Friday, August 5, 2011

I Finally Watched the Documentary Bad Writing

I got tired of waiting for Netflix to add Bad Writing, filmmaker Vernon Lott's documentary about bad writing and imaginative writing generally, so I rented it on iTunes. Totally worth it.

The premise goes something like this: Lott, surprised to see just how bad his own juvenile writing is, sets off to find out just what makes bad writing so bad. He interviews Margaret Atwood, David Sedaris, George Saunders, and other luminaries. He does not always do such a great job of conducting the interviews, but the revisions and self-doubt tie into the theme, you see . . . And actually it works pretty well. As usual with a post-Sherman's March documentary, the film winds up being as much about the process of making the film as anything else. And since a good bit of the film is also about Lott himself (and a good deal more is hinted at but never revealed--maybe for the best?), the amount of actual information about, you know, actual writing is--I won't say scant, but--not all that high.

But look, I didn't expect it would be. On camera, Lott has a bumbling, self-conscious appeal, and it was really great to see the writers--reminded me so much of grad school (which I liked, to be clear). I realize now, how easily you could do something like Dan Clowes' Art School Confidential for writers--oh the many types of writers. I kind love them all, even the poet in the stupid hat. Those are my people, as the kids used to say.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Book Chat?

I think you have a duty to contribute, to go on contributing to what Gore Vidal callsbook chat.” For certain self-interested reasons, you want to keep standards up so that when your next book comes out, it’s more likely that people will get the hang of it. I have no admiration for writers who think at a certain point they can wash their hands of book chat. You should be part of the ongoing debate.
Martin Amis, Paris Review Interview 

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Re-reading Like Truffaut

I'd been thinking about re-reading, something I almost never do now that I'm out of school. Then, reading around in Truffaut's The Films in My Life, I found:

Since I didn't dare admit that I had already seen it [a film], I had to go and pretend that I was seeing it for the first time. That was the first time I realized how fascinating it can be to probe deeper and deeper into a work one admires, that the exercise can go so far as to create the illusion of reliving the creation.
... I saw the same films over and over and began making choices as to what I would have done, if I had been the director.

--All of which suggests to me an exercise, to re-read novels, trying to imagine the creation, the choices made, how mine might differ.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Can I Get a Jump?

I've been out of school a long while now, but I still have those anxiety dreams about incomplete work. Like last night, turns out I forgot all about that calculus class. I haven't done any of the problem sets, and I missed the exam. (This isn't that far from the truth, only it was the second semester of partial differential equations, I did some of the problem sets, and I did take the exam. C+. I ain't braggin'.)

Now, it is widely supposed that dreams are not always (often? ever?) what they appear, and I suspect this one was about some other unfinished business -- namely the 60,000+ words of a novel I jammed out in the first three months or so of this year. I haven't made any progress at all on it since sometime in April, and I think it's time I decided what to do: finish it, or move on to something new?

I'm close to the end, less than 5000 words, say. Reason argues strongly in favor of finishing. I mean, just a week of work or thereabouts, and I can see what I have.

Then again, Reason has been banging that drum since sometime in April. And though I think it's bad to leave any writing unfinished, I have another novel idea I'm excited about starting.

Should I listen to reason, or follow what's hot? I really don't know.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Books About Writing

Now and again -- once, sometimes twice, per year! -- I'm asked if I know of any good books for beginning fiction writers. And the answer is yes, yes there are good books, a lot of good books for beginning fiction writers. In fact, I don't think I've ever read a book about fiction writing that hasn't given me, at the least, some food for thought. But I do have opinions about the best books -- the best I've read at least. Of course, opinions vary, as may your mileage. Anyway, in the interest of having a place to point future requests for recommendations, I present some books that have helped me.

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
Gardner's is the most comprehensive handbook for fictions writers I've read. Here you will find all of the nuts and bolts stuff you need to know to write fiction, presented with rigor -- and virtually no humor. If that sounds dry, well it is. I mean, there are diagrams. He examines meter and rhythm in prose. He makes up jargon. There are diagrams. But believe me, this is an area (writing manuals) that can use some rigor and where a dry manner actually sets a book apart from the pack. Let's just call it pithy. I've read and re-read sections of this and notice new, useful stuff each time. Now Gardner does spend a disproportionately great amount of space tilting at the windmill of post-modernism, raising the standard for his ideas of "moral fiction." The analysis is still relevant, and he gives a fair (I think) if biased take on it all. But the space given to it seems a little much at this late date. That is to say, you lost, J.G. Sorry. The greatest problem with this book, though, is that, for some writers, Gardner is a bit of a stern taskmaster, which is why I also recommend . . .

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
If Gardner is about the nuts and bolts of fiction, Lamott is about what it feels like to scrape your knuckles, in freezing temperatures, when the wrench slips. She commiserates and provides good coping strategies for when getting the work done is just too hard and scary. Shitty first drafts. Radio KFKD. Giving your enemies tiny penises. Lots of good stuff in here to talk you down from the ledge where Gardner has left you. In case I haven't been clear -- this book is not dry.

Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson
Because beginning fiction writers often write their first pages for writing workshops/classes, and because of the natural time constraints on said workshops/classes, most fiction writers start out writing short fiction. I actually think this is a little wonky, because I'm willing to bet the majority of fictioneers like to read and aspire to write novels. I bet a lot of folks in writing workshops have not really read very many contemporary short stories at all. And contemporary short stories and novels are very different beasts. Well, here is the best book I've read about contemporary short stories. Carlson tells the story of writing a short story; the finished story is included in the book. In demonstrating how the story is made, he also does a fairly good job of showing how it works.

Story by Robert McKee
McKee is the writing guru lampooned in the movie Adaptation, if you've seen it. His book is directed at writers of screenplays, but most of the information here is generally applicable to any long-ish, plotted story. Harder to apply to contemporary, literary short stories, but not all that hard to extract useful stuff for novels, or, probably, plotted short stories. The single best explanation I've read of what a story is and how it ticks. Or anyway, the one that makes sense to me. Contains some diagrams. Cringing reported in some patients as a result of impassioned stance on the primacy of storytelling.

I'm leaving out tons of books about writing that I love, but I do think the above are the best places to start. And I hope it goes without saying, these books are no substitute for writing a lot and reading a lot of the kind of thing you want to write.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Web 1.9RC3

If you follow me here on my weblog, and you don't already know, much of the action, such as it is, has moved, much to my surprise, to the social web. I'll save the weblog to blather at length about writing and reading. But the obsessive lists of what I've read are moving to Goodreads. Jokey one-liners and links to Sarah Palin videos and so on have moved to Facebook and Twitter.

Join us. One of us. One of us.

Monday, November 10, 2008

I'm Still Here

I managed to burn myself out this summer, I'm afraid, writing so hard. Since then, a number of things have distracted me from focusing as much attention on reading and writing as I like to -- the election, for instance.

Also, I got brought down by the death of DFW, a unique writer, probably a great one, to be remembered for many years to come. I'm not usually affected much by tragedies not touching me personally, but this one really got to me. I won't stop to analyze why. It's pretty obvious when you think about it. But the intensity of my own feelings still caught me by surprise. Such a damn shame.

Other distractions -- busy, busy at work. Busy, busy at home. Wave after wave of pre-school crud. And good stuff: Thing One and I have been checking out model rocketry and model aircraft clubs, special interests of his. And this last weekend, he and I began building a rocket we hope to fly with these guys next weekend.

And I've still managed to get some reading done:

  • Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark
  • Frank Portman's King Dork
  • James Lee Burke's The Neon Rain
  • Gregory Mcdonald's Fletch's Fortune
  • The Paris Review Interviews, vol II
  • Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest
  • Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse
  • Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human