Thursday, July 30, 2015

Yale University and Omaha Disagree

westward ho
Pioneer Courage Park, Omaha Nebraska

Amy Athey McDonald has published an article in Yale News titled: On gunfights, U.S. colonialism, and studying the American West on the East Coast. The article includes an interview with John Mack Faragher, the Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies, and director of the Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders.

The Lamar Center site has a nifty feature which displays a different student’s dissertation blurb every time you refresh the screen. (You can actually catch gems like this: “I seek to foreground these events as a historical pivot point during which North American and global geopolitics, British-American relations, and both “American” and “Canadian” native peoples’ status and territorial control hinged on seemingly peripheral people, movements, and landscapes.”)

It’s nice to see the American frontier get some attention, but I’m not an enthusiast for the tone of the article or the Howard R. Lamar Center. If you don’t want to take the time to read the article or visit the site, I can summarize the content of both in a few words—pioneers wore black hats.

Professor Faragher said in the interview, “As I insist with my students, for every community founded in the American West, imagine that one was destroyed, and people killed, removed, or pushed aside.”

Pioneer Courage Park, Omaha Nebraska
He lost me right there. When I read that sentence I heard Professor Faragher say he wanted no uplifting messages about the frontier spirit. If his students persisted, then he insisted that they balance their dissertation by showing how pioneers despoiled all that was good and decent in the Americas. I object to using deplorable acts of others to claim higher moral ground for oneself, especially when that person is removed from the transgressor by time and distance.

He says, “The best side of our history is the attempt to form a just society out of our less than promising beginnings.” In other words, we started poorly, but if we learn from our disreputable past we can fix our society so it is just. 

We started better than any other nation in history. How many civilizations had a chance to start fresh and declared with their first free breath that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Granted, the words were aspirational—still are—but what other collection of people defined such a precise and idealistic goal for themselves. Just because we struggle to act in accordance with this lofty goal is no reason to vilify ourselves.

Pioneer Courage Park, Omaha Nebraska

I believe all people are the same. The same virtues, the same flaws. I came to this conclusion early in life from reading the Bible. It occurred to me that human frailties have not changed in thousands of years. Races and countries and clans are not noble. Collections of people cannot be consistently honorable. Individuals, however, can be noble, but more likely they perform noble acts in what might otherwise be an ignoble life.

There is no excuse for appalling acts by politicians, soldiers, and settlers. But to emphasize the negative over the courageous and honorable actions of most pioneers is not the path to a just society. We must look honestly at our past, but also see the brave and stalwart souls who struggled to make this a better world.

Man cannot be made perfect, but he can be inspired to lean toward his better nature. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

Writing Tips from Ernest Hemingway

fiction writing celebrity author

Hemingway never published advice for aspiring writers, but he spoke or wrote enough about writing that Larry W. Phillips was able to edit a collection of his reflections on the craft. (Ernest Hemingway on Writing)

In the preface, Phillips writes, “Throughout Hemingway’s career as a writer, he maintained that it was bad luck to talk about writing—that it takes off ‘whatever butterflies have on their wings and the arrangement of hawk’s feathers if you show it or talk about it.’ Despite this belief, by the end of his life he had done just what he intended not to do. In his novels and stories, in letters to editors, friends, fellow artists, and critics, in interviews and in commissioned articles on the subject, Hemingway wrote often about writing.”

Here’s one piece of advice I like:

Hemingway said to F. Scott Fitzgerald that, “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

This nugget reminds me of a photography course I took many years ago with my wife. (She got an A while I received only a B. Darn. And we took pictures of the same subjects.) Anyway, the teacher told us if we wanted to build a reputation as good photographer, we should take lots and lots of pictures and throw all of the bad ones away. Simple … but expensive in the age of film photography. In the digital age, this advice has become cost free. If adhered to religiously, this technique allows a visual dufus like me to catch up with my wife.

Here are some more tips gleaned from Hemingway lifelong musings about writing.
  • Use short sentences.
  • Use short first paragraphs.
  • Use vigorous English.
  • Be positive, not negative.
  • To get started, write one true sentence.
  • Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.
  • Never think about the story when you’re not working.
  • Don’t describe an emotion–make it.
  • Be Brief.
  • The first draft of everything is shit.
  • Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.
  • Write drunk, edit sober.

If you’re inclined, there’s even an app that will measure your writing clarity against Hemingway. I’m not one for machine assisted writing tools, but at $9.99, this one seems inexpensive. I bought it and tried it out on this post. It received a “good” score. Ironically, the quote from Larry W. Phillips was highlighted as the least comprehensible.  

Friday, July 10, 2015

Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling

Scripts guidelines help storytelling. First Loony Tunes, now Pixar. The animated world has rules. Perhaps it's related to Walt Disney's comment that he liked animated features because he could control everything. He didn't need to deal with unruly actors.

Here  are Pixar's 22 Rules. Way more than Roadrunner's 9 or Bonanza's 7
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Click to see Pixar's 23 Years 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Happy Independence Day

I hope everybody has a great day. One of my favorite July 4th celebrations was in 1976, the bicentennial. On a lark (or perhaps it was a inebriated neighborhood party), our street decided to enter a float in the bicentennial parade. We'd be competing against businesses and established organizations like the VFW and Shriners. The photo above shows my wife and son standing in front of our 1st Place float. (Hey, come on, it wasn't the Rose Parade.) Great memories. It drew the neighborhood together and we had a rowdy celebration with all the BBQ grills gathered in one back yard with kids running around everywhere.

If you want to read about an even older celebration, here is a description of the Independence Day gala in Philadelphia during the Constitutional Convention.  Before the snarky comments arrive, I wasn't actually at that celebration. At least, not physically. I did kinda visit when I wrote the piece.

Happy 4th of July. 

Friday, July 3, 2015

A Milestone of Sorts

Today I hit a milestone. I received my 1,000th customer review. Those are reviews where the reader actually wrote at least a few words. Barnes and Noble, Goodreads and others allow a simple rating on a scale of 1 to 5. I have over 1,600 of the ratings variety of criticism, but I prefer reading about why the reader liked or disliked my book.

The 1,000 word reviews are across all eight of my books, so the nicely rounded number doesn’t allow me to open a good bottle of Champagne. (Don’t have one, anyway.) 718 of the reviews are on Amazon for a 4.4 average rating. That made me feel good until I wandered over to Goodreads. There I found 245 reviews for an average of 3.8 stars. Actually, this doesn’t bother me at all. Goodreads always trends lower than Amazon. Besides, I trust Goodreads reviews because they made an effort to visit the site without a prompting email. (The remaining reviews appear on Barnes & Noble and Apple iBooks.)

What have I learned from reading all these reviews? Gosh, maybe not a thing. I certainly haven’t changed my writing. As I think back, the middle-of-the-road reviews have been the most useful to me. They usually liked the book, but had a reservation about one thing or another. Those reservations have tilted my writing to a degree.

I like reviews. And I appreciate readers who take the time to give me some feedback. So … thank you to all who read my books and an extra thank you to those who post a review. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Characters Matter

Characterization is a crucial aspect of fiction. We know this because it's drilled into us at school, in workshops, and in all the how-to books and journals we read. The protagonist must come across as real and interesting enough to pull the reader all the way through to the end of the story. A common mistake, however, is to focus too much attention on the protagonist. When you read a great book or watch an outstanding film, it's usually the antagonist that lifts the story above the ordinary.

Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western film
A favorite villain: Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West
Protagonists, especially those of the heroic breed, are bound by rules and common perceptions that somewhat inhibit creativity. Antagonists, on the other hand, are wide open for manipulation. They can be bad to the bone like Hannibal Lector or Chigurh. They can be nasty or evil, but mend their wayward ways like Ebenezer Scrooge or Darth Vader. The reader may be misdirected to believe the antagonist is bad and then everything is flipped around like with Boo Radley and Mr. Darcy. 
Antagonists can make a story memorable even when they are not even human, like Moby Dick or Christine. The one thing these antagonists all have in common is great character development.

Concentration on character development shouldn't stop with the protagonist and antagonist. Nobody willingly hangs around with boring people and nobody wants to read about characters with cornmeal personalities—not even the bit players. Everybody inside the covers of your book has to be interesting. Give each of them a distinct personality. If you have a character like a postman or waitress that appears only for a couple pages, don't slow down the story by describing their personality, show it. You need to do it with dress, movement, or dialogue. Show, don't tell, is more difficult with the brevity of a minor player, but you only need to spice the character enough to make him or her three dimensional.

A fictional work has a single writer with a single personality. If you populate your work with slight variations of yourself, you'll create a homogeneous universe that will bore people silly. A writer must suppress their own personality when developing characters so they are all different from each other. It's not enough that they look and talk different—they must think and act differently. They must be different people.

The fiction writer's personality will show up in the total work, but it's best if it's not directly reflected in the characters, especially the protagonist or antagonist. Have fun with these two. Make them unique from yourself and every other character in your work. This is especially true for the antagonist. 

A really good bad guy or gal gives a hero a reason to be heroic.