Thinking about Plot for NaNoWriMo

29 10 2010
William Faulkner's Outline

William Faulkner's mad outlining skills.

Things have been so busy around here and I’m so far behind on planning for NaNoWriMo, it’s not even funny. But it’s been a good week between finishing some pretty hefty job-related stuff, visiting an old friend, quite a bit of gaming and still managing to get to the gym. I definitely need to get on the ball, though and this weekend is going to take some finesse to plan out and get all the things done that need to be.

Among the varied sources of articles on the web about NaNoWriMo, I’m particularly grateful for Paulo Campos’ Countdown to NaNoWriMo series that he’s been putting together this week, which is good advice for any writer, but for as much writing is about to go on come Monday, it seems downright essential. You can find them on his blog, Yingle Yangle (I linked to all of the NaNoWriMo articles, but the rest seem like very good reading too). The series focuses primarily on good outlining and time-management skills. In other words, exactly the things I need help with the most.

I basically need all the help I can get with plot. I think it’s an unfortunate side-effect of being trained in literature that you tend to focus so heavily on character and psychology that you lose sight of the rest. Take, for example, the figure of Emma Bovary, about whom I could go on and on and try to understand from many different angles (feminist, social, economic, and the list goes on). Flaubert’s plot is, on the other hand, slower-paced than contemporary writing and is a little heavy-handed 19th century soap opera. It’s a good plot, don’t get me wrong. I think the novel is absolutely top notch and they don’t build ’em like that anymore. The pacing isn’t the same as what one sees in today’s heavy genre fiction, however, which makes up most of what’s out there. So, from my background, I’m pretty sure that I can come up with good characters, most of what I personally know about plot is pretty old-fashioned. A good bit of it is Aristotelian, it’s that old-fashioned. For what it’s worth, I’m aiming to write something in-between strictly genre and strictly “literary” and mostly, to be totally honest, I hate both labels and would just as soon focus on the writing itself.

I am still really looking forward to it. I plan on updating with my progress here starting on Monday and hopefully I’ll get through it okay. I’m also considering going to some of the write-ins put together by the good folks managing the Nashville writers. Might be a good way to meet some new people and get out a bit more. Mostly, I need to quit sleeping so much. I’m not used to this who 8-9 hours a night thing. I know it’s healthy, but unless they’re adding hours to the day, I can’t afford more than 6!

World War Z by Max Brooks

29 09 2010

Long overdue review here, but I loved this book and finally was able to get around to writing about it.

Let’s just face it: you’re going to have to go ahead and read World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War for one of two reasons and you’d better just go ahead and get on top of that. Either you’re going to realize that the Zombie Apocalypse is going to happen any freaking day now and that you’d best prepare for what’s coming, and because what’s better for that than reading a novel about it? Or you’re going to go watch the movie when it comes out in 2012 because Brad Pitt is executive producing and starring in it and after Inglourious Basterds, why the hell wouldn’t you? Nazis? Zombies? Hell to the yes.

Either works for me, because if the zombies do come, I’m going to be ready and you’d better be too or I’ll leave you in a ditch no matter how much love you. I think my almost 3 year old niece is fantastic, but I’ve declared to her family before, after watching her run and play hide and seek, that when THEY come, she’s zombie chow and will be out in the first round.

If you haven’t looked at the book at all, it’s not what you’d expect from a horror novel and barely fits the genre if you ask me. First, it’s not so much scary as it is horrific. Basically, if reading Nostradamus freaks you out a little (or even just watching the documentaries of it on the History Channel, because I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about-I’ve never read and probably will never read Nostradamus), then this book will do the same for many of the same reasons. They access the same whole oh-shit-we’re-boned part of the brain. Second, it’s barely what you’d call a novel, or rather it doesn’t have a traditional novel format. It’s more a series of interviews that make up a novel, which isn’t unheard of but is different than your standard boy meets zombie story. Third, holy crap, it’s going to happen just like this and Max Brooks thought of every single little thing and what to do about it. Hint: make lobotimizers.

When I sit back, drink beer and wax philosophical about the zombie survival story as a subgenre of horror, I normally get around to the point of saying that these kinds of stories are really mostly about the humans. The zombies are just sort of a blind force leading to mass hysteria and tragedy, like asteroids hitting the earth or a famine or like if Sarah Palin won the Presidential election. True, you can discuss different flavors of zombies and that’s fun: Do they talk? Do they run? Are they intelligent? Is it a disease or are they undead? But to be honest that’s really not the point. The good zombie stories have more in common with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road than they do with any of the vampire stories. Like the nuclear apocalypse story, we confront the agents of our destruction and find that it is us-in the zombie story, literally so, because the zombies are us and we consume ourselves into oblivion.

The best thing about zombie stories are the survivors themselves. I think a lot of people would just go ahead and choose the Charlize Theron route and wander off into the darkness and get themselves eaten up and they’d be the lucky ones. But the focus is on the ones who aren’t going to just lie down and take it. The survivors are the ones who have to make the really ghastly decisions and sacrifices, and that’s why it belongs in horror. The scariest thing is having to live through that and hold on. Survivors not only have to fight the monsters on the outside but the monsters within.

This is why World War Z rocks. The zombies themselves aren’t particularly threatening, especially since the story takes place 10 years after the war against the zombies has already been won. But what people recall through all of the interviews are the massive amounts of horrible crap that human beings did to each other all along the way. How did the zombies happen? Humans. How come we weren’t able to stop it early? Humans. Why were so few people able to be saved? Humans. The zombies did their job and ate people, sure. The really horrific crap came from the decisions humans made about how to deal with each other. Think Donner party on steroids with a hibachi.

The brilliance of this novel and its format as opposed to other stories is that it is a bird’s eye, big picture view of the entire scenario. I mean, normally, what you read about are the little pockets of survivors and what they have to deal with on the small scale. Think, for example, about Dawn of the Dead (if you’ve seen it). It’s a small group, the movie is mostly about how the characters’ own weaknesses are overcome but sacrifices are made, and they grow and survive, but there’s always the lingering despair that, in the end, they just won’t make it.

Brooks examines it as a comprehensive history instead. It is written as a history in raw documentary format, as the narrator interviews survivors from every walk of life from the grunt soldier, to the young girl survivor, to the head of the military, to the scientist. And from all the little pieces, you get this whole grand picture of everything going to absolute hell.

What strikes me is how Brooks thought of it all. I may not be very imaginative, but the way I see it, he covered every possible angle here. Every potential problem that could come up as zombies ate the face off the earth, Brooks thought of it. He thought of how it had to be countered and the repercussions of all of that. Here’s a small example (and a bit of a minor spoiler, so don’t read the rest of this paragraph if you want to avoid that sort of thing): Zombies aren’t the only things that will eat your face. But what’s even more horrible than the dead coming to get you are the crazies who snap and think that they’re going to survive by actually becoming the enemy. These wackos lose all touch with reality and start acting like zombies themselves. It’s really spooky, because zombies are scary by themselves, but what about crazy people zombies? In fact, the soldiers telling you about them and how they had to deal with them is pretty horrifying. It’s apparently quite hard to tell the difference between a real zombie and a faker. But what’s even more frightening is that these souls are totally lost but not dead, but you need to shoot their asses anyway and quick. You can’t spare the resources, time or take the risk to try and save them. Oh, and there’s another really creepy part of what happens when a real zombie comes across a fake one. Hint: the real zombies didn’t get the memo that they’re on their team. I blame the post office.

Anyway, I love zombie stories, games, movies, you freakin’ name it. Zombies rule and a little piece of me likes to think, you know, it’s because zombies are honest. You know where you stand with them. They’re dependable. Zombies make a great plot for the kind of misanthropic folks like me who think the world might just be going to hell anyway. World War Z is must read for any zombie enthusiast.

3 Things: A Flash Fiction story, the Picoult-Weiner HuffPo Interview, and dick lit.

26 08 2010

Three things have sprung up over the day and I had time at the gym to toss them around in my head.

First, I wrote a 1,200 word flash fiction story last week, cleaned it up this morning thinking I’d post it tomorrow and instead of being able to get it back under the “prescribed” 1,000 word mark, I added a 100 words to it. Bleh. So, maybe it’ll turn into a short story. We’ll see. Probably won’t put it up tomorrow, regardless.

Secondly, though I said I was already bored with the story, I read with eagerness Jason Pinter’s interview with Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner this morning. I’ve got to say, Picoult really does seem pretty sane to me. I don’t agree with her opinion, but she seems less “aggressive” and less nutty. It might be because just about anyone standing in the same virtual space as Weiner seems well-grounded, but I’m digging her vibe. On the other hand, I don’t understand where Weiner’s coming from and her arguments are all over the place. She’s occasionally witty, but witty in a stark-raving mad sort of way. I just don’t get what she’s after, but if she wants to dry her tears in her royalty checks (the snark just doesn’t do it for me), that’s cool, I guess. Seems like her mode though is to throw as much shit at the wall as she can and see what sticks. Mostly, seems like she’s just attention-hungry. Would’ve never suspected that from a writer.

Third, I’ve heard the term “dick lit” three times as the male analog to “chick lit.” It’s cute and though some people have a bone to pick with anyone writing “chick lit” (and I use the scare quotes intentionally. I can’t really define what’s “chick lit” or not. At least not succinctly or with any real accuracy. For that matter, I can’t define pornography real well either, but I know it when I see it.) Does anyone truly write “dick lit,” though? I can’t imagine a dude thinking that to himself while writing. I’m gonna write me a novel just for other dudes. Yeah, that just feels weird. I wonder if the sogenannte “chick lit” authors think that way when they write theirs. Maybe I’ve just missed the memo on it, I’m willing to admit.

The whole Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner, NYT Franzenparty thing

25 08 2010
Lightning Strikes NY Times Building

Image by Johnia! via Flickr

When Jodi Picoult started tweeting about how un-surprising Michiko Kakutani’s glowing review of Franzen’s Freedom was and how the NY Times book review is only interested in “white male literary darlings,” I’ll confess to having become intensely interested in this topic because it brings so many issues about the book world all together. I mean, just look at it: You have criticism against the relevance of a single publication’s book review, as high falutin’ as they may be, in an era when book reviews aren’t even that important anymore (so sayeth Goodreads); you have the entire commercial versus literary fiction debate and whether the NYTimes should be covering that; and you have the really hot and steamy sexism (and I guess race, too, although that’s even sillier) charge. I’ve even seen it thrown in there that the NYTimes only likes authors with MFA’s. That’s all good stuff. It’s like Jerry Springer for book nerds.

I think the sexism charge is outright ridiculous and we really need to knock that one off. As PWxyz’s Jonathan Segura blogged, even a quick glance of the Sunday Book Review shows that there are of lot of books being reviewed that were not written by over-educated white dudes from Brooklyn. It’s just a dumb card to play and it comes out way too early in the “game.” Can men do anything at all and not be accused of being favored due to their sex? Is there any such thing as true accomplishment for a guy? Who’s the one being sexist here?

It’s tempting to see it all as just sour grapes. I’m willing to concede that Picoult doesn’t have sour grapes and was just expressing her (however misguided) opinion. But oh, the poor others who haven’t been similarly acknowledged by the NYTimes. That’s the point of “chick-lit” Jennifer Weiner’s #Franzenfreude hashtag and the reading list that it has been generating. I agree, let’s celebrate those well-written family novels as well. But does that mean we can’t stop for a second and look at Franzen’s without going all ape-shit about it? Maybe this guy is right and the charges of sexism are just a smokescreen for resentment of the literary writers by those who actually make a decent bit of scratch writing successful commercial fiction. Personally, I think that Weiner’s opening tweet is the lamest of them all: “Carl Hiaasen doesn’t have to chose between getting a Times review and being a bestseller. Why should I? Oh, right. #girlparts.” Or is it because she is a bestselling author of “chick-lit”? The Times clearly doesn’t review genre. She’s been playing that tune for years now, too (see her rant in comments to this 2007 post on the Times’  Paper Cuts blog). Which is it?

And that issue doesn’t even touch the merits of Franzen’s writing, which, in all of this is only a tangential, teensy-weensy sidenote to the whole drama. That’s why the argument has headed off into the absurd. It’s become about who is deserving of acclaim based on so many extra-literary features and very little is actually said about whether or not Franzen might just be a pretty damn good writer. I started reading The Corrections last summer and got about a quarter of the way through before getting distracted by something else, but I thought it was brilliantly written and I’ll confess it did have that whole modern-day Buddenbrooks feel to it. I found Chip to be a very compelling character, pathetic and simultaneous over- and underachieving, exposing a lot of uncomfortable fears I have about myself. That’s the sign of literary fiction’s focus on character. That’s not the sign of bad writing. Is it not possible that NYTimes is just interested in reviewing well-written books?

Mostly, it’s just disappointing. I understand Franzen’s not the most likable guy. I rolled my eyes at his blowing off author videos while making an author video. I look at him and all I see is ego. Are you surprised? An egotistical writer? It’s not like that never happens. But he’s no LeBron James either. And I guarantee you more people care about LeBron. And LeBron makes a hell of a lot more money. This is overall a silly debate. I think it’s far more important that we have a book that actually does make a little noise once in a while. That we celebrate an accomplished novel by an accomplished writer and be glad that we still have that. Anything that draws attention to books, big books, is good, right? And who gives a damn who writes them as long as they keep doing so (and that goes for Jennifer Weiner, too).

Eventually I will get around to reading Freedom (and The Corrections), but because I appreciate his writing. But not before I’ve read the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Or Cherie Priest’s books. I probably won’t read Jennifer Weiner anytime soon, because she doesn’t write about experiences that I think I can ever really appreciate. Audrey Niffenegger is okay, though. See, because not only do I not generally care what naughty bits the authors have, I don’t usually think too long on whether I’m reading genre fiction or literary. In fact, I’d like to see the whole separation of the two go away, since it serves very little purpose other than to limit ideas and, more importantly, it keeps people from reading promiscuously. More than anything, though, I’m mostly bored with it and think we should just move on.

All the Good Ideas are Old Already

19 08 2010
It's Arguable Whether I Had Any in the First Place

Image by Lucia. . . via Flickr

‘Originality is merely an illusion.’ ~ M.C. Escher

Originality is something of a pipe dream. I worry that what I’m writing looks too much like somebody else’s work. I like something of theirs and I have to work hard to make it different and my own. I don’t feel like I’m copying, but I worry that someday some reader will think, “well, he just lifted that from so-and-so.” I don’t want to get into too many details about some of the projects I’m working on until they’re closer to fruition, but I know that there’s an element that is similar to a movie that came out a few years ago, a movie based on a book that I’ve never read. It’s not identical. It’s not even close to identical and in fact, I had the idea all by myself while driving several years ago before the movie or the book even came out. But because there’s a common theme, I worry. Worrying, my friends, is what I do.

This is something that has always plagued me in my academic writing, too. There, at least, I always felt I had a somewhat novel approach, but part of the discipline in academic writing is that you recognize that your observations, your thoughts come from standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before. A professor I had in Germany once told us in class that it’s the most useless worry. “Just cite everything,” he’d say, “you’re lucky if 5% of what you write is new.” The tradition is centered on the literature survey and good papers cite often and cite well those who came before and led to something that is only new by a small degree.

For some reason, we expect a lot more from our fiction and, when I consult the logical side of my brain, it seems clear that that’s a really unfair standard. All the good stuff was used up a good 2,000 or more years ago. The Roman playwright Plautus took most of his ideas from the Greek Menander. Shakespeare “borrowed” his plots from an array of sources, including Plautus, the Greeks, and various other historical sources. Contemporary authors do it all the time. How many vampire books are there now? They all tip their hats to Anne Rice. I mean, Lestat sparkled before sparkling was cool. Anne Rice came from Bram Stoker, who came from other storytellers, and so on. Jonathan Franzen is influenced by DeLillo and Pynchon. End of the day, it’s not plagiarism.

I’m grateful to Orson Scott Card’s rendering of it:

Many writers, however, far from borrowing or seeking to be “influenced,” are desperately afraid of inadvertent influence to the point of paranoia. Since every good idea has already been used, getting too anxious about such chance resemblances is a waste of time.

Here’s my rule: Any idea you really like that absolutely works for your story is your idea, no matter who else might have used it before. The only limitation on this is what the audience will stand for – if you end your novel with the hero standing before a fire and the only way the ring gets thrown in is because someone else bites off his finger and then falls in, well, your audience is likely to be a bit disgusted – the resemblance is too close, the source way too well-known. Only if your intent is humorous can you get away with it.

You should not be penalized for having read widely, however. If your story has elements that you recognize as being similar to a book by someone else, so what? As long as it’s your own story, and those motifs feel important and true within the context of your work, they’re your ideas now.

The moral of the story is to worry less about those influences and old stories we have bouncing around in our heads and more about making those things our own. There’s always a fresh twist and an authentic voice to be given to whatever and, really, I think a part of the human experience takes a little comfort in know that we’re not being bombarded with the terrifyingly new every five minutes.