitchcock magazine because I haven't read one for a while and I just sent them the short story I talked about in an earlier post. It's called "Sock Monster" and I like the story just for that. But that's me.
The Bradbury essays are excellent and take a less than technical approach to writing and other creative pursuits, which I appreciate. He talks about Work and achieving quality eventually after sufficient quantity, then Relaxation, the point where you can let go and trust yourself and let your talent exert itself. Finally, of course, there's Don't Think. This is self-explanatory. Anyway, an excellent collection for someone not trying to figure out how to outline or format a manuscript. I finished it last night and enjoyed it very much.
This takes me to Granta's Africa issue which is providing as deep and fulfilling a reading experience as I've had in a while. For those of you who don't know, Granta, who bill themselves as "The Magazine of New Writing," publishes a mix of non-fiction, fiction and a color pictorial in each quarterly issue. Each issue also has a theme and the current one's is obvious from its title.
No, I'm not going to run down each of the stories and essays; I need to tie something to the title of this post. I've read a number of books on African countries and issues as part of the research for the book I've abandoned (temporarily, I hope), as well as a ton of books covering the white man's exploration and later exploitation of the continent, including the discovery and mining of diamonds.
It's difficult to discuss Africa without generalizing: it contains 54 countries but who knows how many tribal or village or other historical units. What's true for one group of people is not going to be true for all, but being specific about something so immense is impossible. In other words, if I cut with too wide a swath, I apologize in advance. By the same token, I have to limit my remarks here to a very limited subject or this entry will bookify itself.
Violence makes me squeamish. More than it used to. Ordinarily I won't read a book about rape or violence towards women (it has too be touched on lightly), or anything evil happening to children. I find that as I've grown older I avoid these things more. Yet adult on adult violence is fair game, especially in novels. Often in true crime, as well, especially living down here in the land of Ted Bundy and Danny Rolling. But some of the violence in African countries is so complex, so evil in its thoroughness, that even reading about it in pieces, juxtaposed with Outside Magazine and Ray Bradbury and a trite mystery in a traveling carnival, nearly overwhelms me.
Killing parents in front of their children, making the children participate in their mutilation, then conscripting them into the ranks of the evil. Giving them military ranks and comic book names such as "Captain Ear Taker" or some such thing. Sending them on missions to do the same to other villages, other parents, and other children like themselves. Insubordination is, of course, payable in death. The complete and utterly thorough destruction of a child's life through the obliteration of his family, mutilation of theirs or his own body, rape, maniacal discipline, and worst of all, the absolute shredding of his mind.
Can a murder or a crime in a novel, any murder, compete with that? Man's inhumanity toward man only works as an element in a story if it's not too evil, or too incomprehensible in its roots. Can these people really belong to the same race as ourselves, whoever that is? Can cultural differences be so profound that such a gulf in the consideration of human life is normal and accepted?
My mind reels. I can only read about it, know about it, in small pieces, diluted with light and fluffy pieces from other sources. The brutality in any novel doesn't compare, and can't compare, because we always know it isn't real. Always. And we can divorce ourselves from the emotional toll necessary in order to enjoy the rest of the story. But when the crime is worse than the worst fictional ones, more brutal and inhuman than those, and they're real, you realize there's no way out. If you put the book down, they're still there, happening in Rwanda, the Congo, Sierra Leone...
Maybe cartoon violence is necessary in order to blunt the instincts that respond to real life brutality. Maybe it's part of a cultural coping mechanism. If that's true, than crime novels (and even, in large part, American true crime books) are part of that, and perhaps even important in that regard. That's an interesting question.
In the meantime, I have on my shelf two video tapes of documentaries shot during Sierra Leone's civil war (ended in 2002). They apparently contain graphic and unadulterated scenes of the realities of that violence. I sent away to London for them and they took weeks to arrive. They cost me over eighty American dollars. They're internationally recognized although I understand they've never been shown on television in their entirety due to the nature of their contents. So far I haven't been able to even insert them into the VCR, let alone press play.
Laird Hamilton, you say? Ted Nugent? I wonder if Harrison Ford's gone whitewater rafting lately...
Many authors have said that the question they're asked most often, and also the silliest, is "Where do you get your ideas?" Some have pithy answers that make me laugh, and others not so much. It is an interesting question, though: does a successful author have dozens or hundreds of ideas, can they summon one up at will, or what?
One of my favorite writers is Dick Francis, writer of not quite forty mysteries. While he writes with mostly unique characters, his protagonists are often so similar in character and moral strengths that they could almost be the same person in a different line of work. There are enough differences in his plots and stories, though, to mark each book as its own, and apart from a bit of uneasiness in the last few before his retirement, they're uniformly wonderful.
Two things that stand out for me when I read him is, first of all, how easy to read he is. This is not an insult and does not derrogate his work in any way. I think it rather helps explain part of his appeal, the sheer fun of reading his stories. Henry James can also be engaging but he's not, as one may put it critically, although not too critically since it may imply there are certain barriers, not unlike reading this passage which is meant, although perhaps without much skill, to illustrate a more difficult construct of text than that of Mr. Francis. In other words, it's not a lot of work to read Dick Francis but it is a lot of fun.
The second thing that stands out to me is that after I finish one of his novels, I often look back at what the book was really about. It usually strikes me that, as opposed to the "blockbuster" novel mentality, the stakes played for are not huge: Auric Goldfinger isn't trying to corner the global supply of gold, a rogue Russian submarine isn't about to launch an unauthorized nuke on South Beach, etc. It may be that an unbalanced and over zealous trainer has found a way to get away with cheating at the Grand National, or that a pilot is stranded on a Caribbean island during a hurricane with some people of questionable motives.
The tension and peril in the books is localized and of interest almost uniquely to the characters themselves. Since they exist only at the mercy of Mr. Francis' pen, the interest in these events can only be sustained if we have interest in these fictional people. And we do, very much, which is why the books work so well. If someone were to ask me what a Dick Francis book was about, I'd say it doesn't really matter so much as who it's about.
Which brings me to the point of this entry: I'm not Dick Francis.
My own natural style seems to be creating what to me are exciting plots. To do this well, though, you must have compelling characters. The fact that each is meaningless without the other puts the whole plot vs. characterization argument into the dustbin where it belongs (and yet it still gets talked about in every writing conference I attend), yet I believe that different people are more naturally adept at creating one or the other.
For reasons I've written about in earlier entries, I will not outline a novel any more than I will talk about it in detail until after it's written. If I did, all the energy would be sucked out of the project, it will feel like it's already been written, and all the joy and pain required to get through the actual writing will be hollowed out like a souvenir gourd from a Mexican market. There just ain't no heft.
I've also written before about how beginning writers can begin to write too soon, or begin putting words on paper without a clear knowledge of structure and pacing and the actual crafting of a book. But I've found there's another issue with premature articulation that I'll call lack of preparation as opposed to a novice lack of writing know-how.
Before I fell ill/injured/left to rot supine in my bedroom, I was working on a thriller novel with what I thought were some very compellng, drama laden elements and peopled by a cast of characters, especially a villain, that would allow me to hit the target I was aiming for. Didn't work out that way.
Forty six thousand words into it, I have nowhere to go. Events are in motion, people are in jeopardy, back stories are established and lurking in the background, suspense is rife in the air...
But I don't know what my main characters really want. Therefore I don't know why they're motivated to do what they're doing. I've taken it as far as I can and the next word I write will expose it for the mishmash it must inevitably be. Whoopsy.
Would an outline have prevented this? I can only say: bite me. WIlliam Faulkner didn't outline. He said that he sets his characters off down the road and follows up behind them, watching what they do. Sounds good, if, unlike me, you really know your characters.
To rectify this I'm developing a new methodology, one of preparation, that I will use before I begin another novel. I would like to use this system as a stepping point to rewriting that existing large portion of a book into something viable as well as another book I have in my mind, one that's very different. Essentially it's a list of questions I've come up with, things that I have to know before I can begin to write, about not only the main characters but also about the plot itself, including what Harry Whittington called the "plot key." This is the actual key that unlocks the story to the reader.
So while I feel real good about this approach and believe wholeheartedly that this kind of preparation would allow me to write without a major roadblock (minor ones are okay, they're part of the great fun of writing), I still have to come up with the actual answers to the questions. I'm finding that this is a whole new ballgame, one that I think I will have to research.
Is it a brainstorming problem? Targeting yourself for a divine spark? Channeling Dickens? I'm not sure. All I really know is that I don't want to give up on my forty six thousand thriller. It has become clear that instituting this new, more structured methodology will require practice, perhaps some new skills, and a lot of work.
And that's okay. Like Harlan Ellison once said, "It shouldn't BE easier! Art is not supposed to be "easier." Art is supposed to be harder. Commerce should be easy. Friendships should be easy. Good marriages should be easy. Driving a car should be easy. Getting laid should be easy. Art should be DIFFICULT."
This past weekend was the annual Florida Antiquarian Book Fair at the Coliseum in St. Petersburg. I went last year, when I still had a job, and with the permission of my lovely wife bought a two volume first edition of Adolphus Greeley's exploits in the Arctic. He never found John Franklin but his group did achieve a farthest north at one point, before massive screw-ups back home caused resupply issues and a forgotten adventure. The survivors were rescued at the last off of Cape Sabine, lying among the partially eaten remnants of some of their fellow crew.
There's a power in books that suffuses the atmosphere in that crowded hall and its 115 vendors. I finally saw not one but two actual Everest expedition books, one for the 1924 adventure where George Mallory was lost, and one from 1931 when the ice axe of his partner, Andrew Irvine, was found. I had to send away to Kathmandu a few years ago to get my paperback copies. They were a lot cheaper and clearly don't have the intrinsic value of the originals, but they were the only copies I couldn find anywhere. Until this past weekend.
Last year I saw a re-bound collection of the works of African explorer James Bruce but at seventeen hundred dollars much too rich for my blood. I saw a number of editions of H. M. Stanley's works, both covering his successful search for Dr. Livingstone as well as the record of his march through and back (several times) through the jungles of the Congo on his way to rescue Emin Pasha, General Gordon's last free surviving lieutenant. Absolutely riveting stuff, and much more alive when you hold in your hands these volumes of the same vintage as when the text itself was written. I appreciate my facsimile trade paperbacks but it's not the same experience.
There were different copies of Samuel Baker's works detailing his search for the source of the Nile, accompanied by his wife every step of the way. He was a precursor to Gordon in the fight against the slave trade as well as to his own brother, Valentine. Fleeing a scandalous situation involving a young lady and a coach, he went off to the Sudan to clear his name by achieving the glory that Hicks Pasha failed to achieve when he and all that were with him were wiped off the map by the soldiers of the Mahdi in the deserts of the Sudan. Valentine Baker led his troops to the same fate as Hicks'. I have no copies of Samuel Baker's work in any form. I want to read about his remarkable wife...
I found two American editions of some works of Charles Dickens that were clearly contemporary to his time. I remembered the story of his first visit and how let down he felt at some of the aspects of America's implementation of democratic government, and how he spoke publicly against the lack of respect for foreign copyrights. Those books I held in my hands, lacking standard publishing information on the masthead, were probably examples of the very bootlegs he was complaining about. Out of respect to the late author, I did not purchase them.
This is all redundant to anyone who loves books, reading and history. There is a gravity or gravitas to the show that can lead one to new depths of the appreciation for these soulful things. No matter the arguments about the used book market and its affect on the sales of new books, or a diminishing general readership, or any other topic of the times. Letting go, traveling back through time in the world of the books and the memories of the people that wrote them, is a poignant and significant reminder of this world in which we've involved ourselves. The modern publishing world cannot hurt that.
And yes, there's room for the novice book collector, the curious, and the ill informed. At the booth of a vendor from somewhere in Michigan, I overheard a gentleman browser, apparently also from that great state, ask the bookseller just where exactly was ABAA, Michigan? The name of the bookstore, followed by a comma and those letters, appeared on the printed sign over the booth, followed by his state's abbreviation.
Very patiently, the bookseller explained that ABAA was not a place but an acronym, representing the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. That made me smile. I hope the gentleman finds himself a good book.
When I started this blog I wanted to learn to better write short pieces, not quite essays and not quite articles, but clear statements with a consistent, easy to read voice. I've probably failed. With a four year old and an almost two year old constantly violating any sense of peace or concentration that's managed to accidentally exert itself on our environment, writing cohesively is next to impossible. Doing anything not involving them is impossible.
I'm sure in some pieces I've done a better job than in others. All the entries would have benefitted from some planning before the writing, and some editing after. Instead each of these posts are first drafts, including the ones where I had a murky or non-linear set of points to make. I'm smart enough to know I shouldn't try to write under those circumstances but I've done it anyway. Hey, it's a free blog.
I take some refuge in the fact that I really have no readers. There's a certain freedom there but I'd still trade the time and effort to produce better work if I knew I were actually proving useful in some way to somebody, or at least holding their interest.
Typing practice being beneficial, I'll keep writing these things. Perhaps down the road, if I actually achieve a commercial readership, someone will come along and read through these archives. I like the thought of that for some reason but we'll see how it goes. For now, I've resisted any temptation to create a fake log in and post my own comments just to show a readership.
If I could just get my kids to read and write at a higher level, I could make them do it. You want to go to swimming lessons? Log on and compliment yesterday's blog entry. Hurry up, you! I want two hundred pithy words out of you! And your closet better be clean, too.
I just read two books back to back, both on writing, and I wanted to say a few words about them here. I've written some about writing books before and if you've read those entries, you've seen my ambivalence.
On the one hand, many of the books I've seen trumpet advice so seemingly idealized or impractical that I can't bring myself to believe that the authors themselves actually write that way. It's a "write as I say, not as I do" approach. And with any form of advice, the person offering it needs to be convincing with their arguments for following it, otherwise credibility suffers and the advice is ignored. Beyond all this, the advice itself needs to resonate with the reader. Otherwise it's just a wasted one sided conversation.
And like the pick-a-book-and-copy-its-structure-in-your-book university curriculum I wrote about in an earlier post, some things simply smack of cheating. You have to work for your craft, you have to be able to meld your knowledge and ability of it with your own talent in order to produce something worthy of your gift. Seek shortcuts at your own peril. If you don't work for it, you won't feel it, you won't own it, and you'll never produce work worthy of your potential.
Or maybe you will. All this is just my own hardwired opinion; I don't choose to feel this way, this is just the way it makes sense to me. I am fiercely committed to doing things "my way," even if it turns out it's the same way as everyone else's. Reinventing the wheel? Possibly. But, damn, I will have mastery over the concepts and a corresponding feel for the craft, I will figure out to write to the best of my ability, and I will strive to keep expanding the boundaries of that ability. It doesn't matter to what degree I achieve or fail to achieve commercial success.
I feel guilty even contemplating reading someone else's book (and I would chop off my own head before enrolling in that university program) but there are truly benefits to be had consistent with my personal ethos. I pretty much only look at books that support notions or opinions I've already come to believe, usually through actual trial and experience. These books can then serve two valuable functions, one being simple affirmation that someone, anyone, has come to the same conclusions I have. This is an affirmation and always a nice thing to experience.
The other benefit can come from reading about someone else's adaptation of a concept or a principle and comparing that with what you're doing yourself. A meeting of the minds, if you will. It's possible I can find a method or technique I can adopt that will help my growth WITHOUT making me feel like I'm cheating.
I'm going on so much about my personal views because I've always believed that while the total collection of all our traits and attributes are what make each of us unique, none of us are unique in any one of them. In other words, if I think this way, other people out there must as well. So on to the books.
The first is "The Key: How To Write Damn Good Fiction Using The Power of Myth" by James N. Frey (who shares an unfortunately similar name with the recently exposed fraud). I wanted to read this book as a follow on to Joseph Campbell's comparative mythology classic, "The Hero With a Thousand Faces." Campbell describes what he calls the "monomyth," or the elements common to mythologies throughout history and different cultures. He shows how stories from different mythical collections, say the Bible and an oral story from an ancient African tribe, have many overlapping features and functions. Campbell shows how an archetypal hero goes through several stages of adventure in each particular myth, what kinds of trials he encounters, the help he receives, and what they all may mean to the story.
Whether this comes from a Jungian collective consciousness or common characteristics to our individual human psyches, no one knows. I read this book a while ago for obvious reasons. I wanted to learn more about what makes a hero a hero, including what he must go through and whom he must meet along the way. Campbell isn't easy reading but well worth the time and effort.
Frey's book takes his own how to write a book approach and combines it with the characters and events, "functions" as he calls them, detailed by Campbell's monomyth theory. He comes up with a blueprint for producing a novel with mythical undertones, one that should resonate with whatever human mechanism evidently responds to the common storytelling elements Campbell wrote about.
As a how-to, it would appear to be a good book. Frey gives an excellent, easy to follow plan for the creation of a fully realized novel, including tips on creating characters, naming them, and defining their characteristics and personalities. I've always written about my characters in order to learn more about them but I like Frey's advice on writing journals as the characters in order to find their particular voice. I spend a lot of effort on plotting and wooden characters will deaden anything I come up with, so this will help me with an aspect of craft that demands more of my attention.
Frey's approach is heavily outline driven, what he calls a stepsheet, and this is one reason that I as a writer could not follow his method. I can't outline, and I won't learn. If I were to outline a book, I wouldn't actually write it because I'd feel as though I already did. The energy and enthusiasm would have been spent. I don't talk about a work in progress with any depth for the same reason.
An outline would definitely help in some respects, however, but those same things can be addressed by better preparation for the writing of a novel. My current project ground to a halt because I didn't know everything I needed to know about my characters in order to advance the plot. This is a fault of preparation and I realized that more time spent pre-writing would inevitably speed up the writing itself.
This is the point that the second book agrees with, "Write Faster, Write Better" by David A. Fryxell. Whether you produce an actual outline or not, the point is that you know what you need to know so that the writing process is not interrupted later on. And worse, so that time eating rewrites and revisions can be avoided. Like Lawrence Block, he believes that multiple drafts and an over-extensive editing process are things that can and should be avoided with the proper planning and preparation.
A very readable and enjoyable book, Fryxell's methods are clear, concise, and obviously the work of a successful working professional. While he, too, pushes an outline, he's much less particular about its form. And while his advice is suitable for any kind of writing, it would be especially valuable for freelance magazine writing. Much of the book is a virtual primer and blueprint for that business and I'd highly recommend it to anyone looking to break in there
For those out there who haven't done the study or individual discovery I personally find so valuable, this book would be a huge shortcut, advice from someone who knows what he's talking about. It's not as much of a how-to as Frey's book but the advice it contains cuts a much wider swath across the business of writing. Frey's book can also be read by someone interested in the monomyth and not willing to put in the effort in to Campbell's "Hero"; it's much more accessible. Both these books are valuable to a cross section of writers and I've benefitted from reading them both.