Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Disturbing Prophecy

As I am ever attempting to write fiction for my grandkids (and lack any and all talent for it), I spend a good deal of time and money in the "how to write" sections of Borders and Amazon. Story-telling, especially for the younger crowd, is a very different animal than writing nonfiction and commentary. Yes, I've taken extensive courses on fiction writing for kids, and yes I've written a lot of it -- but if one isn't a natural story-teller, the genre is difficult. For example, I just used 79 words to tell you I suck at writing fiction when five would have sufficed.

Anyway, I found this marvelous little book entitled "Hooked", by Les Edgerton, who is a writer-in-residence at the University of Toledo, and a successful fiction writer. The book answered a lot of my questions about structure, dramatic tension and pacing and set me straight on techniques once learned then forgotten.

However... the final chapter of the book (excluding an epilogue) quite simply stunned me.

In the book, Edgerton takes the reader through theory and examples of developing a saleable piece from what he (and publishing editors he queried) claim makes or breaks the story -- a dynamite beginning. Apparently, if you can't captivate the interest of the potential publisher or Borders' browser in the first few paragraphs, you're sunk. The overworked editor who first sees your manuscript won't give it the time of day, so it won't be published to begin with... or if, by some miracle, it is accepted and published, a potential reader won't hand over cold, hard plastic if they're not hooked by the opening page.

I have no problem with that -- no objection to the premise. It was the reason I bought Edgerton's book in the first place. Even though I'm not writing for publication, I want to write the very best that I can for MY readers -- kids aged from two to ten.

But then...after 205 pages of thorough instruction, he drops the bomb.

If writers are still using the models they learned in school before the Vietnam war era, they're writing all wrong. You should be writing the way "they" write for the movies and TV, where the emphasis is on action, where conflicts are resolved in 150 or 24 minutes, where motives are delivered by snappy one-liners and we only graze the surface of a character. The reason, of course, is money. Publishing, like movies and TV, is an industry, driven by the market. If trivial crap sells, the public must want it -- so let's give the public what they seem to want and thereby make our fortune.

It's yet another example of what I call "the rutabaga phenomenon," which I wrote about (on a different topic) HERE. If the only veggie a grocery store stocks is the lowly rutabaga, the purchasing public who wants some kind of veggie will buy the rutabaga -- skewing the market to reflect a demand for rutabagas that doesn't exist.

I don't know about you, but I think that, with maybe one or two exceptional movies a year, the rest of the films produced are worthless, stemming from bad, bad, bad, bad scripts. The same with television -- considering the number of channels available 24/7, the percentage of GOOD television produced must be less than one percent. (Good to me meaning the quality of The West Wing.)

And writers are supposed to use THAT level of crap as their model?

I'm quoting from the book:
"The most profound changes [to story structure] have taken place in a relatively short period. Mostly during the age of television and movies and modern communication (computers, telephones, etc.) and the resultant shifts in the way we perceive information and entertainment. Our world is shrinking. Our collective attention span shrinks with it as the universe speeds up, bombarding us with more and more information. And more and more entertainment options. Books have to change or get lost in the mix. "

"As a culture, we've been trained to receive stories visually by movies and television since at least the fifties. The same hold true of literature -- because of our experience with movies, we now expect to be plunged instantly into the "action" of the story on the page just as we are plunged into the action on the screen. "

"Stories today had better be wound tight and delivered quickly. They can't begin any longer with pages of backstory and setup. To be considered publishable, they have to begin with action and with the trouble that's going to occupy the story."

Edgerton goes on to explain that passages of great description or summary will not be read, that if written they won't be published because they ultimately won't be purchased.

Well, maybe so. He's the professional and I'm just a reader -- but where does that leave all the great fiction that was produced until 1965? Those "classics" will just fall by the wayside because we no longer have the temperament or discipline to read them? We'll forego the pleasure of being transported to a fictional world because we are no longer able to sit through descriptive passages as written by Steinbeck, Austin, Faulkner or (insert your favorite author here)?

And, worse yet, today's budding author will never be able to create memorable classics of his/her own -- stories with plot, character, motives, along with a solid portrait of time and place setting? The Great American Novel wl b wrtn n txtg langg?

Again, from the book:
"Even a relatively few short years ago, some publishers were willing to put out such books in hopes of snagging one of those prestigious literary prizes. That isn't done nearly as much these days. They've discovered not enough people buy 'em."

"The market demands a different kind of novel today, and it's the publisher's job to deliver what the market wants. Which means it's our job as writers to deliver that kind of book if we expect to see it on the shelves at the bookstore."
I know change is a constant factor in the Universe -- the one sure factor we can depend on. Literature, like everything else, changes according to the culture and the times. Certainly we don't write today as they did 200 years ago. But if Edgerton is correct (and I have no reason to suspect he isn't since he supports his statements with facts and informed opinion), how infinitely poorer will be the literary experiences of our grandkids and great-grandkids if the stories they read and write are modeled after the film and TV scripts of today.

When I decided to slam the door on the corporate world and step out on a new career path, writing was the first I considered. I soon learned that any kind of writing depends on marketing, and marketing comprises about 80% of one's professional time, which drops one's actual income to about $.04/hour. "Starving writer" is not a joke. Unless you're a best-selling author, that phrase will be the first line of your resume. Do I wish I were still writing for publication? Sometimes...but maybe that's why God and Gore's Internet gave us blogs.

If you're a fiction writer, I'd suggest that you buy the book -- it's well worth the $15. Just don't read the last chapter or you'll be looking on Monster.Com for a real job.

And P.S. Merry Christmas!


Anonymous said...

I agree that fast paced fiction sometimes sells well, but other kinds of fiction and nonfiction do also. I just finished a nonfiction book, The Innocent Man, by John Grisham. It deals with the rescue of an innocent, mentally ill man on death row in Oklahoma. Some exciting things happen in this book, but I would not describe it as action-oriented and fast paced.

annie kelleher said...

wow... i guess i should hang up my keyboard. i enjoy a fast paced story as much as anyone, have been accused of writing stories that are TOO fast paced (huh?) but i like to think that there's still room for some langorous language now and again. yeah, i agree you gotta grab the reader by the throat and pin them into the story so that they cant - or wont want to - escape... but geez.... once the story is off and running.. i think you can pause every now and then. but then... what do *I* know?

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