Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Win a book and stretch your writing muscles
There was a box on the porch this afternoon and it was from Simon & Schuster. Yes, the latest Chicken Soup book(All in the Family) is out. The box contained ten books. I had promised several to family and close friends and autographed those, but I have one more book left, other than my own copy, to give. I didn't think I'd go through eight books so quickly, but there is actually a demand for the book.
So I've decided to give the book to the person with the best reason for why I should send it to them. Make me laugh. Make my cry. Tug on my heart strings. It's your choice. I'll sign and send the book to the person with the best story. Neatness and grammar count. You have until Halloween, October 31st, to tell me why the book should be yours. I'll announce my decision then.
Since I'm feeling generous and there is one more copy of Past Imperfect left, I'll offer a signed copy to whomever gives me the best reason why my novel should be theirs. Same rules and deadline apply. Let the games begin.
My days and nights have begun to blur together a bit and I'm feeling a little out of sync, but that will pass -- I hope. One thing I have learned is that a spirited discussion with people of like minds, especially writers, goes a long way to stimulating the little grey cells and making the evenings much more interesting. Case in point, a discussion I had this evening with one of my favorite people about point of view and writers who don't read outside their chosen genre. In short, they're narrow minded idiots.
Too strong, you say? Not at all.
The example I used was composers and musicians, like Andrew Lloyd Webber (See? I did remember.) who has used children's songs (School Days for Music of the Night) and other folk songs and classical music to build an impressive and accessible body of work. He's not the first nor will he be the last. Musicians and composers use whatever appeals to them to create new music. During the 17th and 18th centuries many composers used common folks songs as a basis for more complex and what is now called classical music. Chopin was a past master at this, as was Beethoven, but most of the composers did the same thing. If you prefer a more modern example, take jazz, which borrows riffs from all types of music to create a new type of music with the old music as a seed at the core.
In writing, it's no different.
Take an outline for a story or a chapter by chapter synopsis. Lay out the characters and traits, the plot and rising and falling actions and give it to five different writers. Using the same starting point, each of the writers will come up with completely different stories, even though they started from the same material. Not only that, but how they write the story (the voice) will be completely different and unique to each writer.
I'll give you a contemporary example. Jane Smiley took Shakespeare's King Lear and turned it into A Thousand Acres, borrowing the plot, characters and motivations and turning it into a much different story. Shakespeare's play is evident in the basics, but the resulting story Jane Smiley wrote has its own unique voice, style and actions. The motivations of the characters are toned down a bit, but there are jazz riffs all through the story that bring it from a different place.
Think it's a lot of fancy talk? Try it. Take a story by any writer. List the characters and write a synopsis of the plot and motivations, then write the story from your point of view and see where you end up. You will find though the basics are the same, the story is uniquely yours.
I read that Jane Smiley studied the classics and read widely in literature from all parts of the world, including a Japanese classic book, The Tale of Genji. Stephen King write in his book, On Writing that a writer should read and read widely.
Don't read just in our own genre. Read nonfiction. Read fiction of every stripe and category, including literary fiction. Read the classics. Read plays. Read commentaries, but read. Read everything you can get and don't stop reading. Don't be afraid it will taint your work; it will do just the opposite. Reading widely will refine your technique and give you a wider and more comprehensive view, not only of writing, but of how other writers create worlds and stories.
And don't be afraid to experiment with point of view. Use them all. Get out of your comfort zone and stretch your writing muscles. Your writing and your understanding of how to write will improve faster and better than with all the writing how-to books in the world. You will find your writing will become richer and more interesting and you will be a better writer. Don't copy another writer's style, but learn how they accomplished what they did. Take it apart. Analyze it and then read it again for fun.
Herman Melville worked on whaling vessels to learn what happened on such voyages. While he worked on one whaler he laboriously copied, word for word, a book from a writer he admired. No one was allowed to touch his copying. When he was finished, he tossed his work overboard. One of the other whalers asked him why and he said it was because he learned what he needed to know -- how to write.
You don't have to copy another writer's book, but you should take the time to read and learn from successful writers. Find out how the trick was done. Then experiment and find out what you can do with the same tools and basics.
Writers who don't read outside of their genre are wasting their time and putting themselves in a very narrow pigeonhole. It's scary moving out of your comfort zone. Try it anyway. You can always retreat back to your narrow world, but I'll bet you will be changed -- for the better.
That is all. Disperse.