Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Value of Bad

When I worked as a store manager for Borders back in the mid-90s I was called on to help write, and then host a customer-service training video. The idea was to show booksellers how to help customers in a variety of scenarios, some of them difficult, and to "give them the words" to handle things successfully.

Giving people the words is of immeasurable help. Have you ever discussed—with a trusted friend or associate—a difficult situation you're about to face, and that person puts just the right spin on it, and you found yourself saying, "Oh, thanks! That's just what I'll say." I sure have.

So I was delighted to help write the script. Having managed people for years, and witnessed some terrible choices and behavior along with the good (and been the one to clean up the mess afterward), I made sure to include a common scenario where the bookseller says and does the wrong things. Then I wrote a scene where the bookseller does it right. My reason for putting in a negative example was so that front-line staff would understand that certain words and actions a) are in fact rude; and b) never achieve the result you want. When you're standing in front of a mirror, it's hard to be in denial about what you see.

But the human resources dept. manager, upon reviewing the script, cut the negative example. I believe the HR people had the fear that showing a negative example would somehow encourage negative behavior, which made no sense to me. But I was certain the scene would prompt nervous laughter and give employees insight they couldn't get otherwise. I lobbied my case, but lost that one. We shot the video, and it was a good one, but it could have been better, funnier, and more effective.

These days when I write articles or teach workshops on how to write well,

I include negative examples where appropriate. Simply saying, "Do it this way," is of limited value unless you show how crappy a result you get if you do it that way. The meta thing is that a student doesn't necessarily know which elements of "doing it the right way" are the important ones. I always remember, as a young reader, consuming Dan Keyes's innovative novel Flowers for Algernon and being struck by the scene where the mentally impaired Charlie Gordon is told to watch a baker make rolls so he can then do it. Watching, he has no idea if the position of the baker's elbows as he rolls the dough is as important as the recipe itself, or what. He cannot generalize or differentiate at all. He needs more context.

If you let students examine a suboptimal example, then present a worthy one, you have provided a huge amount of context, and their understanding and ability to translate the material to their own experience goes up by a factor of at least three. (Where did that math come from, you ask? Just trust me.)

I've been thinking about this while putting together a reading list for an upcoming novel-writing workshop. There is no perfect novel, no flawless novel out there (because of course art is subjective in the first place). Being able to point out and discuss the negatives in an acknowledged masterwork is freeing and instructive, and it's just a bunch of fun too.

[Postscript: I just Googled Dan Keyes and found he died a few days ago. RIP to somebody who gave a wonderful gift of art to this world.]

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Don't Stop at Orange

Achieving an effect: that's art. A writer has to think about this stuff just like a painter, for instance. If a painter wants to paint a molten orange sunset, you bet she's going to focus on that orange. Naturally. A beginning painter would simply open a tube of orange paint and slather it on in a circle. A painter who has really taught herself to see, will start with a base of perhaps white, then add yellows and reds and maybe some brown, blue, or green. Since if you really look at anything, even a molten sun, it's not all one completely even color.

A real example: One of Vincent Van Gogh's self-portraits. The picture looks lively, vivid, real, honest. Yet if you look closely,

there are streaks of green paint in his beard. (You can see it better in the original in person; this is just to give you the idea.) Well, his beard hairs might have been a mix of reddish, brown, and maybe even a little gray. But green? Why does the picture look so great? Maybe because Van Gogh looked at the world with fine attention. He saw that light reflects off of just about every surface, and colors change as the light changes. Shadows aren't black; they're blue, brown, olive. (Note on copyright: I took this photo of a page in a book. Because the photo is an image I created, I own the copyright. If I captured an image of a Van Gogh painting from the Web, that image might be copyrighted by somebody else. So basically: If you take a photo, it's your property, and no trouble ought to come of your sharing it.)

The observer of that finished painting doesn't go, "Hm, I think the artist began with a base of umber wash; no, maybe a dull white—and then he added the umber, some yellow, then maybe some vermilion, and maybe—do I see a trace of ultramarine?" No. Unless the observer too is a student of art, or a passionate artist who sees and understands art technique, they're just going to go, "Man, that is one intense, energetic picture." And they have a feeling that the artist gave it everything he had.

When a good writer sets out to represent a character or a setting or a story, they take the trouble to conjure it mentally, first, as clearly as possible. Then they look, listen, smell, taste, and feel deeper, then they go about writing. This takes time. But the result is writing that feels more alive on the page than the reality that might meet the reader when they look up from that page. And that is known as a tour de force.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Exploitation and How to Use It

Exploitation is a term few novice writers really understand. Simply, to exploit is to use, whether fairly or unfairly. Most people attach a negative connotation to the word because it makes them think of strip-mining and migrant workers toiling hard for little pay. But it's the same word we might use in a sentence like this:

The native peoples discovered the island and began to exploit its natural resources: wood, fruit, and mollusks.

Exploit comes from the Latin root explicare, meaning to unfold. I love that.

A storyteller can exploit his audience cheaply or with integrity. Makers of the so-called 'blaxploitation' films of the 1970s figured there was a latent desire in urban black audiences to see white bigots and authority figures humiliated by strong black characters, and they sought to serve that up. The supermarket tabloids exploit their readers' dual appetites for scandal and seeing photos of celebrities looking fat or old. Those are examples of cheap exploitation. But you'll note that they are also examples of extremely commercially successful exploitation.

Countless novels exploit their readers:
Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler's Fail-Safe (fear of nuclear war);
Michael Crichton's The Andromeda Strain (fear of alien germs);
Erich Segal's Love Story (desire for a soul-mate)
…and I realize I could go on and on, from adventure tales to mysteries to literary works. Think of all the ink!

If you pick up a good novel and read it while keeping, in the back of your mind, the question of exploitation, you'll learn a lot about how to push an audience's buttons. Literary works often exploit the reader's intellectualism and sense of wit. Thrillers exploit the common human desire to be on the sidelines when something big and violent is happening, then to witness it all come clear and peaceful in the end.

Thinking about all this, I realize that exploitation in literature is simply a way to connect with your readers.

Cheap exploitation that traffics in stereotypes gets predictable and tiresome fast. But if you take care to really get inside your reader's head and treat what you find there with respect—and a bit of mischief—you can go a long way. You can invent characters who are not stereotypical, who are as complex as real people, whether dumb or smart, and you can put them into situations they react to with thought and purpose. You can turn a stereotype inside-out and see what you find there. You can offer your reader a meal of instant porridge, which will satisfy hunger, or you can prepare a gourmet feast that must be savored to fully appreciate, which satisfies much more than hunger. The key is knowing that everybody's hungry for something.

You can be zany or serious during all this. Just accept the fact that you, the writer, are the boss, and readers want to you be in charge. Give them something they're expecting, then give them something they'd never dream of, then slap them around a little, then kiss them goodnight. They'll love you.

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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Win or Lose, What to Make of It

A few friends of mine returned from the writing-prize awards ceremony (brand name is irrelevant) "sans bling", as one put it. And the most pragmatic thing I can say is this:

It's better to have deserved to win and not won, than to have won and not deserved it.

I am not the first to make that observation. I've been a judge in three national writing competitions, and my work has won a couple of awards. Notice I don't say I won a couple of awards; I say my work won. This is an important distinction: You are not being judged, your work is. "But my work is me!" No, it's not. This is essential to remember not only when dealing with awards, but when reading reviews. My God, I've had professional reviewers make completely opposite judgments about my work, and if I took it seriously EITHER WAY, I'd be impossible to live with.

Needless to say, if your work didn't win, you're lucky if you feel that a work genuinely superior to yours won. But when it comes to writing championships,

well, they're like figure-skating competitions. A panel (usually) of judges decides who gets the bling, because the whole business is subjective. There's no finish line to cross first or ticket sales from opening weekend to measure, though at least in figure skating it's obvious whether you landed that triple or fell on your ass. For writing, it's worse. While any judge can tell whether you can write complete, coherent sentences, one judge might love your style, while another totally doesn't get it. Worse still, a judge might have something against you personally and not have the integrity to recuse himself or herself. Judges disagree, judges quarrel, judges have their pet vanities, judges have sentimental ideas about who SHOULD be the winner this time, judges vote, and the majority rules.

If your work has won, it gives you the freedom and credibility to say, "It's all crap!" if you really think so.

I might add that I recently dug out of storage one of my awards, in the form of a chunk of acrylic with a medallion embedded in it. I slipped it from its protective velveteen sleeve and found that the acrylic had gone all cloudy and yucky-looking. No one's fault, just a reminder that awards come and go, and it's only the work that endures.

[photo of ES's desk cup by ES]

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