How does literacy change books?

The title may seem like a curious question. However, I wanted to trace how the increasing percentage of people who could read changes the publishing business. Do the types of books favored by the public change as a population becomes more literate?

Prior to the seventeenth century many books and shorter works were self-published. The author simply paid the printer, or scribe, and distributed the books themselves. There were fewer manuscripts go around. Authors writing fiction openly borrowed characters and plots from other writers without fear of copyright infringement. However, with smaller populations and an even smaller percentage of literate people, those that did read had a larger grasp of past literature. 

Literary canons based on the best works evolved because the people that read shared a bit more in common. Authors often alluded to works by other authors. These allusions allowed the readers to rapidly understand the situation in a book or drama. Even prior to the twentieth century people who spent time reading had different expectations from authors. They were willing to deal with more subtle writing and dig for clues that were not as obvious. They desired more complex stories which meant more reading between the lines. 

Within the twentieth century came the trend towards writing in a lean manner with concise descriptions. Part of this had to do with the availability of motion pictures in which there are not descriptions of the characters or setting. One simply looks at them. Much of the story is told through dialog. Now, people write books with the goal of them becoming  movies, full of action with minimal details. However, movies taken from past classics leave out huge chunks of the complex plots found in these novels. This becomes evident when watching films based on Les Miserables or Anna Karenina, and comparing them to their respective books. 

So, how does the increase in literacy affect what is written? The number of published books has exploded. Authors expect to have sole rights to their work, but cannot prevent a person from creating another fairly similar book. Readers seem willing to consume work that is more similar and familiar, with an ending they already know. Publishers are looking for these kinds of “comps.” There is no longer a reliable canon of work that most readers know in any particular culture. Therefore, the author has to explain the allusions to other works for these to be understood.

In the twenty-first century, there are five levels of literacy most often used in assessments, but recently the top two levels have been merged because such a small percent read at the top level. ( Still, every so often a book is written that throws out the expectations. The scenes multiply the reader’s understanding rather than simply adding to it. In an extremely well written story, clues are added slowly so the reader has to think to catch on to what is occurring. Stories still exist that require the reader to be invested in making sense of them.

How many authors long to write a book that is more than the sum of its parts?

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Buying into a Binary

Writing which shows is almost always touted as superior to writing that tells. Examples of this are filled with intriguing dialog, exciting actions accompanied by descriptive detail filled with aromas, colors, and noises. On the other hand, telling explains who people are in an easy to comprehend manner and is described as plain vanilla. Some people forget that vanilla is also a spice. 

Often my romantic comedy scenes are filled with the quirky conversations interspersed with subtle movements. I include interior thoughts straight from the protagonist’s mind to inform the reader. That’s necessary because not all characters speak the truth. However, at one point in my story I switched the style to something more direct for a lengthy flashback about the leading man’s first crush. A beta reader noted a difference in the style of this chapter that she liked. There was almost no dialog and sparse details. Yet this passage related the events from a few weeks of his life in a manner that reflected the irony of the situation. I hesitated to tell her the truth about the difference but finally admitted, “I changed my style from showing to telling to cover events more quickly.” 

Of course, my confession runs completely counter to the adage that showing is preferable. Supposedly, showing draws the reader into the story and telling will pull them out of it. Some people are drawn to describing good-bad dichotomies that split anything in half, including the world’s literature. They want to create a binary down to the level of minutia to ensure that their work is unquestionably “good.” There are even lists of “telling” words.

Using “in” followed by an emotion is basically forbidden as a form of telling. The writer should say the woman clenches her fists rather than glares in anger. Which phrase is better depends on the point of view. The man standing across the room sees the glare long before he notes the marks left by fingernails digging into her palms. Also the reader doesn’t have to decipher that when a woman lifts their cheeks, curls up the ends of her lips and squints that she is smiling in glee. 

Near the top of the list of words that signal telling is “to” when used to form an infinitive.

“The man slammed on the brake to pull off the road.” — telling 

“The man slammed on the brake and pulled off the road” — showing.

What is the difference? The first sentence provides a motivation that the reader could not detect if watching the man. It explains why he slowed down. The second example only provides what can be seen. Most readers don’t even notice the difference.

 The word “realized” is also a big no-no. A realization describes what a character is thinking inside and not just what they do on the outside. The examples that I found for replacing “realized” and other “telling” words lead to an insight of my own. Replacing phrases that were told with phrases that showed doubled or tripled the amount of words. So, stories that only show (if any actually exist) are huge volumes that readers may have a hard time wading through. Sometimes, the plot needs to move forward faster, so a direct style boosts interest. Authors choose which style to use based on the desired pace. And exactly what criteria do they use to decide this? Their own gut instincts. Creative processes don’t fit neatly inside little boxes.

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The Lead-footed Writer

In movies when an event is crucial to survival (such as disarming a bomb) the clock keeps ticking away on until the last minute as the hero tries to figure out which wire to cut. He wipes the sweat off his eyes so he can see. He may drop the wire cutters and have to retrieve them. Or, he pulls a Swiss Army knife out of his pocket to use instead. By the time this scene is over, the hero manages to sever the right wire at the last second. However, if I timed the scene, I would realize that more than one minute of actual time had passed.

A book which tells events, rather than showing them in detail, covers events much more rapidly so the pace of the story is technically faster. But, it also feels more distant for the readers as if they are not really involved. Showing minute details of events in clear focus slows down the story. In fact, it slows it down so much that this treatment needs to be reserved for the more dramatic and important occurrences, such as disarming a bomb.

The way I string together words and the type of words I use also contribute to the “pace” of writing. Longer sentences with a plethora of subordinate clauses provide an intellectual sound. The reader takes more time to ponder the ideas presented, which gives the impression of complexity. This also forces the reader to slog through the work. Short sentences with direct verbs may be the antidote; however, few readers can stomach an entire work of short choppy bursts. When dependent clauses are avoided, flow is sacrificed. The trick to dealing with pace is knowing when the writing can be improved by putting on the brakes—to let the reader savor the experience of reading—or speeding up the pace for drama. Inserting a four word sentence between two long ones creates an interesting contrast.

I can create separate scenes that place the reader in the middle of the actions to describe each part of an event as it happens. Or, I can write exposition, which are passages that explain events by telling the story. Sometimes, I find a brief explanation of the good-bye letter from a loved one who has left to seek fame and fortune followed by the discovery of missing money from a bank account is not going to work a exposition. Both events need to be separate scenes with all the tearful and incriminating details. At other times the plot is stretching out too much. I collapse scenes into a few paragraphs, and then the story flows better.  How do I know when to do each of these? I don’t. It is a matter worked out by trial and error.  

When I drive a car, alternating rapidly between the gas and brake jerks the car uncomfortably. However, a sudden change in the pace of writing does not have the same effect as a lead-footed driver. So, the best advice on the pace of writing is to not keep it the same.

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Star Words

Creating a good plot is one of the most difficult parts of writing. A perfectly plotted story is going to be snatched up by readers, but so far we seem to have only produced one of these plots that most fiction writing instructors can agree on, which is the one from the original Star Wars movie. But even writing instructors can get this wrong. I heard an instructor claim that if a person was having a hard time writing a synopsis for their book, they should examine his synopsis of Star Wars. If it wasn’t that simple to write, their problem was not the synopsis, but the plot of their book. 

That was a bold claim to make, and later I realized it was patently wrong. On close examination the problem is with the plot of Star Wars. Luke’s motivation was to save a beautiful girl who sent him a message for help. He also wanted to take revenge on the man who killed his father. But, the man Luke intended to destroy was his father. The beautiful girl that he loved at first sight, was his sister. That sort of made romance out of the question. The Jedi master, a wise old advisor, knew all of this and said nothing about it. Why?  This first movie was basically a novelette. It was not a real full-length novel that could include such a complicated subplot. After the exciting but lengthy battle scene in space to destroy the death star, the villain had to escape so the sequel could be made.

I realized the flaw in this logic during this writing teacher’s instruction on how to write a synopsis. I wanted to ask a question about it. I don’t think he wanted questions, because he said he’d get back to me, but he never did. Now, when any author advises me to consider this Star Wars movie when creating a plot for a novel I would say, think again. It actually took three movies to create a plot the length of a short fantasy novel. By the third one we saw Luke again helping get the princess out of trouble along with her new love interest (Han Solo, the trickster archetype). Then, they joined the forces with the cutest furry warriors that I’ve ever seen to bring down a second “death star.” Viewers noticed the repetition. Sometimes when asked about the third film, I heard, “It’s sort of the repeat of the first with Teddy bears.”  

My take away–a  synopsis is still going to be excruciating to write for a 80,000 to 100,000 word novel, provided it does not start dragging in the middle so that part can be eliminated from the synopsis. It is easier to write one for a novella, just as novellas can be easier to crank out using a set formula than novels are. Of course, it is possible to create the synopsis of the first three Star War movies in 750 words but it won’t sound as good, and repetition of actions will seem obvious when shown together. 

Then, I discovered the existence of a novelization of the Star Wars movie that was the size of an average book. It had additional scenes, and world building information with the new technology explained. I thought I would enjoy listening to the audio recording of this. However, all the inserted scenes and description just made it slow compared to the movie. So, I never finished listening to it.

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The “art” of writing

A “one shot” print occurs when an artist creates a plate for an intaglio print by engraving or etching, and then pulls a trial print so good that it requires no alteration to improve it before making the final prints. When I was in college printmaking classes, no one ever managed to do this feat. People kept re-etching parts of plates to make the prints better. Of course, this did not destroy the essence of the print.

Writing is very similar. It is the rare case when an author composes a poem or piece of prose in one sitting that requires no changes. The longer the work, the more revision is necessary. It takes extended concentration and effort to produce quality writing for any period of time. Novels are a huge effort. When working on visual art projects, the artist periodically pulls back to view the work and get an honest view of how good (or bad) it is. The equivalent action is reviewing and revising what has already been written, an action that does not destroy the essence of the story.

There are differences between creating a piece of art and writing a book. An intaglio plate can be over-etched, or a drawing overworked. There is no salvaging it. The artist can only start over again with a new printing plate or piece of paper. No novel is a complete disaster. There may be large sections that have to be cut or rewritten and improved. But at least part of it is salvageable, even if there is not enough to make a complete work until more is added.

When I taught art, I would attempt to keep students from making mistakes and filling the trash can with ruined assignments. This required outlining steps to complete assignments. Typically they were assigned to use a medium with three or four criteria to fulfill for a specific piece. The limitations that I put on their work actually took stress off of the students. If they met the criteria, they would receive a passing grade. Gradually their work became more creative because they felt the liberty to innovate and not just imitate the work of someone who had made a good grade before.

However, there was a student who produced this stunning piece of art that did not completely fill one of the four criteria. Breaking my limitations actually made the work better. He was already the best artist in the class and knew how to compose his art and create effects that others did not. I could give him a high grade, but not a perfect one, and explained to him why. I also told him it was an excellent piece that should go into his portfolio.

Putting limits on my writing goals lets me work within a framework. I don’t feel the pressure of perfection. Each step to a goal is one toward getting something accomplished with my current work in progress. I do not use a word count to measure my progress. Rather I gauge it by the amount of content I have created. Sometimes, after working within limitations I find that I must toss them aside to create something better—a piece of literature that breaks the mold.

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The fable of the hook

Readers seeking excitement prefer a story starting with the main character fleeing down a dark alley, reeling from an initial enemy strike, or near the edge of Niagara Falls. This immediate danger creates an adrenaline rush. Even if the reader knows nothing about the character, they will have time to get to know the protagonist later. If they are not stopped cold by one of the many pitfalls of a dramatic beginning.

The exciting beginning is a promise of continuing drama. If the situation turns out to be a false alarm such as a dream, or a computer simulated war exercise or a simply-solved hoax, the readers will feel cheated. I know I do. Generally, I never read a book by that author again unless there is an excellent reason for that deception on which the rest of the story depends. 

If the danger is real and recedes too quickly  I will wonder what kind of too perfect protagonist I have just encountered. On the other hand, if solving the problem is put off by shifting back to a prior time to introduce the character, I am tempted to skip the intervening backstory. I will skim ahead until I find how this character is going to escape such a deadly dilemma. If it is more than a few chapters later, I must truly be invested in the character to not give up and stop reading. But, often my patience is running thin from an overflow of backstory.

If readers want mystery, a dead body in the first page should keep their attention. Won’t they continue until the end to find out who did it? Not necessarily. I recall reading a few mysteries in which one death kept the investigation going. The suspects were introduced, and clues unfolded so that the thrill continued at a reasonable pace. However, I’ve heard mystery writers say that when the pace starts dragging in the middle it is time to drop another body. Whenever I find a clumsy mystery in which the author waits until the end to reveal the entire story, I just skip to the ending. If the investigators require a number of bodies before they figure out what I already know, there is no need to skip to the ending, or to continue reading.

Often having a likable or sympathetic character should hook the reader. But sad tales to get me to take the side of the protagonist leave me feeling as if I missed something when problems dissipate into thin air. Sometimes the solution is so easy because the character had a secret ability that the author simply wasn’t letting me know.

I may stay longer in a novel that does exactly what authors are told not to do. Describe the weather, the scenery, or the city around the main character. In those cases I am still hoping to have some action happen. But, I am willing to go through some nicely written world building, even if I am not reading a science fiction or fantasy story. I don’t even mind a brief history of the past before the main characters appear on the scene. But, the main character is still under pressure to be involved in a conflict that draws me in. I expect the drama to continue to build up from that point.

How do surefire hooks backfire? The scene that instantly grabs the reader only works if the book continues to engage the reader. The beginning should lead into events in the book and not be a detached incident that is only there to grab the reader’s attention. The existence of a hook so strong that it will compel the reader to finish the book is nothing more than a fable.

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The Teenage Genre

When a library placed a book in the young adult or YA category that used to mean two things: The book was within the reading level of 12 to 18 year-olds, often a sixth to eighth grade level, and the content would contain nothing objectionable for a 12 year-old reader.

I recall picking out Cry the Beloved Country from the YA section. This book sprang from the authors personal experience with the attitudes that would lead to apartheid in South Africa. Most of the language was around 8th grade level. There was a court scene with some legalese and it did contain a few Zulu words for titles and terms of respect. The major challenge was that there were no dialogue tags. So the reader had to keep track of who was speaking by the way characters addressed each other.

The story revolved around an old man’s alienation from two family members drawn to Johannesburg. He had to face the pain of discovering his son had murdered a good man, the son of his neighbor in the country. The villain was not an individual but the city that drew the Africans to corrupt lives. The content was appropriate as far as lack of violence for a 12-year-old. Therefore, Cry the Beloved Country was in the YA section of the library. The concepts in this book still may have been too difficult for some 12-year-olds to comprehend. A few of the students in the AP English literature course, assigned to read it in high school, struggled to understand a world so unlike their own.

Publishers have been trying to change this definition of a YA novel and some authors are willing to follow their lead. Not only do the majority of the characters have to be the age of the intended reader, but they also have to be the ones solving the problem. That may be one of the reasons that fantasy is taking over as the most prevalent subgenre in YA. The plots present problems that are unrealistic for inexperienced young adults to solve unless they have magic on their side. These books are supposed to be aimed at their age group, and one that an adult may wish to read. The vast majority of these novels are written at the 6th grade level, have a happy ending, and avoid philosophical musings, even though they are allowed to show more graphic violence and sex than in the past.

Recently, I tried to help a friend find current comps for her coming of age story for this age group. There seemed to be a smaller percentage of these being produced in the last decade, and even less in the last five years. Are all teenagers looking for books in which problems are completely solved and whisked away with a dramatic wave of the wand? Is growing into maturity and taking responsibility in a world that is not a fairy tale no longer no longer an acceptable plot? I recall a little over five years ago, when I was still in a high school classroom that I overheard students discussing a story they found intriguing—a tragedy written by Franz Kafka over 100 years ago. Some adolescent readers who want something different and challenging are digging up old classics again.

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Who’s the real villain?

As a legend Robin Hood represents the kind of principled nonconformist on which many heroes are based. We love to read about people who confront government wrong-doing even in a criminal manner as he did. But, if a similar character existed in real life, he would not be any more popular than a government agency attempting to redistribute our wealth. The majority of people would probably condemn him.

Rumpelstiltskin is an excellent fairytale that could be rewritten from the opposite viewpoint. Many characters on the poor peasant girl’s side seem as bad as the deformed old man who knows how to spin gold. The braggart father and the irrationally demanding king are the real villains who need to be defeated by the end of the story. But, they live happily ever after.

How do you parry the strength of the protagonist against the antagonist in a plot? Common wisdom says that the strength of the hero and villain need to be similar in order for the conflict to engage the readers. Therefore, authors create increasingly strong and vicious villains with the idea of making the protagonist look larger than life.

We only have to look at the very popular superhero comics and movies to see this occurring. A clean cut honest good guy hero like Superman comes from a wholesome family background and normally chases villains who are mildly destructive, maybe they want to spend their money to buy themselves power, but they are not trying to destroy humanity. Lex Luthor is nowhere as depraved as the Joker. But, the hero that must defeat the Joker is Batman, a vigilante with a vendetta and not necessarily a law abiding citizen.

Speaking of vendettas consider “V” the strange protagonist who conceals himself behind a Guy Fawkes mask. He is one of the most questionable anti-heroes. He does have the challenge of bringing down leaders of a corrupt society, but he has similar terroristic qualities to the person behind whose mask that he hides. “V” goes so far as to temporarily imprison the heroine. She must have a taste of the struggles that formed him to ensure she won’t turn him in to the corrupt authorities.

Compare “V” to the antagonist of Les Miserables. The police inspector is not a corrupt person. However, he believes he is chasing a criminal, perhaps a vicious one. When the villain realizes his error he destroys himself. The hero of the story, Jean Valjean, never raises a hand against him.

My conclusion? Be careful with creating a great evil to make your hero shine. Heroes are similar in strengths to villains and one of these is morality. So a hero chasing a very depraved villain is more likely to cut corners and break laws in order to catch that bad guy. The ideas that mold a more evil antagonist will often result in a hero bending our ideas of what is right. The hero will shine dimly as morally gray, or not shine at all.

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The most memorable kind of hero

Is this true that a memorable hero of incredible wisdom and strength can only show full worth when pitted against an incredibly powerful villain?.  The similarities between villains and heroes are often noted in fiction. So how does an author make a hero shine? The hero must have a type of strength greater than the villain, but not too much, because then it is no memorable thing for him to defeat the villain. However, if the hero lacks the amount of power the villain possesses, would it even be possible to defeat this extraordinary antagonist?

To understand how this works, the concept of power in a story needs to be defined. A person can be physically more powerful than others. One of the most famous fictional characters with this trait is Jean Valjean from Les Misérables. His strength was so notable that when he rescued a person pinned under a cart the police inspector suspected Jean might be the escaped convict he was trying to track down.

However a physically strong person can be defeated by someone who is mentally stronger or smarter. Such as is the case with Sherlock Holmes. When his creator Arthur Conan Doyle tired of writing his detective stories, he decided it was time for Holmes to die. But, he had to pit him against Moriarty, a more intelligent criminal, and not some thug who simply had greater brute strength.

Then, there is a social strength which is usually the following or the popularity that the protagonist uses against the enemy. This is prevalent in dystopian novels in which the enemy is society. In many of the modern YA versions of this genre, such as the Hunger Games trilogy, the protagonist must sway the opinion of the populace. However, even in ancient legends such as ones about Robin Hood, the hero has to gain the support of the people in order to overcome an antagonist like the sheriff of Nottingham.

However, there is one more type of strength. Let’s return to the first protagonist mentioned, Jean Valjean, to describe moral strength. It is the ability to know and do what is right. The character who is not as smart nor not as strong and doesn’t have public support sticks his neck out when the villain comes around and seems sure to be defeated but ends up winning anyway. This is often repeated in plots that resemble the movie High Noon. Because of the hero’s moral character, another person is willing to step in and help.

However, the morally gray character is growing in popularity as a hero. Perhaps readers like this kind of hero because any protagonist who is absolutely perfect seems unreal. The misbehaving character with the physical ability to do almost everything seems to have an edge on the “Goody Two-Shoes” kind of characters who are near perfection in behavior. The one reason why morally gray heroes do not always fulfill expectations is because their tendency towards villainy does not cause them problems. So, they never learn from their moral errors and still manage to get the right thing done.

This brings us back to the hero with moral strength. Jean Valjean had gotten away with doing the wrong thing, and even allowed others to do the same, resulting in a woman’s death. This sense of debt owed, rather than an attitude of moral perfection is one reason his hero type is one of the most memorable and keeps reappearing, generation after generation in books. 

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When do the ghosts show up?

According to my friends I read depressing books, such as Cry the Beloved Country and Crime and Punishment, and actually enjoy them. What kind of books do I avoid reading because I find them depressing while others seem to relish them? That category would be horror. Other people may be entertained by sinister topics which I cannot completely dismiss as being fictional. The horrendous ideas had to come from somewhere. So, I find  myself mourning the human condition rather than being amused.

When younger I read some shorter horror works because I could stand the tension of a darkly emotional world of imagined miseries for a short while. While visiting my aunt, I soon realized that all of her children had their own activities to take up their time. So, I found myself alone with Edgar Allen Poe, the only author I recognized on her bookshelf. Poe is an excellent writer; he uses interior fear rather than exterior gore. He builds tension in a very short time based on the unknown or the insanity of the narrator. But, after reading a dozen or so of his short stories, I had my fill.

However, the stories that I read then don’t fit into the current trend. These older tales had no supernatural terror, and only rarely a vicious or hideous creature, or a happy ending. Characters, such as vampires, blood-thirsty aliens, or demon-possessed people and objects are the stock of more recent horror literature. This genre now seems to be very popular with audiences a bit bored with their life.

The modern monster’s purpose is to boost people’s adrenaline with a dose of terror. They do this job with motives that are often never fully examined or explained. These monsters are often destroyed in a gory manner that out does the viciousness which they impose on their victims. However, the “good” character succeeds, or at least survives, until the next sequel. With too much adrenaline flowing through my veins already, I am not a good candidate for a horror fan.  

So, you may wonder why I ever attempted to write a short horror story. My plot dealt with psychological horror in the manner of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. A modest woman starts to recklessly seek fame as an antidote for her perception of being useless. My piece does not reveal if the woman has an obsession or there is another more sinister problem looming over her life until the end. I discovered most readers were not perceptive enough to catch subtle clues that I thought were hair raising. They wanted obvious ghosts.

These may have been the same people providing input into the Netflix production of The Haunting of Bly Manor series, which was based on the Turn of the Screw. Unlike the series, James’ masterpiece has no obvious ghosts and the reader never knows if the governess was insane or the children were possessed. But, that kind of horror is too subtle for today. So, no more horror story writing for me.

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