The Problem with English Lit Courses

lit

The Problem with English Lit Courses

Off the top, I differentiate between English Lit and Creative Writing courses. The latter is more closely aligned with this blog. English Lit courses focus primarily on reading the Great Literature of The English Language and talking about why it’s so great.

Great not being synonymous with ripping stories, by the way.   A friend and I once decided that to spend one lunch-time a week reading the Great Literature we’d missed. Unfortunately, we started with Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Fifty pages a week was our goal. To reach it, I had to sit in a hard-backed chair to keep awake.  That I had been unsuccessful was evident when my friend asked, “What did you think of the ship sinking at the end?”

“The ship sank?”

So concluded that pursuit.

English Lit is reductionist

My beef with English Lit for aspiring writers is that the novels are studied by parsing them to death. The devices and metaphors used; how they contribute to the major theme; the effect of the time period and context on the novel’s shape, etc.

Which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Certainly you need to be able to recognize the component parts of a novel and the effect of authorial choices on the shape of the story to inform how you create your own.

But because you’ve gotten adept at identifying devices, doesn’t mean you can use them in your own writing. It doesn’t teach you how to create them or when to use them and sometimes even more importantly, when not to.

And gives the impression of fait accompli

The other objection is that a published novel is of course a finished product which doesn’t, if it works, show all the doubt, re-writing, reshaping, and struggle that had gone into it.

I find it prompts one of two reactions to aspiring writers, both bad. The first is okay, I got it. Now I can do it. These writers are unprepared for the mastery of technique they must achieve nor the amount of sloughing. They can be put off and abandon their aspirations.

Even worse are would-be authors who read a novel which has been cut, recut, and polished into the jewel it is and think I could never do this. There’s no point in trying. They don’t realize that the author started off with the same unprepossessing lump of rock that they presently have. They compare their unfinished product to the finished one and despair.

No room for magic

However, my real objection is that English Lit courses leave no room for magic which is the real reward of writing. Oh, the magic of the finished novel might be acknowledged. But not the magic of creation which is the joy of writing. It’s not magic all the time, unfortunately, and you don’t control when it visits, but when it does, it reminds me that this is what I was meant to do.

Okay, I may have set up English Lit courses as a bit of a straw horse. Their objective, to be fair, is not to make you a great writer but to study those who are. You still need to work at technique, and write, write, write. And thereby make room for magic.

If You Write, Do You Enjoy Reading Less?

reading

If You Write, Do You Enjoy Reading Less?

I have at least one friend who has accused me of spoiling mystery novels for him. Every change of point of view, forced plot point, or Deus ex Machina moment kicked him out of the story. It spoiled his enjoyment of the whole book. Will this happen to you?

Yes

Unfortunately. At least, when you first start paying attention to your own choice of words and methods. As you perfect your technique, it’s natural to notice when others do it well or poorly.

So you project a future of reading pleasure destroyed just to build up a shaky repertoire of story-telling skills. Hardly seems worth it, does it?

Okay, bad news but the good news is that it is a temporary condition for two reasons: it eventually enhances your enjoyment of reading and there is a way to still enjoy novels short on craft.

Reading augmented

In the by-gone days when you were ‘just’ a reader, there would have been at least some novels of which you said, “I couldn’t get into it” or “It was kind of confusing” or “I didn’t like the main character.”

You put them away unsatisfied. It looked like it would have been a good story. Other books by this author have been. This leaves you with a vaguely uncomfortable feeling. However, since you have a life, you move onto the next novel on your list.

But as a writer, you start to see why the novel didn’t work. There wasn’t enough forward action. All that description slowed down the plot. The biker, the psychologist, and the fashion model all sounded the same (in a mystery novel I actually read).

Won’t make you like the novel any better but it provides you with the satisfaction of solving the puzzle of your reaction.

In fact, a good grasp of writing principles actually heightens your enjoyment of really fine novels. I first realized this when reading No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod. Two parts of my brain were operating simultaneously. One part was crying and being completely with the character and the other was admiring. So that’s how he did it.

You can remark on how skillfully the author included scenes where the hero was a fine but troubled fellow so that your heart aches for him when he causes his own downfall. You can see why the marriage of two minor but charming characters is told rather than shown to allow the romance of the main characters to keep center stage by being shown

So in the end, understanding what makes a good story allows you to enjoy good ones more and identify mistakes in others’ writing which you can avoid in your own.

Getting around this problem

But you don’t want to spend the next however many years hating to read while you build up your writing skills.

I have a simple but effective answer. Pick what you like in the particular novel or author and read for that.

Agatha Christie was a great plotter but her character development (aside from caricature) was practically nil. But I go back to her again and again.

Other authors may write a nail-biting cliff-hanger by having his character do a completely unlikely thing. Enjoy the nail biting, ignore the pushed around heroine. The hero flourishes his hat with the plume of feathers in the novel set in the Victorian era. Ignore the historical anachronism and enjoy the romance.

If you focus on what the author does well, you can still enjoy her work even if she might be wanting on other fronts. After all, you’re not perfect either, are you?

Writing Close to the Bone

Writing Close to the Bone

I know, I know. I’ve already lectured you about emotional truth, being naked on the page, and going for broke. You might understandably be saying, “Yeah, yeah. Got it.”

But like all hard and important things, ‘getting it’ is an iterative process. You read about it once and think, “Yes, I must keep that in mind.” You read it a second time: “Right, I meant to do that.” And a third: “How come I can’t remember?”

It’s hard to recall it because it’s hard to do and outside almost everyone’ comfort zone. It takes a concerted effort. Which sometimes works and the result is a joy. And sometimes doesn’t.

So, because I think this issue is so critical to truly bringing yourself to the page, I’m going to give it another kick at the cat. But this time from when I have yearned to be able to do it.

Yearning to be close to the bone

In my journal or other times when I ‘should’ be writing, I have often whined about how hard it is to reach that spot all writers covet.

I keep watching Inside The Actors’ Studio to get another jolt like Meryl Streep’s one true thing. That she can play any character if she can find in her the one thing that is true for her and true for the character. That I can create any character if I can find that one thing that is true for her and true for me.

But it’s been dry pickings lately.

Although Dustin Hoffman. He cried. He cried almost as soon as he sat down. About his father, I think. But no matter. How close to the surface the passion. How easily it slipped out. How much I envy that—the pick ax and drill nature of my passion. So carefully concealed, so appropriately expressed. White gloves for shopping still on.  

 

I let myself wander away from that which would be fearless. Like the nakedness would be as unattractive as my body without clothes. Like it would confirm what we all suspected—she has an overweight soul. That passion is a garment held together by safety pins of technique. That the clever turn of phrase can be the sleight of hand, to dazzle, to distract, to confuse and ultimately, to change the subject.

Writing as a chronic condition

I know that every writer despairs sometimes of sinking deep down into who they are. I guess there might be some who don’t but I’m not sure that I’d want to hang out with them. It is unfortunately, the natural state of writers.  To doubt, to fail in courage, to have moments when they know that the world would continue to spin happily on its axis if they never wrote again.

But writing is a chronic condition. It will not be denied. You write because you must.

And it will work

As my final word on this from my journal.

Not quite drivel, not quite story. But from that place that has been absent for a while, missed and yet proceeding forward, like the impolite guest for whom you no longer hold dinner. Even though he provides the light and the laughter and the meaning.

Finales that Aren’t

finales

Finales that Aren’t

Recently, I did a post on knowing when you’re finished your novel and I know that this post sounds like it might be a repeat but it isn’t. There is a difference between finished and finales.

There seems to be a fashion now for trilogies and other multi-book sagas. Whether this urge is driven by readers who want more or authors who have more to say, I don’t know. Personally, I shudder at the idea. If I go for broke in writing a novel, it doesn’t feel as if there is much left for a sequel. Much as I am sorry to say good-bye to my characters when I finish, I don’t usually have any urge to delve back into their lives.

But for those who feel that generational sagas are for them, one word (or more) of advice.

Finales have to be satisfying

You are nearing the end of the first volume of your trilogy and have a good idea of where the next one is going. And you want the end of the first novel on a real cliff-hanger to encourage readers to rush to read the next.

All well and good. However, it’s important to remember that the ending of the novel has to be more than an advert for the next. It needs to be a satisfying ending in and of itself.

What does satisfying mean? Relax, doesn’t have to be a happy ending, nor do all the strands need to be tied up neatly. Your main character may not even triumph. His failure might be a very satisfying ending. The right one, not the happy one.

But it does need to at least provide a resolution—perhaps not the final—but an answer to the goal your protagonist set out to achieve and has motivated him to action.

If you don’t, the end of the novel will feel as if you’ve kind of stopped in mid-sentence. It will annoy the reader who will feel, perhaps rightly, that she’s been vaguely cheated. And will not encourage the purchase of the next book of the trilogy.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins is a good example of getting this right. The first volume, The Hunger Games, ends (spoiler alert) with the two main characters Katniss and Peeta, deciding to die together rather than give the authoritarian regime what it wants—a clear victor to the Games. The two are both declared victors and so the novel reaches a satisfying conclusion.

However, the kernels of the next novel are sewn in that Katniss is seen as a dangerous enemy because she engineered this perceived defeat of the government. How she becomes a symbol of the resistance is depicted in the second book of the series, Catching Fire.

Here is an example of planting the seeds of the next book while effectively providing a fulfilling finish to this story.

So, make sure that the reader is happy because there is plot closure even if with a continuing story. It’s one way to up the chances that your next novel will be eagerly anticipated.

Conflict

conflictConflict

Conflict. Has a bad rep. because fighting, struggle and harsh words can be nasty in our real lives. But they are the lifeblood of fiction.

Definition

However, the definition is broader than used in every day conversation. Conflict occurs when your protagonist is stymied by people who don’t share his goals or by events/things which throw him off course. Doesn’t have to be ugly although it certainly can be if your plot calls for it.

Your main character might be thwarted by others who are sympathetic to his goals but, for their own objectives, need to prevent his from being achieved. A father wants to protect his daughter from getting involved in the murder, so he lies to the detective about her whereabouts.

Or a catastrophic, unforeseen, but nevertheless credible bolt out of the blue derails his plans. No Deus ex Machina, please, but sometimes Things Happen. A blizzard prevents the hero from seeing the cliff edge; the critical key falls down a sewer grate; a traffic accident throws off the precise timing of a heist.

How to write conflict into your stories

If your plot is working, then you probably have incorporated conflict into it. But just as a double check, review these points. Sometimes, it’s worth expanding on one or more of these points in your novel to strengthen it.

Response to a threat

Again, doesn’t have to be big. A student fears failing an exam which will prevent him from getting into a good university. What does he do in response? The threat usually occurs fairly early on in the story. Leaving it too late leaves the reader wondering what the novel is about.

Fight for the goal

Good fiction characters are fighters. They know what they want. When they run into trouble or are foiled, they take action.

So, this precludes writing passive characters. That is, a main character who mainly stands on the sidelines and wrings his hands about the antics or misdeeds of those around him. A narrator telling the story (see Stories in a Frame) qualifies as passive but is not usually the main character. The protagonist is usually found within the framed story. And if he is a good one, he’s in there swinging.

Conflict, not bad luck or adversity.

Bad luck, like falling out of a tree, or adversity, like being born poor, do not, in and of themselves constitute conflict. We’re looking for a fight between opposing goals. Bad luck or adversity can be complicating factors on the hero’s way to her goal but need to play a supporting role rather than been the star and center of the plot.

As I say, if your plot is working, this is probably more of a chance to see if any parts of your story need beefing up. But if you are just starting out, these are good things to keep in mind.