Archive for September, 2010

Last week I did a rundown on how Alfred Hitchcock explained to an audience in 1939 how a screenplay was developed.  I was speaking strictly about the piecemeal construction of the story, and how the elements were built up into a final story that would eventually become a movie.  And I suggested that perhaps this method might not be a bad way to approach the construction of fiction.

A little further on in the lecture Hitch gets down to some specifics about designing scenes, specifically about the nature of what he refers to as “the terrific problem” which might be better understood as “deliberately backing yourself into a corner.”

Speaking of his most recent film at the time – The Man Who Knew Too Much – Hitch talks about how he conceived of certain elements he wanted to include in the story, backgrounds and locations and such.  Never mind that these were not necessarily integral to the plot, only that he wanted to incorporate them.  He admits this is the wrong way to go about it but suggests constructing a scene in the following order:

  • Select a background
  • Define the action
  • Then, and only then, choose your character to motivate and justify the other elements.

On the surface, this might seem stupid, but if I were to ask you to identify one or two iconic scenes from North by Northwest (presuming you’ve seen it) you’re either going to mention Cary Grant being chased down by a cropduster in the middle of nowhere or a chase scene among the faces on Mount Rushmore.  There is absolutely nothing about the character or the plot of that movie that requires those locations or actions, only that Hitch had these images in his head and he wanted them firmly planted in yours. They work, they’re some of the most remembered scenes in the history of cinema, and there’s nothing stupid about that.

This also sounds like a perfect solution for creating more memorable scenes in fiction.

Anyone who’s taken improv classes or done creative writing experiments knows the “two characters and a location” exercise.  You choose two seemingly unrelated characters, a random location, and give them some dialog that justifies their providence.  A nun and a cowboy at a hardware store. There are even iPhone apps that will randomly select items based on personally set parameters if you’re looking for some ideas.

What Hitch likes about setting up these “terrific problems” is that by including these moments of dissonance you keep the viewer (or reader in our case) interested enough to stay engaged.  The Master of Suspense knows that keeping the moviegoer unsettled and off-kilter by seemingly random situations increases the tension and compels them to stay involved with the main character.  Likewise in fiction, these unique, unusual elements are going to not only tug readers along from page to page, they’ll also make you a better writer. Eventually they’ll need to be incorporated into the story, but details, details.

Hitch has an example where he talks about a socialite stuck in a steamship’s stokehole and how improbable it seems, but that by insisting on that scene the writer is forced to be imaginative in how their story evolves.  One could relocate the woman to a yacht, which would be more in keeping with her station, but Hitch isn’t having any of it.  “That, of course, is radical and you must not do it, because the moment you do, you are weakening and not being inventive.”  The example is odd – it sounds a little too much like a Marx Bros. bit to me – but the point is solid.  There’s nothing wrong in looking at point A and point B and wondering what would be the most arresting direction getting there.

I may be overstating Hitch’s point a bit, but not by much.  I used to wonder if one of the reasons fantasy does so well with middle grade readers is that the world building and details serve the same function as this cognitive dissonance Hitch is talking about.  You have characters in unfamiliar situations where the impossible can happen at any minute.  Then again, this is also the problem I have with fantasy, that these moments happen so often that I become numbed by them.  I’m not carrying strong iconic anchor scenes because they all become a sort of blur in the service of the story and lose a certain freshness. For me.

As far as realistic fiction is concerned I think there’s plenty of room for more of these moments of iconic dissonance and I would love to see them.

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The title might actually be more clever than the points that I’m planning to make here.  A more knowledgeable scholar might be able to trace the family tree of the graphic novel and the picture book back to a common ancestor, or they might prove me wrong, but I’d like to suggest that elements that make for a successful picture book likewise apply to graphic novels.

And now to find a way to gracefully untangle my own thought process.

In Uri Shulevitz’s Writing With Pictures he starts out by defining a picture book as a story told

“mainly or entirely with pictures.  When words are used, they have an auxiliary role.  A picture book says in words only what the picture cannot show.”

From this it would be difficult to suggest that a graphic novel falls under the same definition, and yet anytime I come across a graphic novel that fails or is in some way leaves me wanting it is precisely because it has broken this rule.

In other words, weak graphic novels both show and tell.  And almost every time I come across a graphic novel that does this it’s from a children’s book publisher or imprint full of editors who (I presume) wouldn’t have allowed such things to happen in the picture books they produce.  On the other hand, graphic novels that land on the excellent end of the spectrum tend to have wordless visual passages that honor the rule of picture books and are richer for the experience.

They trust the reader, and don’t insult them by presuming they cannot understand what is going on without having it explained to them.

All of this came about because I was reading a graphic novel recently that featured a main character who was living a rich Walter Mitty-esque inner life.  The premise was solid enough and sections had some nicely imagined situations, but the story was narrated by the main character throughout.  The narration itself wasn’t the problem, it’s that the author didn’t trust the reader to understand what was going on in all the panels and as a result either described what could clearly be seen in the illustration or, worst of all, broke the illusion of the inner world by making reference to elements of the outer world at the same time.  It wasn’t merely wordy, it was unnecessarily descriptive.

Generally speaking one is supposed to review the book as is, not as it could have been if written differently, and to determine what the author’s intent was and whether or not it was successful.  I get that.  But I also keep hearing the words of author Jon Scieszka echoing throughout the Twittersphere this past summer when he suggested that most picture book manuscripts could benefit from being cut.

In half.

I feel the same can be said about a great number of graphic novels intended for younger readers these days.

Anecdotally, whenever I hear children’s book authors talk about graphic novels, invariably the books they mention as touchstones are by authors who also happen to be the illustrator.  American Born Chinese, Captain Underpants, Bone, Maus, Persepolis, Robot Dreams, Tintin, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Arrival.  Pointing this fact out tends to get brushed aside – after all, it shouldn’t matter who the author is, as long as the lessons about what works can be gleaned.  But the way illustrators are trained in the technical aspects of illustration informs the way the approach story.  Illustrators think in pictures, they sketch out stories as a sequence of illustrations, they edit word and picture simultaneously, moving back and forth to find balance.  They don’t tend to write stories full of sound because these tend to be difficult to illustrate, and explaining sound in an illustration is practically a failure of visual storytelling.  People don’t go around registering all the things they hear, and doing the same in a graphic novel reads as overly self-conscious and weakens the story.  In picture books, what is the point of the illustration if it needs the text to explain what is going on?

The better graphic novels I’ve found have a way of conveying two narratives simultaneously.  There’s the text, where characters speak and expository narrative is included, and then there’s the visual story which, when it’s really working, tells a complimentary and not always consistent narrative.  The silent looks between characters.  The extreme focus on a detail missed by a character but not the reader.  The way word and picture interrelate can create friction one moment, in harmony the next.

Shulevitz suggests that a picture book text cannot be read on the radio and be understood completely (though to be fair, Shulevitz wrote this before Daniel Pinkwater began reading picture books on NPR as a regular feature).  I would argue that the same could be said in reverse of the graphic novels with regard to the text; if the story can be understood over the radio without having to describe the illustrations then what you have is a radio play in comic book form.

Graphic novels and picture books are the yin and yang of sequential art.  I only wish more graphic novels for kids were as well-edited and crafted (and reviewed accordingly) as picture books tend to be.

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poetry friday: seizure

I don’t think I follow directions well.  It isn’t a deliberate choice, I’m not willful about it, but something about assignments and deadlines scrambles my ability to think clearly.

This week I decided to try out the Poetry Stretch at the Miss Rumphius Effect.  I also wrote two other poems this week and have been wrestling with a fourth.  A good week, but I know how dry some weeks get so I’m banking those others for a future use.  Anyway, the assignment was to write about the shape of things one sees.

This was the result.


at onset, thoughts the shape of cheese
the sound of wax, the size of please
sporadic heart in counterpart
with catacombs of breeze

words tumble out a frumpled mess
an alphabet to convalesce
a disconnect of incorrect
emotional egress

the glottal stops of bitter bees
the shuttered fingerlings of freeze
the spasms reign, a fragile brain
with thoughts the shape of cheese

I had initially started out thinking I was headed in a more lighthearted direction, but I think we all know what happens when words get in the way. My shapes seem to have taken on the appearance of other senses.

Karen Edmisten is hosting the Poetry Friday round-up this week. It would be just like a party if you joined in.

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In March of 1939 a 40-year old British gentleman stood before an audience at Radio City Music Hall and gave a lecture at the request of the Museum of Modern Art about how motion picture screenplays are designed.  For a modern writer of fiction looking to the current books on screenwriting perhaps the most interesting element would be how oddly compartmentalized the process was 70 years ago.

The speaker was Alfred Hitchcock.

As he explains, first a scenario is written up, no longer than a single sheet of paper.  He calls this the steelwork of the story but we would recognize it as plot summary, not unlike those written for query letters to editors and agents.

From there the scenario is rounded out with narrative until it runs about 100 pages… without dialog.  This treatment, as he calls it, is purely visual.  It explains what the characters do and what happens as a result.  Hitch doesn’t say it outright here, but back in the studio days the scenario could have been the brainchild of a producer while the director handled the treatment.

Here’s where things get interesting.  Once the treatment is settled, they hand it off to a dialog person (or team) to fill it in scene by scene.  At this point the writers handling the dialog are working up the characters and shading the nuances in their motivations.  Though they have narrative bits they don’t concern themselves with integrating them.  As Hitch says, when it’s over they have a pile of treatment pages and a pile of dialog pages.

From there they move onto a shooting script.  Here’s where everything comes together and scenes are plotted out shot by shot.  Even at this stage of the game they’re still adding things – bits suggested by dialog, condensing actions and characters, fine tuning visual themes and motifs. When it finally meets everyone’s satisfaction – director, producer and maybe a star with an ego – it’s cast, shot, edited and shown.

After it’s viewed the moviegoer tells someone about the film they’ve just seen, and Hitch says that however they summarize the movie that “is what you should have had on the piece of paper in the very beginning.”  Dialog, narrative voice, description, all these in service of that simple scenario that fills a single sheet of paper.

I find this both liberating and infuriating.  I don’t like the idea of a story being reduced to a simple series of events that take a character from point A to point B, and yet this is exactly how we are expected to pitch our stories.  Then again, how much easier it would be to set down that scenario and simply build the story up layer by layer until it was finished.

The problem is, of course, we aren’t trained to build stories like that, we’re taught to plot them.  We can choose whether or not to outline, we can decide to write out of order and shuffle things around later, we’re encouraged to mount a story along Freitag’s pyramid, but I have never heard it suggested that a story be constructed purely on the action, with dialog created on a second pass, and then a final merged draft constructed after that; everything is built whole from the main character’s desires and driving goal.

Hollywood no longer runs the studios the way they did back in the 30s, 40s and 50s, there are no bungalows with stables full of writers hammering out dialog as their apprenticeship for one day writing the final shooting script that gets them their credit.  And perhaps Hollywood movies have lost something by teaching the art of screenwriting as a one-man show that focuses on the mechanics of formatting over really building a story scene by scene the old-fashioned way.  But I see a possibility here of approaching the construction of fiction in a slightly different light…

Sure, start with a simple plot summary that can fit on a single sheet of paper.  Get those characters down there, explain what they want, and how they get it.  Then start fresh with a draft that’s just spewing what happens next, what I’ve heard one writer refer to as “one damn thing after another.” Don’t worry about motivation or even logic – those things can be ironed out in revisions – just follow the twisted path of that story to it’s conclusion.  Dictate the story and transcribe it, or use voice recognition software, but ramble that story into place.  Then break it up by scene and start playing around with dialog.  Play.  Play acting.  Toy with voices.  Give the characters character in what they say with no regard for fitting it in.  Then go back and do a merged revision of the two, taking into account the whole range of emotions and motivations that have come from the layering of dialog and narrative.

I think too often there is this sense that, when writing, we must try to fit in everything we can as we go.  There are exercises for writing character histories, methods of plotting chapter arcs that mirror story arcs, plots and outlines and charts that  jerry-rig a story into submission, where the actual writing becomes a sort of MadLib designed to keep everything on track.  There isn’t an organic development of ideas, not a lot of room for exploration, just plot-and-follow and get feedback on pacing and whether the narrative is hitting its marks.  We study stories this way as well, examining their plot structures like we’re examining the bone structure of a model’s face.  As if somehow quantifying the elements that “work” and comprise the whole can explain the final product.

I’m a little too far into my current story to start fresh, but I think the next time I’m getting ready to start a work of fiction I’m going to try this.

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Hang on a second, I’m just finishing up with some math.  Let’s see, 44,000 people purchased 118,000 books in 2009… that’s an average of… 2.68 books purchased per person per year, right?

Those are the number alluded to in the recent press release about Bowker’s Consumer-Focused Research Report for Book Industry.  Actually they call it “groundbreaking” probably for its depth at trying to understand the demographics of the book purchaser and what it means for publishing.  Of course you can’t see the entire report for free, Bowker charges $999.00 for that privilege, but what it available is interesting.

If we can go by their numbers, “More than 40% of Americans over the age of 13 purchased a book in 2009.”  How many people, exactly is that?  Well, the US Census says that the current US population is upwards of 310,000,000, which makes 40% somewhere in the neighborhood of 138,000,000.  I’ve always been kind of fuzzy at math, but I’m pretty sure that means their statistical sample is around 4.2% of the population.

But no matter what the numbers, out of that statistical sampling they recorded that sampling as buying just under three books a year per person.  It’s a funny thing, because those numbers sound very close to some numbers I heard about a decade ago about the movie industry.  Back then I was managing movie theatres and a national study showed Americans went to the movies a little over 3 times a year*; most of those attended on two out of three holidays, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving.  We used to call those holidays “amateur days” the same way bartenders call New Years’ Eve amateur night in reference to the unusual expectations people who rarely went out to the movies had about such things as ticket prices, the concession stand, actually having to wait in a ticket holder’s line…

But a lot of us in the industry – actually in both industries, really, movies and publishing – see/read a hell of a lot more than the national average, which means that for every 30 movies or books we purchase someone is averaging only one a decade.

As an author vying for the attention of readers, I don’t find this averaging particularly encouraging.

I’m going to assume these number were for readers over the age of 13 because younger readers would skew the data in a way that makes the average too high: an army of kids reading all 30 Magic Tree House mysteries in a week would totally decimate any useful information this study could present.  But age 13 is interesting because it represents what I once read about as “the 8th grade cliff.”  In Peg Tyne’s book The Trouble With Boys she discusses the problem of boy readers where they begin to slump in the 4th grade as reading becomes more analytical (i.e. more work/less fun in boy’s minds) and then, if they aren’t reading fluently at grade level, fall off the cliff as readers by 8th grade, roughly when readers turn 13.

It would be interesting to know how this breaks down by gender, whether an all-female survey would yield a higher average number of books read, or what these numbers looked like before computers and video games, or even if there ever was a heyday for publishing.  Isn’t it possible that the average number of books read back in the 1930s was also 3 per year?

Okay, I’ve made a mess of this, but in the end, what’s the take-away?

It all comes down to the word “average.”  It’s the “average reader” who is only purchasing 3 books a year.  But I know hundreds of people on the upper end of the scale, who read dozens of books, children and adults alike.  I would not call them average, and in the end these are the people I am trying to reach. They might read what is most popular – the books that make the news or get adapted to movies with huge budgets – but they are also broader readers.  They have defined interests that make them want to read as part of a regular habit, which makes them better at recognizing good books from lesser books.  They may only read ten books a year, or as many as thirty, but in the end I want what I write to end up in their discerning hands.  My audience is the better-than-average reader, as snooty as that may sound, and I still have to catch their attention to be one of the books they choose.




*In searching the internet for this original study I was only able to come up with this list from NationMaster that claims Americans go to the movies 5 times a year on average.  Even with that increase from 3 a year I’m still at the high end of the spectrum.

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I don’t know what it is about Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Eve,” but something in the DNA of that poem begs me to find ways to ape it. This isn’t the first time that and idea and Frost’s meter have come together in my mind, and probably won’t be the last.

As for subject matter, I have this thing about crows. Not that I like them, but that they constantly appear whenever there’s something major looming on the horizon. A deadline, a contest, a major trip, there they are. I travel to other cities, they follow me. It isn’t paranoia. Really. Ask my family.

And so…

Running Through the Park on an Autumn’s Eve

Outside my house a giant crow
Torments me everywhere I go.
It does not seem to matter where
And why he does this, I don’t know.

He gives a “caw” each time he lands
As if to verify our plans.
Alone outside, a public park
A breeze kicks up the playground sands.

I dart across from tree to tree
In hope the crow will let me be.
He merely circles overhead
And laughs at my attempts to flee.

An empty park, the sun has set
And chores at home I can’t forget.
Some day I’ll give that crow the slip,
Some day I’ll give that crow the slip.

This week’s Poetry Friday round-up is hosted by Elaine Magliaro at Wild Rose Reader.  Check it out.  As the kids say, it’s all good.

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what length books?

How long should a book be?

This is one of those questions that either has no answer because people either believe that a book should be as long as it takes to tell a story, or because no two people will agree on who gets to decide what anything should be.

Television and movies hold themselves to fairly rigid standards when it comes to scripts.  In the case of television the story need to follow a certain three act structure that allows for a certain amount of commercial breaks within a given time period.  A situation comedy is 22 pages/minutes of story, an hour-long drama is double that.  In movies, without the constraints of commercial breaks, a script still follows a three act structure with comedies running between 90 and 100 minutes/pages and a drama stretching out a bit to 125 minutes/pages but occasionally to 150 minutes/pages.  With movies a comedy over 95 minutes will begin to feel stale or forced and rarely can they maintain the comedy right up to the end; dramas require the extra space in proportion to the amount of action, with special effects bonanzas chewing up more screen time than a quieter art house talk fest.  Exceptions beyond these lengths are rare, and even fewer justified.

(I maintain to this day, from day I first saw it at a press screening as a high school newspaper reviewer, that Steven Spielberg’s 1941 would not be considered the disaster it is if I could edit it down by 25 minutes.  That wouldn’t necessarily make the two-hour comedy funnier – it’s humor was negligible to begin with – but it would make it tolerably amusing.)

When we turn to the world of books for children and young adults, however, a funny thing happens.  The older the reader gets, the longer the book, to the point that by he time a reader hits middle grade it appears that some books have bulked up on the literary equivalent of steroids and fast food.  I happen to think this is a mistake.

Beginning with board books and picture books, word counts hover at 50 words (or significantly less, like Emily Gravett’s  Orange Bear Apple Pear with five words, including the four in the title) and in general most picture books are currently in the 250-500 word rage.  Easy-to-read books run from 100 to 1500 words, early chapter books run between 10,000 to 20,000 words, and then all hell breaks loose.

Beverly Clearly’s Beezus and Ramona comes in at 22,000 words, which is fine for a reader transitioning out of early chapter books, Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory runs just over 30,000, Sachar’s Holes weighs in at 47,000 words, each of these light comedies running the general length of what is considered average for a middle grade book.

And you know what?  I think this is where things should stop.  No book over 50,000 words.

But what about series titles, I can practically hear the echoing from the wilderness, what about YA?

What about them?  What is it about a story that justifies its length?  Everyone’s favorite dead horse Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight has 118,000+ words (for just the first book) and I have a difficult time understanding why it isn’t half as long. That may sound like opinion, but when Hollywood decided to make a movie out of the book they didn’t make a four-hour movie out it, they held to their standards and released a 122 minute movie. Maybe if you removed all the adjectives…

Perhaps its a matter of preference, but I find that when a book reaches page 200 I begin to wonder if I can skip ahead to the end.  I usually stop and begin to rethink everything to that point and wonder how much superfluous detail I’ve endured, or what excesses of story would have been better summarized.  On the other hand, when a book winds up its story before the 200th page I’m usually grateful to the author for being able to keep the story lean, especially so if I didn’t particularly care for the book.  I have rarely hated a shorter book, but I’ve resented plenty of longer ones where I felt the author had wasted my time.

In addition to the middle grade books mentioned above I look to classic American literature as a guide for length. Of Mice and Men comes in at 29,100 words, The Great Gatsby comes in at just a smidge over 50,000, both ends of the range of average middle grade books.  I would love to hear someone argue that either of those titles was in some way lacking in terms of story, quality, or detail, or that they somehow could or should be longer. Yes, yes, Steinbeck wrote the 600 page Grapes of Wrath which closes in on 130,000 words but the majority of his books not only fit the 30,000 word range they do so comfortably.

We can argue for days at length about where the trend in longer books comes from.  Harry Potter, lazy editing, authors who believe they must show everything in show-don’t-tell, but as with a two-hour comedy I have come across few longer books that have justified their length to me.  Your mileage may vary.

Some might say I’m arguing for the novella or novelette to become the dominant form of literature for middle grade and young adults.  I am. I think a shorter books lead to a more satisfying reading experience, that a reader can read two 125-page books for every 250-page book they currently read, that reading more books by a variety of writers is better for the business of books, for the exposure of authors to readers, and for greater possibilities in expanding reader’s horizons.

In defense of any number of their decisions, Hollywood likes to say they are merely giving the people what they want.  Likewise, other have argued that if kids didn’t like longer books they would read or buy them.  I don’t find this argument lazy as much as I find it irresponsible, especially with books for children and teens.  By that logic we should allow our kids to eat chocolate cake and soda for breakfast, french fries with soda at dinner every day, with steroid milkshakes for lunch.  Readers don’t decide what gets published, or purchased for school libraries, or what gets carried in retail stories.  No one argues that they’re hungry for stories, and we should give them all the choices we can.

I just happen to believe that one of those choices includes a larger selection of shorter books.

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