Friday, March 27, 2009

Writing Books

Recently I have been reading books about writing fiction (this fit takes me every so often, usually when I'm about to teach a workshop). Two that I perused are by Lawrence Block and John Gardner. They could not be more different.

Gardner (the author of Grendel and October Light, not the British thriller writer) is often dismissive of plot. He considers both The Grapes of Wrath and All The King's Men to be bad books because of plotting that either sets up "unrealistic" villains or has characters behave in "unrealistic" ways. He has a low opinion of writers (and readers) who are mostly interested in "what happens next" (in this he echoes Delany), being far more interested in how it happens.

Block, on the other hand, is all about plot. He says frankly that complex characters are good but, in much fiction, not essential to sales. What readers want is surprises in "what happens next."

I have oversimplified these two authors' positions, but not by much. Reading the books in tandem, I wonder: What does a beginning writer make of all this? It has to be confusing. However, in another sense it should be liberating -- it underlines, yet again, the basic fact that there are no hard-and-fast rules in writing. What works for Block, with his particular books, works. What worked for Gardner's, with his (more literary) approach, also worked. Ergo, you have a lot of latitude in finding what works for you.

But one thing both writers agree on, fervently: You won't find out what works for you unless you put in the time writing. Practicing. Doing it.

7 comments:

Mike Flynn said...

You remember the hypercube and the "potboiler barrier"? (G)

IMHO, a story can be "good" in any dimension so long as it is not atrocious in any of the others. A diet all of carrots may give you night vision, but it also turns you orange. The same, I think, for reading. Stories that emphasize plot, stories that emphasize character, stories that emphasize setting or atmosphere, stories that emphasize ideas: any of these can work, so long as the great plot does not have unbelievable characters walking through it. Great characters should not dialogue in a "white room." Etc.

Celsius1414 said...

As there are no hard-and-fast rules in writing, there are also no hard-and-fast rules in reading. Readers are no more "wrong" in being engrossed by plot than by character.

I think the best stories, as Mike Flynn points out, are those that leave no aspect undeveloped. Of course, there are always exceptions -- some stories might need the emphasis of one facet all out of proportion with the others.

Absolute "rules," however, sell more books about writing than "It's up to you" and "It depends on the story." ;)

A.R.Yngve said...

Exercise: Is the Bible a
A) plot-driven
or a
B) character-driven
story?

If A)...
The Principal Character or Protagonist is THE LORD. His character develops over the course of the story. He starts out as energetic, creative (creating the world), but also petty and prone to fits ("For I am a jealous God", the Flood, etc.).

Later he grows capable of humility, and forms a secondary self called "Christ", who performs an act of redemption.

All in all, an interesting and engaging character study of a deity.

But if B)...
...well, there is this overarching "What Happens To the Chosen People Next" thread running through the first part.

But there are many subplots and deviations from the main story and the plotting is quite confusing at times.

;-)

A.R.Yngve said...

Ooops! Mix-up -- A) should be B) and vice versa.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Right. So Grendel was a "realistic" villain. Sure. Naturally.

That kind of self-important theorizing reminds me of a conversation between an avant-garde composer and Paul McCartney back in 1968. The avant-garde man explained to the Beatles' bassist how melody was unimportant. And McCartney replied, in all seriousness, "Right. So you're saying you can't write melodies."

Mike Flynn said...

Grendel was indeed a realistic villain.

He has no idea of the arts of war.
Of shield or sword-play,although he does possess
A wild strength.
and again:
In off the moors, down through the mist bands
God-cursed Grendel came greedily loping...
The iron-braced door
Turned on its hinge...
Then his rage boiled over, he ripped open
the mouth of the building, maddening for blood,
Pacing the length of the patterned floor
With his loathsome tread...
He grabbed and mauled a man on his bench
Bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood
And gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body
Utterly lifeless, eaten up
Hand and foot. Venturing closer,
His talon was raised to attack Beowulf
Where he lay on his bed; he was bearing in
With open claw...
Every bone in his body
Quailed and recoiled, but he could not escape.
He was desperate to flee to his den and hide
With the devil's litter, for in all is days
He had never been clamped or cornered like this.

Not real, I will grant you.
Not realistic, I beg to differ.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Mike, I take your point. Lemme think about this.