Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Less Thrilling Thriller

In reading my first Frederick Forsyth novel, I cannot quash unfavorable comparisons to John Le Carre. I'm a long-time fan of Le Carre's baroque style, resplendent with detail yet deeply emotional.

Forsyth's research on every subject he touches leaves one breathless, but in the sense of a happy geek, not a satisfied novel-reader. There's a dispassionate nature to the reams of information, often sickeningly graphic yet frigid. I also notice an unusually small amount of dialog. That alone might quantify the difference between these two authors. "Show, don't tell," as they say. I'm outside, watching things happen rather than living them.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Unfashionably Pedantic

Virginia Hamilton probably ran into serious resistance when she began her career in the 1960s, specializing in mid-grade novels about African Americans. In honor of her her courage alone I was excited to read The House of Dies Drear, a paranormal mystery novel featuring ghosts of slaves along the Underground Railroad.

Having read just half that novel (in more than the amount of time it should have taken me to finish it), I am sorely disappointed. It's not the brave subject matter, nor even the story itself or the depth of characterization that's the problem. What's miring my progress has more to do with changing taste in children's writing than with Ms. Hamilton in particular.

Her prose is detached. There is a determination to force great quantities of history upon the reader, with the result that a textbook veneer covers over the storytelling. With every paragraph I get more annoyed at the lifelessness of the writing.

Let this be a lesson to me: the details of one's research must not overshadow the fiction and motion in historical novels, especially for children. The desire to teach must be subsumed under the desire to entertain and even thrill.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Who Am I, Peter Jackson?

There have been a lot of articles in writers' newletters recently on the topic of book trailers. It seems, in these tough and competitive times, that authors are expected to produce short videos promoting their own books, to be shown on YouTube, Amazon, or blogs like this one. I mean scenes acted out by live or animated characters, or at least a voice-over ("In a world...").

Don't bother watching this space for that sort of entertainment, dear reader. The more I read about this, the more inane and rife with nightmares such a project sounds. Besides the obvious production problems of finding affordable professional-level actors, animators, and videographers, there are also myriad legal issues. An essay in the new SCBWI Bulletin mentions how copyrights on music and images might get you into trouble, not to mention the fact that some author's contracts prohibit the use of one's own text for this purpose.

Let me know when book trailers are out of beta phase and maybe I'll test the waters.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Vestigial Inflection

As Middle English morphed into Modern, its Germanic word-endings dropped off like fly wings. No longer did a word show its part of speech. Grammatical inflection became a matter of traditional usage and guessed context, with declension and number no longer in evidence. Even before that, European writing in general had lost the intricacies of Latin grammar, clause buried in clause. These disrupted fragments, even before the advent of commas, worked because the parts of speech were visible on the words, so they could be reconstructed and reconnected like puzzle pieces.

But a few writers of Modern English are historicists, stalwartly harking back to a better and more complicated time in the history of language. Please enjoy parsing this bit of mastery from Anthony Burgess' Enderby Outside, featuring three distinct grammatical roles for a most unlikely noun:

"Then, instead of expensive mouthwash, he had breathed on Hogg-Enderby bafflingly (for no banquet would serve, because of the known redolence of onions, onions) onions."

And cherish with me, friends, the layering of the clauses, not unlike the concentric levels of ... an onion!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Tripping Over the First Step

I'm beginning to understand why, once he's completed a novel, Richard Peck summarily tosses out his first chapter and rewrites it. I'm at that stage of revision now, and find that my first chapter does not have the strength to support the rest of the story.

I don't seem to have the nerve to throw the entire opening chapter in the trash, but I'm very willing to do some serious surgery on it. Here's hoping the bone structure will hold the new shape.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Sound of Silence

I haven't been at this fiction thing long, but I'm already noticing a changing trend: overwhelmed magazines. At least, I like to believe that's what's causing the utter silence, month after month, from publisher after publisher. No rejections, no response to status queries. Just nothing.

I was grateful the other day to get a form letter from an editor who admitted he was overwhelmed, offering me the option to remove my story from his endless queue. I left my story there, of course, thus adding to his burden.