Friday, May 14, 2010

Start Flapping!

I read Ariel's and Latayne's posts on why they don't read certain books--and all of your comments--with a mix of delight and terror. On one hand, I cheered what we all find annoying--clumsiness, predictability, and weather reports. My personal dis-qualifier is clutter. Superfluous words are like fingernails on the chalkboard to me.

On the other hand, I held your comments up to my work in progress like a template and found myself swimming in a sea of self-doubt.

Oh dear, I write in first person.

Is there enough rising antagonism to hold a reader?

Why are there so many characters in this story? Could some of you please go home?

It's a miracle, really, that we connect with readers at all.

Rather than slump into depression, I gave myself a pep talk: You can't please everyone, Miss Patti! You will not sell your books to every English-speaker in the world. But you will find an audience, albeit a small one, if you write to please yourself. (This sounds selfish, but it is writing to what God created me to write.)

Wait! My self-lecture isn't over until I recite these words from Henry James:

"Art derives a considerable part of its beneficial exercise from flying in the face of presumptions."

I have a particular example for what James is talking about that delights me. After hearing Kate DiCamillo speak at the Festival of Faith and Writing, I bought her novel, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane to read on the plane. DiCamillo writes young adult fiction brilliantly. You may know her from The Tale of Despereaux and Because of Winn-Dixie.

I'm so glad she ignored one of the golden nuggets of fiction writing: Avoid passive characters like the plague. They're boring, the worst kind of insult an author can inflict on a reader.

In DiCamillo's story, Edward is a china rabbit. He can't move or speak. He is hopelessly subject to the whims of a succession of owners. He spends a good deal of time on the bottom of the ocean and under increasing loads of trash in a dump. He is an observer of life.

And yet, once I started reading, I couldn't stop. DiCamillo takes a china rabbit on an adventure that transforms him, and me, forever.

All we said this week about what we didn't want to read has spurred me on to tighten my craft while flapping my wings with the goal of shattering presumptions.

Please, please, please share any works of fiction you believe fly in the face of presumption and do it so beautifully that they have become a favorite.


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I love to write in first person too.

I also love it when I remember I can't please everyone.

Flapping away here myself.

I think The Book Thief pulled off something very difficult and unique, with death being the narrator. I'm sure the author was told it will never work. It worked for me.

~ Wendy

Latayne C Scott said...

Two books I know of broke a lot of the "rules." One, ABA bestseller Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, starts out with an extended description of a setting, and doesn't give you any detailed information about the people in it. The passage uses passive voice several times and many one-word sentences. Yet it is very, very effective. (Warning: the opening passage uses profanity and takes the Lord's name in vain.) But nonetheless McCann broke many rules and did it in such a way as to heighten, not lessen, the effectiveness of his writing.

I really enjoyed Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad. See, it has a nearly-unpronounceable title with an obscure reference. That would be a killer if she weren't, well, Margaret Atwood.

Patti Hill said...

Wow, three books to read!

Keep flapping, Wendy!

Nicole said...

Patti, you're a gem--and far more benevolent than I. I don't think the "rules" of writing should even be called "rules". I think they should be given the title of "guidelines" as in the pirate's definition of rules. Because you see, as each of you who commented stated, these so-called rules were broken magnificently. And to each his own in tastes, structures, word choices, voices, POVS, and styles.

You mentioned you liked tight writing. I only like it by some authors. Otherwise I like a lot of description, detail, etc., and, yes, depending on the writer, superfluous words. I thought Hemingway was a terrible writer but a good storyteller. So there you have it.

I took the omnisicient POV for the start of my second novel The Famous One and morphed into primarily the third person toward the second half. I had no idea it would end up being written like a "fictional biography", but that was the story and the way it needed to be told.

And I used to hate first person POV until I realized if I planned to read at all, I better get used to it. Some do it brilliantly. I used it predominantly in my seventh novel. You're truly right: write from your heart to please the One who gives the stories.

Jessica Nelson said...

The Book Thief, definitely. It's storytelling, pure and simple. A book that can be told orally, I mean. It's not showing, really. You always know you're being told about someone else's life. It's just a unique, amazing book. :-)

Patti Hill said...

Two votes for The Book Thief! That goes to the top of my TBR pile. Thanks, Jessica!

Nicole: By superfluous, I'm not speaking to descriptive writing. I cringe at a misplaced modifier or redundancy or wordy dialogue. Hear the primal scream?

Judy Gann said...

Patti, I so needed to read your words today. This newbie fiction writer has felt a bit overwhelmed reading all the excellent posts & comments this week. Thank you for reminding me to set my mind and heart on writing the book the Lord has called me to write. It's so easy for me to get sidetracked trying to please others.

Roxy Henke recently gave me this wise counsel: "You are not writing to please an editor. You are not writing to please an agent. You are writing to please God."

I taped her words above my computer.

Count me in as another fan of The Book Thief. :-)

Anonymous said...

Patti, I love this encouraging post. Because when all is said and done, we have to write the story in a way that's true to our selves.

The Book Thief is an amazing book. I read it twice within a short period of time.

I write all of my contemporary fiction in first person. I love writing first person. And I love reading it. Add to that, my WIP is in present tense. I'm loving that too. But what a challange.

I've added two new books to my TBR list. And it's so true ... so many books, so little time. That's mostly why I get so little sleep.

Anonymous said...

Good grief, you'd think I'd never won a spelling bee. Make that challenge.

Patti Hill said...

If you haven't been over to today, you must go. Katy has written a VERY encouraging piece there.

Judy, I'm so glad you found some encouragement here. Writing in HARD! But we won't give up. We won't slide away. Here we are to write our little hearts out.

Sharon, no one writes a more honest-to-the-heart story than you!

Gracie Bea Winterton said...

A friend I have in China gave me great advice on this subject: "Only you have your goal in mind. Only you know what you're envisioning for your book." Once we make our visions happen, what anyone else says is their opinions--we can take it with a grain of salt.

I think Rene Gutteridge's Listen breaks some of modern fiction's rules, with so many rotating point of view characters it's hard to keep them straight--but I think the book is better for all that.

Patti Hill said...

Rene is a doll. I'll have to pick Listen up, too.

Bonnie Grove said...

When I read the first sentences of Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees, I felt like I had come home. She begins the book as if she and the reader were in the middle of a conversation.

Ann-Marie MacDonald's Fall On Your Knees begins by the as yet unnamed narrator "showing" me a picture of the town "they" lived in. Who they are, I know not - only that they are all dead. Wonderful, wonderful. I nearly clap my hands except I'd have to put the book down.

The Book of Negros (In the US it's known as Someone Knows My Name) begins with the ramblings of an old but sharp minded woman who assumes you know so much more than you do. It's so effective it makes me itch.

I've read the first chapter of The Book Thief, and I have it on my "buy" list. I started reading it and thought, this is either Death talking, or Woody Allen (they are surprisingly similar). It made me happy.

I'm learning as I write, and lately I have been embracing the creative perspective, the unfenced boundaries of how a story can be told. It is freeing. And frankly, I'm a writer who does better with freedom that with rules.

When I write, I feel His pleasure.